Sweet ‘Inspiration’

Artist Elizabeth Whelan and designer Stina Sayre unveil portraits of inspiring Island women.


When is an art opening really something quite a bit more? When it’s a celebratory art happening in a design and dressmaking atelier, which is exactly what artist Elizabeth Whelan and Stina Sayre of Stina Sayre Design created last Saturday night. In and among Sayre’s stunning clothes hung Whelan’s striking portraits of nine women they selected from the many on the Island whom they felt were an inspiration to them. None of the subjects had seen the finished artwork until they walked in that night, and the unveiling was part of the excitement and buzz.

Whelan described how the theme of inspiration arose: “During the pandemic, many of us reassessed our lives, changed our goals, clarified a little more about what we want to do with the rest of our lives. We tend to notice people who are inspiring us, perhaps on new journeys or to do new activities, or we just want to recognize the people who are managing to really shine during these times.” She adds, “I think we all need some inspiration. We’ve all been so cocooned in our own lives, and it’s important to take the time now to turn around and look at the wider world.”

Whelan approached the work by visiting each woman, noticing how they moved, identifying their natural gestures, how they held their head, how they smiled. Then she took photographs for reference when she was back working in her studio.

Whelan accomplished all the paintings in about a month, as opposed to the 60 to 100 hours it usually takes her to complete one. Whelan moved in a new direction with these portraits, portraying the women from the waist up against an abstract, monochromatic background so that they stand out, as opposed to her more typical, narrative compositions with people in a setting related to their lives. Likewise, Whelan relied much more heavily on drawing, as seen in the backgrounds, reinvigorated by her love for it through her teaching Zoom drawing classes for the Vineyard Haven library over the past few years.

At the event, Whelan and Sayre spoke about why they selected each woman, who included Sally Naser, conservation restriction stewardship director at the Trustees of Reservations; Christine Bresnahan, seamstress and grocery store employee; Izabela Leahy, executive director, department of anesthesiology, Critical Care and Pain Medicine at Boston Children’s Hospital; Freedom Cartwright, activist, explorer, and visionary; Elizabeth Barnes, president of the Women’s Center; Laura Ross, physician and reproductive health activist; and artist Adriana Eftimie.

Whelan saved two special unveilings until the end. People gathered around in anticipation. First, there was her radiant portrait of Francine Kelly, former executive director of Featherstone Center for the Arts. Kelly’s daughter, Ann Smith, who is the current executive director at Featherstone, and her sister Janis Smith-Gomez, were on hand, and extremely moved by the splendid portrait of their mother.

What Smith didn’t know was that the surprise unveiling of the very last portrait would be of her.

Whelan says, “I had wanted to paint Ann for years, but she studiously avoided being around me when I was armed with either a sketchbook or a camera. She had politely but firmly declined my several attempts to cajole her into letting me paint her.” But when Whelan asked Ann for photographs of Francine, some also had Ann in them. Whelan says, “A lightbulb clicked on. I thought, this is my one chance to possibly get away with this, and I will just hope that Ann does not hold it against me forever.

“Although I had these photos supplied, hilariously, by Ann herself, I looked around on the internet to see what else might be out there, and came across a wonderful photo taken by Sam Moore a few years ago, and the Martha’s Vineyard Times graciously allowed me to use that as the basis of the portrait, and then I enhanced that with my own memories and the other imagery, to bring out the Ann we all know.”

The superb portrait reflects Whelan’s — and through her, the community’s — admiration and affection for Smith. “Ann is an extraordinary woman who is doing so much good for artists,” Whelan said. “I mean, where do you begin? Art shows encouraging community art, developing artists, and giving them confidence in the professional arena, never mind the scores of classes, events, opportunities, etc. She is the power behind all of that and more, and deserves our respect and recognition.”

“I am humbled and honored that Francine and I are included in this group of inspiring Vineyard women!” Smith said in response to her portrait and Whelan’s venture. “Elizabeth has captured our personalities and creative spirit so well! I continued to be in awe of the dynamic people that call Martha’s Vineyard home.”

In fact, all the subjects on hand were thrilled, praising Whelan’s talent and skill. After going back to Whelan’s studio for some finishing touches and varnishing, each person will receive their portrait. Whelan says, “Since I use these shows as a way to try out new techniques, and we put the subjects through the ordeal of a public unveiling of a painting they have never seen, I feel it’s the least I can do to give them the painting afterward.”

Even after the denouement of the evening, people buzzed about, not wanting to leave the embracing crowd. “I feel that the art community is not just the artist’s painting, it’s people, in general, being involved with the creation and presentation of art, whether through collecting or just having fun at events like this,” Whelan said.

Sayre said afterward, “I can’t imagine it going better than it did. I thought it was awesome. It was so nice to celebrate Elizabeth and all the other women. What Elizabeth can do is absolutely stunning. Her paintings are amazing, and she is such a great member of our community. Elizabeth gives back so much.”

Ultimately, for Whelan and Sayre, inviting the public in once again to their beloved art happening is a way to celebrate the potential of us all.

“Inspiration” is on view until Sept. 11 at Stina Sayre Design, 43 Main St., Vineyard Haven.