The art of ‘Up-Island Women’ fills the Chilmark library

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Tracy Thorpe is not only an artist but also the program coordinator at Chilmark Public Library, who has curated an inspiring upcoming exhibition there called “Up-Island Women.” Her own watercolors of rural Vineyard landscapes capture the essence of the scenes, whether it be Keith or Morning Glory Farm, Beetlebung Corner or the like. 

“I have always found still-life inspiration at the farmstands,” she says. “Recently, I’ve started visually chronicling the farms themselves in this little farm series I’ve been working on.”

In some areas, Thorpe employs watercolor washes, allowing the underlying white of the paper to illuminate the pigments while in other areas she uses a denser, more opaque application of paint. While realistic, they are interpretative rather than photographic. “They are not meant to be precious or sophisticated,” Thorpe says. “They are an attempt to capture the Island farms as experiences rather than just purveyors of food.”

Artist Marianne Neill renders floral still lifes in pen and watercolor on gray paper, enjoying how the material lends depth to the paints in her impressions of life around her. Sometimes she focuses simply on a few flowers, and at others presents the scene as she works at a table. “My friends sometimes call these ‘domestica’ or ‘the blue chair paintings,’ since I include the blue chair that’s at the table where I work with snacks, art materials, and coffee cups,” Neill says. Her art is detailed, and yet the loose rendering of the images feels particularly welcoming.

Maureen William’s color-soaked, oil-on-panel paintings provide a different take on the up-Island scenery about her. With visible brushstrokes she creates grand, sweeping vistas in which a glorious sky dominates, beckoning us into the landscapes. “My painting process begins with seeing something in nature that moves me emotionally and profoundly,” Williams says. “I then embark on a process, studying from life, the colors and textures that best bring together my emotional and visual responses, to create a coherent and meaningful statement of that which I had found emotive. My hope is that my painting will draw attention to the subject in a new way so that the viewer may also appreciate what I found visually alluring enough to study, explore, and present.”

It is only recently that Heather Sommers turned to painting after closing down her ceramic sculpture studio of 40 years. Now working with a technique in which you mix oil paint into viscous cold wax, she creates tangible textures by scratching, pulling, scrubbing, dragging, or adding more pigment to the piece’s surface. Whether landscapes or family portraits, Sommers has turned her attention to the world around her.

She is excited about this new direction, saying, “When I was working with clay, it had a life of its own, and I had to be very sensitive to its drying time, to its shrinking. With paint, I can do it for a while and let it go, and then come back and add more, or take some off. I like the chance to revisit and change my mind about what I’m doing.” In contrast, “Once a sculpture is fired, the construction is done. If you’re putting glazes on, it’s determined by what happens in the kiln. It’s out of my hands once I start the firing process. On the other hand, my paintings may never have a clear ending point.”

Julie Jaffe focuses not on the Vineyard but on the war in Ukraine, getting ideas from what she has been seeing in print and TV images, and what she is learning about through print journalism. Each time Jaffe starts at the top of her paper with the number of the day of the war, which has lasted more than 200 days now, followed by a few sentences describing that day’s atrocity. Only then does she add a watercolor illustration. 

Some of the images are challenging, including the identification of exhumed bodies. For instance, one piece is titled “We will know him by his DNA.” It reads: “Volunteered. Caught. Handcuffed. Tortured. Executed. Mutilated. Buried anonymously. Exhumed. ID’d by DNA. Released to wife. Buried with honors.” Jaffe says, “I simply can’t imagine the pain. So I show it to you, matter-of-factly.” For another piece, she explains, “I admire the courage and resilience of the Ukrainians. Recently President Zelinsky sent a defiant tweet to Putin. (A tweet! Who tweets when the missiles are falling?) I used that bold tweet with an image of that man whose face has become familiar to us to indicate Ukrainian defiance. I appreciate the way the perceived sweetness and innocence of watercolors contrast with the unbearable facts of the unspeakable atrocities we have been treated to.”

Hillary Noyes-Keene’s photographs leave the recognizable world and instead come in so close that they capture an abstractness in our ordinary landscapes. “I’m interested in how lines, textures, light, and patterns come together,” Noyes-Keene says. On her website, Noyes-Keene writes, “For me, art is about slowing down, taking in what’s around me, and reframing it. I love seeing the dance between elements sometimes otherwise easily missed … and tend to view the world through its visual and emotional connections.”

Thorpe talked about what inspired her to curate the exhibit: “I know a number of up-Island women who are talented and should be seen. After the summer people are gone, it’s nice to claim the little library’s space as our own, and host a community-building event. I hope people will be taken with the impression that there is a wellspring here; that Chilmark is not such a sleepy little town.”

“Up-Island Women” runs from Oct. 29 through Nov. 30 at the Chilmark library. There is an opening reception on Saturday, Nov. 5, from 3:30 to 4:30 pm.