Engaging art

Using photography to promote spiritual nourishment and well-being.


As a photographer, curator, and teaching artist, Melissa Knowles comes from a background of using art, photography, and music in a health, therapeutic, and educational context. Knowles initiated the Photo Engagement Project at the start of the pandemic because she believes photography can be an incredible service to us all, a kind of spiritual nourishment, creative activism, and antidote, even to our most pressing global crises.

Knowles formed the Photo Engagement Project as a way for people who were either partially or completely isolated to connect over their mutual enthusiasm for the medium. The group consisted of about 10 participants of all ages and levels of experience — from novices to seasoned photographers. Meeting once monthly online, everyone would share something small, whether it was a single picture or a series of photographs, quotes, or experiences. Knowles emphasized that it was a way of bringing people together so that each person could share how they saw the world. “The intention behind the group was to encourage well-being during a time when they needed it the most, and then sharing,” she said.

Knowles believes photography is special in that it allows you to enter into the world of others in a way that other art forms do not. “It has the means of being therapeutic for the photographer and for whoever is on the other side of the lens as well,” Knowles said. The project ended last summer, but Knowles and two other members created a rewarding exhibition at the West Tisbury library for the month of April. Although there isn’t a singular theme to the show, and each person’s work is highly individual, the photographs are loosely tied to one another in their interest in detail, which also gives us an intimate experience of each artist’s sensibility.

Knowles, who has a background in education, children’s rights, and arts in health, explores the relationship between the arts, healing, human/nature rights, and spirituality. Appropriate particularly to both the pandemic as well as the global issues facing us today, she believes her “Wintering” series is a way of engaging with the landscape during the literal and metaphoric winter months of our lives, where everything around us is muted, thus asking us to search for a different kind of beauty. Speaking about her pieces, Knowles says, “Beauty is the sensing of spirit in all things, animate and so-called inanimate, and can be found in the imperfection emanating from the language of stone, rust, and sidewalk; a shifting, shoaling shoreline of constant tidal motion; or the personal world of a crocus flower that helps us to reimagine the spring within our depths.”

Philippe Sommer has been photographing and using a darkroom since he was 13 years old. His “Beach Finds” series consists of extreme close-up portraits of small marine objects that he found on Martha’s Vineyard. He isolates each on a stark black background, making their beauty pop while simultaneously encouraging us to linger on their details. “I spent the winter of 2021 living on the Island, and as is often the case, one photographs what is around us. I kept finding these interesting objects on the beach, so I started photographing them in isolation. I wanted to show how the wear of the sea made familiar objects (shells, egg sacks, horseshoe crabs …) into something else,” Sommer wrote. Sommer’s other works are digital collages, which he says “explore what could be.” Each of the three is a montage of layered images that create fantasy scenes, which invite us to invent our own stories about their meaning.

For Helene Barr, photography, art history, and horticulture have been passionate mainstays throughout her long life. Barr’s experience as a floral designer, floral design teacher, and writer for a gardening column inform her rich floral arrangements, which might recall Dutch 17th century vanitas paintings, but are immensely rewarding without the allusion. She also includes photographs from her foreign travels, transporting us to far-away places, which during the height of the pandemic we could only visit through images and our imagination.

While the artists each have their own aesthetic, beauty permeates the exhibition, which is rejuvenating during these troubling times. And as Knowles says, “I think there is something inherently calming, soothing, and restorative about looking for beauty in the unobvious places. I think it’s a beautiful metaphor, because we’re all flawed human beings traveling through this world, making a lot of mistakes, and suddenly when you see beauty ‘out there,’ you are reminded that that beauty also exists within you.”

The Photo Engagement Project exhibition is open during regular hours at the West Tisbury library from April 1 to 30, with a reception Saturday, April 16, from 3 to 4:30 pm.