There have been many times in artist Eleanor Hubbard’s career when fate stepped in to guide her way. In fact, the West Tisbury resident would not have pursued painting at all if she had not had an encounter with legendary composer John Cage that would change her life’s trajectory dramatically. While Hubbard was working toward a Ph.D. in medieval studies at Cornell University, Cage, whose class she was taking, told her that she was clearly an artist, and that she shouldn’t go against her true nature.
According to Hubbard, she got on a plane for Philadelphia the next day, and applied to the art department at her alma mater, the University of Pennsylvania. In another example of synchronicity, she was accepted into the art program, despite having no portfolio to show, when the dean overheard a staff member telling Hubbard that she wasn’t qualified, and intervened on her behalf.
A handful of other instances of fortuitous timing later — when Hubbard had established herself as a successful artist with dozens of exhibits and gallery shows under her belt — she found her luck had changed for the worse. A New York City show that she had prepared for for two years was put on hold by the pandemic, and eventually canceled when the gallery was shuttered for good.
Hubbard turned lemons into lemonade when, holed up in her studio overlooking Lake Tashmoo, she commenced a series of paintings depicting the vast variety found in Vineyard sunsets. “It was such a relief to paint the sky performing,” says Hubbard, who used the isolation of the pandemic to create a new body of work.
The exhibit, currently on display at the Feldman Art Space at the Film Center, is titled “Marking Time.” In her artist’s statement, Hubbard writes of the series, “Each one records a drama in the sky, over water, among clouds, vivid as an opera.”
“It was amazing to see how beautiful nature is when everything was so dire,” says Hubbard.
For the series — created using gouache, colored pencil, and watercolor on thick French paper — Hubbard has allowed fate to intervene in the creation of the vivid images. She layers on the paint and colored pencil and then uses water — either from a hose or pitcher — then moves the painting from side to side, allowing the colors to shift, creating a soft, fluid effect that mimics the nuances of nature.
Each painting, representing the various times of year, took months to complete. Hubbard would work on a number of images at a time, continually making adjustments — adding and then subtracting with water.
Hubbard explains the benefits of the “hosing” practice (as she calls it), saying, “A lot of the color moves off. Some of the pigment gathers in certain areas. Then I work into that with more pigment.”
The resulting works are varied in color and in form. Some appear very amorphous, while others have a striated, colorfield look. Hubbard varies her process depending on the individual nature of each sunset. She describes how she chose to capture one particularly unusual sunset. “The sea actually was yellow, and not just for a moment. The lavender sky and speeding blue clouds were more fleeting. The particularity of the clouds was important to keep in focus once they had formed as a final image. Layers of colored pencil went over the watercolor layers. I washed the watercolor only with a brush, and very gently. The sun cast an intense orange light.
“When you’re painting a sunset, you’re painting light that’s very evanescent,” she says. “It’s challenging to get it so it has the slightest hint of that evanescence. Underneath all of each painting there is a lot going on beneath the surface.”
Previous to this series, Hubbard painted figurative images, done in a very contemporary, almost primitive style. Her subjects tended toward animals, and featured unique combinations of color and form.
Of the “Marking Times” series, Hubbard says, “It was a great dive into another aspect of my rapidly changing life.”
In her artist’s statement she writes, “In a sunset the artist is actually marking moment by moment changes in the color of light. Working on these pieces daily, then hosing them down to rework the forms and colors each night, provided all the painterly excitement any artist could want.”
While excitement may have been lacking in most of our lives for the two years that the virus raged unchecked, Hubbard threw herself into her work, experimenting with new subjects and techniques.
As she writes, “Shock and confusion may disrupt our lives, but Nature, the Island’s incomparable solace, is always there to comfort us.”
“Marking Time,” paintings by Eleanor Hubbard, will hang at Martha’s Vineyard Film Center’s Feldman Family Art Space through Oct. 9.