Two longtime friends — one a visual artist, one an actor and singer — got together last year and commenced a project to create sets of paintings revolving around a shared theme. The results of this yearlong collaboration can be seen at the Martha’s Vineyard Playhouse through March 3.
The two-women show features over a dozen sets of paintings by Gretchen Baer and Shelagh Hackett. Works with each artist’s interpretation of the individual themes hang side by side throughout the Playhouse’s lobby Art Space.
The shared exhibit is titled “Together Far Away,” so named because, although the two women began painting together in person last summer, they continued from opposite ends of the country once Baer returned to her winter home in Arizona.
Initially Hackett and Baer painted side by side in the latter’s West Tisbury studio (which she has named “Cleopatra Lounge”). They would choose a theme, and then each would individually paint for a couple of hours until the images were complete. Only then were the friends allowed to see each other’s work. “What’s really interesting is that we would often tell the story in much the same way,” says Baer. “We had very similar ideas.”
Once Baer returned to Arizona, where she works with kids teaching and creating public artworks, the two friends decided that they would keep up the sessions via text and phone calls. Baer explains the process. “We would play a little game. We’d decide on the idea for the day. We would say one, two, three go. Then we’d work on our own, and we’d check in with each other for a couple of hours. At the end, we’d say all done, and send the pictures at the same moment.”
As the game, evolved it developed one rule: The artists had to include images of both of them in their paintings. For one set they decided to depict a memory from their shared past. Hackett painted the two creating a huge mural on paper, where each started at one end and they met in the middle. Baer was inspired by a time when the two women decided to meet on the “Jaws” Bridge and, coincidentally, they both showed up wearing a cape. Each friend had only a vague recollection of the scene the other had recalled on canvas. Since then, the two often appear in their paintings wearing capes in complementary colors of red and green.
Hackett and Baer met when both were involved with a play’s production on the Vineyard. Baer was doing set design, Hackett was performing. They immediately hit it off, and have remained close friends ever since.
Hackett has been entertaining local audiences for almost four decades — most notably with the improv group WIMP, which once performed regularly at the former Wintertide Coffee House and elsewhere, and in numerous productions at the Martha’s Vineyard Playhouse. She taught at the Oak Bluffs School for years, and continues to offer voice and acting lessons for kids and adults.
Meanwhile, Baer, a Vineyard native, forged a reputation around the Island for various artistic endeavors, including the creation of colorful art cars and murals. These days she resides near the U.S.–Mexico border, where she serves as director of a free kids’ art center in Naco, Mexico. Currently, she and a group of kids are busy painting a mile-long mural on the Mexican side of the border wall.
Although Hackett had never painted before, she took to it enthusiastically. “During COVID, performing opportunities were slim,” she says. “That’s why the painting has been so fun for me. When you’re a performer and you can’t perform, you have to find some way to create. It’s saved my sanity. I find it to be a very soothing activity that also produces something.”
“I don’t consider myself an artist,” she adds. “It’s not about that. I do it because I love to do it. It’s for myself.”
Baer had never seen that side of her friend before they started painting together last summer, and she was immediately impressed with Hackett’s innate talent. “She mentioned last summer an interest in doing some art with me,” says Baer. “I didn’t know her as a visual artist. We started painting together. Right away I could see that she just naturally had such amazing, out-of-the-box abilities.”
Hackett says that she will continue to experiment in the visual arts although, fortunately for Island audiences, she has no plans to pursue visual art full-time, devoting herself first and foremost to acting and singing.
The two women have distinctly different styles. While Baer paints in a loose, painterly fashion with lots of texture and built-up layers of color, Hackett’s style is more highly stylized. Her paintings have a whimsical feel, almost like children’s book illustrations. The defining characteristic of each set is a playful use of color and fantastical elements. As characters in their art, Baer and Hackett, in green and red capes respectively, enjoy adventures relating to themes like “Wind and Weather,” “Boats,” and “Forts.” The exhibit is a wonderful glimpse at an enduring friendship seen through the lens of artistic output.