Artist Virginia Stone’s whimsical take on the pandemic


Virginia Stone attacks the early pandemic with a keen eye for the changes it wrought in our everyday lives, with both compassion and humor. Her show, “COVID Up-Island,” at the West Tisbury library, looks through a local lens of the familiar at an experience that was far from it.

Barred from her usual figure drawing at Featherstone, Stone decided to render the up-Island world around her. In black and white and sometimes color, she gives us glimpses of the endless signs requiring masks at the libraries, eateries, shops, and post offices. The people who populate her images also sport these ubiquitous protections — reminding us of this surreal time of social distancing and greeting one another without touching, and when everything we knew was different.

Stone created most of the 26 5- by 7-inch pieces while sitting and drawing with Prismacolor pencils in her car. Moving around the room at the exhibit, we walk by an empty Chilmark Tavern, Larson’s, and local libraries, all with their pickup-only signs. For 7a, Stone focuses our attention on the caution tape barring anyone from using the rocking horse, because touching wasn’t allowed for fear of transferring the virus. Congregants gather outside the Chilmark Church for services — spaced in what we hoped was a safe distance apart, and still sporting masks even in the open air.

There is a pair of touching works — one depicting a young couple and the other, an older couple. In both, the two people hold hands walking away from us, backs turned, through the beach grass at Lobsterville, with a thought bubble saying, “Will we survive this?” Speaking about the latter, Stone says, “When I saw them, I thought they must be wondering, Are we going to survive this, because so many of the elderly were dying. Then I thought, Young people think the same thing. And some young people didn’t survive.”

Stone also captures the whimsy you would see pop up in the community. Her scenes include the poster hanging on the Granary Gallery door of Grant Wood’s stoic farm couple in “American Gothic” … wearing masks. These ubiquitous coverings also appear over the mouths of Tom Maley’s dancing figures outside the Field Gallery, and one on Jay Lagemann’s “Swordfish Harpooner” at Menemsha, with a seagull above carrying away a discarded mask. One of my favorites is the full-color drawing of the sign outside a pasture that playfully states, “Maintain Social Distancing. Keep one cow apart. At least 6 feet.”

There are a handful of specific portraits, such as “Lee the Chilmark Postmaster and Bat Quarter.” Here, Stone shows a hand in front of Lee’s masked face holding up a real attached quarter that she ironically received from him as change. Looking closely, you see that it’s imprinted with an American Samoa bat, right when we thought bats might have been the source of the coronavirus. There is the emblematic icon of hand sanitizer, which dominates the portrait of “Suzie at Creekville Antiques” and appeared in so many stores. In “Pick Up at West Tisbury Library,” the show’s host institution looms large in a portrait of Stone’s sister-in-law, who wears a Martha’s Vineyard Bank mask as she walks toward us with her labeled pickup bag.

Stone also reflects the political unrest of the times. She portrays the enthusiastic crowd in the initial Black Lives Matter daily protests at Beetlebung Corner in Chilmark. “I loved that they were there, and everybody had a mask on, and that there were mixed races,” Stone explains. Perhaps the image of the huge “I can’t breathe” sign staked next to the one for the Chilmark Writing Workshop best captures how the larger political and social tumult of the times clearly infected our seemingly remote little haven. Stone comments, “I know it’s for George Floyd, but I thought, You know, we all can’t breathe. I thought that was a signature sign that meant even beyond what Nancy Aronie intended.”

An artist since childhood, Stone has an undergraduate and master’s degree, and worked at museums and art centers, among other venues. “My whole life has been about art, mostly teaching at the end,” she says. In preparing for the show, Stone shares, “I opened the box, and my reaction was, Oh my gosh, we did that. I would like people to remember the experience we all lived through. I did the drawings for myself, but when I started gathering them for the show, I thought, You know, it’s really a community thing. I’d like people’s experience to be remembering that it was something that was communal … and we did it!”

Virginia Stone’s “COVID Up-Island” is free and open to the public during library hours through May, from 10 am to 6 pm, Monday through Thursday, and 10 am to 5 pm, Friday and Saturday.