Paintings by Jeanne Staples continue to be exhibited at Granary Gallery. Her most recent show began with “Twilight at the Ferry,” a painting from last year that she included because she’s been painting the subject of “the night” for several years now. It shows what she calls the “sweet spot,” the beautiful play between two light sources: night light and artificial light.
One from this year is “Behind the Texaco Station,” set in Menemsha, but in one of those out-of-the-way spots. Staples explains that it’s at the end of the season, and the two men, one in a vivid orange jacket, have come off the nearby boat. “I love the light from the window and the way it spills across the deck and illuminates the boat,” Staples says.
The most striking of her work is “Stilled Life,” showing an urn with lilies and a cardinal perched next to them. “It was a long think piece,” Staples says, and she was feeling a little sequestered because of COVID. Some of the lilies appear translucent; others droop, and each has what she calls “a different attitude.” They reflect the light coming in through the window. Some parts are shaded, and others are illuminated by the incoming light. She brought the cardinal inside because “it gives the viewer something more to think about.” Although she lacks musical skill, she included the piano because her son’s music video inspired her, and it’s an instrument he plays.
Two smaller works depict houses. One, “Old Vineyard,” is set near Sengekontacket Pond, which she walks past every day. She thinks of these houses as never changing, of having a sense of continuity. Another painting is “Fisher Boys on Memorial Wharf. “Usually I don’t leave any evidence of drawing,” she says. “But I started by drawing directly on the canvas, then by painting over the drawing, building in thinner layers.” This time she left the edges of the painting open. Staples began with the wharf’s burnt sienna wash. The boys’ white shirts convey a powerful sense of light, and although they’re both still, the painting seems to have caught the boys in a moment of action, in part because of the positions of their fishing poles and the fact that the smaller boy is sitting on the wharf while the older one is standing.
“Almost Apple Pie” is another still life full of the contrast between the busy, but soft colors of the tablecloth and the colander which holds the apples, the Mason jar with brown sugar, and the lemon — all illuminated by the light coming through the window.
Another landscape, “Wash Day,” could almost be a still life with the house in the background, except for its emphasis on the clothes hung out to dry, yet as if moving in a breeze. Here the light is more uniform; the colors, especially the rooftops, dominate the composition. This work is set in Nova Scotia, where Staples’ ancestors go back to 1653.
“I’m always trying new things, the ways I want to stretch myself,” she says. “I want my paintings to tell a bit of a narrative, of what might be going on in the stories that they tell.” She speaks of the artist’s tool chest, of color, texture, shape, line, and value. As a realist, Staples says she loves being in a show with David Wallis and Cindy Kane, each a realist but a very different artist.
Staples studied at the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts, the oldest art school and museum in America, and gravitated toward realism because of it. From 1987 to 1993, before moving to the Vineyard, she was curator of education in Albany at the Empire State Plaza Art Collection and the New York State Governor’s Mansion. She says it had every luminary from Jackson Pollock to Alexander Calder, and gave her an appreciation for the scale in which they worked. She also taught painting and drawing at the Albany Institute of History and Art. On-Island, she’s mentored students at the Charter School, and says, “Sometimes you can help them learn to use the tools that will help them realize their sense of self-expression.”