Scenes of Island life come alive in William Blakesley’s artwork

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William Blakesley’s art is quintessential Martha’s Vineyard, expressing the unique, intangible quality of the Island and Island life. The scenes are immediately familiar, conveying the tenor of the Vineyard during different seasons and locations. The collaborating exhibitions at the Featherstone Center for the Arts and the Martha’s Vineyard Museum offer an opportunity to see the breadth of his work across the decades stretching from 1956 to 2012, honoring what would be the artist’s 101st birthday.

Variety is the name of the game for Blakesley’s art in terms of subject matter and media. Although there are many beach scenes, you will also see iconic images of Campground gingerbread cottages, the Oak Bluffs bandstand, crowds of day-trippers before the Island Queen, people picking berries, children enjoying the Flying Horses or romping in fall leaves, scallopers at work, fishermen on the jetty in Menemsha, and bundled sledders in the snow. There are close-up portraits that vary from studio nudes to performers from when the circus came here in the summer of 1964. There are also some stunning pieces of birds against a blank background, and other treasures to be found.

Blakesley’s style is at once abstract and simultaneously realistic. His quick, minimal strokes convey the essence of each person or scene. He wrote of his art, “When I draw a subject, I hope to become one with it — a child, landscape, animal — I like to be part of good things. The excitement is in trying to get even closer; the discouragement is from falling so far short. The incentive comes from the illusion of improvement; that the next experience will meet the goal. The rewards are too numerous to mention, but financial and honorary are not on the list.”

Blakesley’s style over the decades evolved somewhat in reverse of many artists, starting out with an abstract bent and moving toward tighter realism. Barbara, Blakesley’s daughter, whose collection makes up the shows, says, “He had the ability to capture a person with just a few lines. I saw him do it repeatedly, catching people at whatever they were doing or thinking at the time. He was very quick.”

Perhaps one of the reasons for the great variety of Vineyard scenes is that he always traveled with his sketchbook. His daughter remembers, “He took it everywhere we went — restaurants, concerts, on the street, on the beach. He seemed to have a need to draw constantly. I remember being annoyed as a child at a concert and you could hear his felt-tip pen scratching when I was trying to listen to a piece of classical music.”

The exhibitions also reflect Blakesley’s ability to work across various mediums, drawing with pen and painting with watercolors,acrylic or tempera. He also created stunning serigraphs, a print technique in which the image is made directly on silkscreen and then printed. Blakesley rarely used oil paints because he worked quickly, and didn’t like how long they took to dry. His powerful use of color unites the art, regardless of the medium or image. Blakesley’s palette enlivens each piece so that both exhibitions are a visual bounty.

Born in 1921, Blakesley grew up in Columbus, Ohio. He began his lifelong habit of drawing or painting daily at a young age, having been encouraged by his first grade teacher to pursue his talent. Blakesley served in World War II, and went on to teach art, including at Florida State University and Muskingum College. Blakesley landed on the Vineyard in 1955. Initially, he and his first wife worked as house parents at the Youth Hostel in West Tisbury before building their home in 1958. Later the Blakesleys taught art in the Island’s elementary schools. He opened a gallery on Circuit Avenue in Oak Bluffs, running it for many years, and later relocated to Montgomery Square in the Campground after he retired and moved to the Island full-time.

Blakesley felt strongly that everyone should be able to afford art. Barbara says, “When he had his studio by the Campground, he had a sign that said ‘By appointment or chance,’ and people could just walk in and buy pieces as he was doing them. He wanted to document the Vineyard and its people and the times. He tried to keep his prices really low, and make work accessible to everybody.

“I want old friends, people who knew him, as well as newer people to the Vineyard, to have the chance to see how the Island has changed over those 50 to 60 years, as well as how his style changed.”

Blakesley wrote, “If my work has a purpose, it is the eternal one of trying to maintain a positive attitude in a seemingly indifferent world — the struggle is everything. Despair, hopelessness, etc. seem obvious or too easy. The negative does not exist as art.”

And his art is a testament to the joy and beauty of daily life on the Island.

“The Art of William Blakesley: A Retrospective” at Featherstone Center for the Art runs through Oct. 2. “The Art of William Blakesley” at the Martha’s Vineyard Museum runs through Nov. 3.