After nearly a decade, Vineyard artist Margot Datz has completed her recreation of a 1843 trompe-l’œil mural at the Old Whaling Church.
Translated from French as “deceiving the eye,” the trompe-l’œil is achieved using a specific art technique meant to harness realistic qualities within a kind of optical illusion.
The mural, along with two others at churches on Nantucket and in Provincetown, was originally painted by German artist Carl Wendte, and had faded and was eventually lost to time, probably due to long-term exposure to harsh New England weather and a (formerly) poorly maintained church.
All that remained was one black and white photograph of Wendte’s work, which ultimately inspired former Vineyard Preservation Trust executive director Chris Scott to seek out an artist who could reanimate the Old Whaling Church’s forgotten trompe-l’œil masterpiece.
Scott engaged Datz to take on the significant project, who enthusiastically said yes. But the project was no easy task.
A “copious amount of historical research” went into the prep work, Datz said in an interview with The Times, from learning more about Wendte and his career to traveling to Nantucket and Provincetown to view how the two other churches have remastered and maintained their trompe-l’œil murals.
Availing herself of a handful of techniques, including the German “tonal banding,” which makes use of light through a limited palette — shades from a single color — Datz painted uniformed striations resulting in realistic forms, depth, and shape.
“At a certain distance, the eye blends the tones and makes assumptions to form,” Datz explained.
The centerpiece of the work, a hyperrealistic archway, makes use of five perspectives, or vanishing points, throughout the sanctuary that assist in the illusionary deception.
The “mother color” that was used in the work — the spectrum of which was developed after a visit to Nantucket — was like “a chameleon earth tone,” Datz explained. “Sometimes it looks lavender, sometimes it looks gray, sometimes it looks almost brown.”
The paint itself is latex-based, ideal for its lack of sheen, Datz said. “You don’t want that reflective quality … the sanctuary is all about light.”
For the rest of the sanctuary, Datz decided on double-recessed paneling with molding and scalloped corners, along with similar motifs that were found in Provincetown.
Datz’s brother worked alongside her during the beginning of the project, and her daughter, Scarlet, served as her “right arm throughout all phases of this project,” she said, oftentimes bringing along Datz’s granddaughter.
At later stages, additional support from Timmy Goodman and the Katherine Goodman Foundation were “the wind beneath [her] wings,” Datz said, and added to the small team that brought all the pieces together.
No stranger to massive art endeavors, Datz’s work can be seen all across the Island. In addition to painting a number of private residential works, Datz’s murals can be seen at the Chilmark, Edgartown, and Oak Bluffs children’s libraries, the YMCA, Martha’s Vineyard Hospital, both Island SSA ferry terminals, and Flying Horses Carousel, just to name a few.
“I try to give each public mural a very individual identity,” Datz said. Having to pick a favorite would be like having to name your favorite child, she said. But the mere scope of the Old Whaling Church project does indeed stick out among many of the others, she said, as the duration of work marks the longest project of her career.
Datz grew up in the Finger Lakes region of New York, surrounded by an artistic family and creatively supportive teachers. Given all freedom to explore her artistic expression, she homed in on different forms of art from early childhood.
Her mother, who was also an artist, was a “full-blown, 360° creative,” Datz said; “she laid her hands on everything,” from conventional art to sewing to power tools.
“Having a mom like that was probably the thing that set me in the direction of ‘everything’s an opportunity to be creative,’” Datz said, as art “doesn’t have to do with the medium, it has to do with the mindset.”
Datz harked back to a pivotal moment during her college years, when she hitchhiked in the back of a pickup truck in the middle of winter to attend an art show by Yoko Ono in Syracuse.
Upon viewing Ono’s work, one piece stood out. A ladder, nearly 10 feet high, led to a ledge; on it, written in pencil, was one small word: Yes.
“It blew my mind,” Datz said. “I don’t know what exactly it did, but that whole notion of saying yes to a project, and then, ‘figure it out,’” was especially appealing. The concept seeped in, and served a guiding mantra that Datz adheres to to this day.
On entering into an art career, Datz said her brother-in-law — yet another artist — once told her, “Don’t become an artist unless you absolutely can’t help yourself.”
“And I couldn’t,” she said, “I absolutely couldn’t help myself. I was hopelessly an artist, I just had to figure out how to pay bills.”
After dabbling with a wide variety of odd jobs, including having been “the world’s worst bartender,” she joked, Datz worked hard to be able to make a living from her art. Initially a sculptor, Datz was called to muralism only after her move to the Vineyard in 1978.
“At the time, every house was white sheetrock and polyurethane pine,” she said, “and I thought to myself, This place needs a little color.”
From that moment on, Datz learned the new art form by showing up. “I said yes to everything,” she said, “and then just figured it out.”
On finalizing her work on the Whaling Church, Datz said, “I love the space, I loved working on the church … I’m ready to put the bow on the package.”