Island artist Douglas John Kent, known for his vast body of work ranging from elusive abstracts to landscapes and mystical animals, died peacefully on Sept. 17, 2023, after a long battle with Lewy body dementia.
Doug was born in Worcester on Nov. 2, 1944, to Elizabeth and Thomas Kent, the youngest of four siblings. His father was an artist, and his mother was a classical pianist. It was an atmosphere conducive to art and the creative life. He grew up in Leicester, a rural town outside Worcester.
After the death of his father, the family moved to Worcester, where Doug attended Commerce High School. There he was able to spend most of his time in the art room.
He attended the School of the Worcester Art Museum. The museum’s collection was dedicated to teaching a comprehensive survey of world art, including some of the masterpieces of American folk painting. Doug was fortunate to have been exposed to this collection daily during his art school days in the 1960s. He would wander throughout the museum, absorbing major works of painting and sculpture.
After graduating from the Museum School, Doug spent the summer of 1966 on the Vineyard. A sculpture professor of his had bought the Pequot Hotel, and offered him room and board in exchange for his help in refurbishing the hotel. That year he held his first solo show, a collection of figurative drawings and watercolors, at the Pequot.
During the height of the Vietnam War, Doug attended the Boston Museum School, and always an adventurer, he went to San Miguel de Allende, Mexico. Unable to speak Spanish, he would communicate with his drawings instead of words.
He eventually settled in Vermont for a period of time before venturing out to Los Angeles to try his luck in show business as a cartoonist. He spent time in New York City, but the Island always drew him back, and he finally came back to put down his roots on the Vineyard, which he would call his home for the rest of his life.
On the Island in his early days, Doug worked with Craig Kingsbury, roaming through the fields and woods of West Tisbury, planting trees, vegetable gardens, and digging cranberry bogs.
It was here on the island In 1973 where he met Lesley Eaton, who would become his first wife and the mother of his two daughters, Nettie and Elizabeth, and his stepchildren, Jesse, Jason, and Anna Napior.
Doug loved being a father, and would often invite his young daughters into his studio to paint with him, or make them elaborate costumes from his studio supplies. His favorite holiday was Halloween, and he loved to paint a good scary face.
Being a father and a working artist pulled Doug in different directions. He had success showing his work for many years at the Field Gallery, where he had one-man and group shows every summer.
He also continued to travel to New York City to show and sell his work. Gallery owners who were interested in his work suggested that he move to the city so his work could be shown in the center of the New York art world. This idea appealed to him, but ultimately the serenity of the Island won him over, and was where he wanted to raise his young family.
It was Doug’s love of nature which led him to the Polly Hill Arboretum in the early 1980s, where he worked as a horticulturist and right-hand man for Polly Hill for more than 20 years.
In the mid-Nineties he met his second wife, Patricia Cliggot. During their years together, they were both introduced to Buddhism, which sustained him in his remaining years and greatly influenced his later work.
Doug took much inspiration from the landscapes and nature that surrounded him. The following is an essay he wrote that captures his feelings.
Inhabiting the light
My paintings are worked out in the studio, but my information — my inspiration, people like to say — comes from places I go to and look at and take in. The Vineyard has always been and remains a resource, though now more delicate to gather, informing me through the senses, not words, it tells me, “This is nature — you take it from here.”
I was fortunate enough to come to the Vineyard in the mid-1960s, before the accelerated transition of the last 25 years. Those first summers, and later year-rounds, were loaded with a sense of place of the old Vineyard, its people and undisturbed places — the Vineyard Haven Harbor, the woods of West Tisbury, Chilmark, Lambert’s Cove, and the north shore. There’s a different light here. It’s the water all around us — it bounces back, up and in. It reaches into those woods. The sky that reflects in the woodland pools also sees the great Atlantic nearby. It changes things.
I go to certain places again and again. Stretches of stone walls, each stone handled at least five times, built at 10 feet per day, 150 years ago. Someone making their place. I visit a spot on the Tiasquam Brook. There are small stone bridges covered in black green moss, soft and solid. And that light on the brook — it’s white-blue.
There are still hilltops and ridges inland, and I see through a veil of gray oak branches, silver-blue, or green or gray, or not at all — the ocean way off.
Some places are the same, some are gone — fenced, gated, changed with a new, foreign landscape in place. Why the change? Why so fast? They missed the information, missed the sense of where they are and what was there.
If we want beauty we will find it. If we look only at the surface, we miss the depth. Those who look to the Island with a discerning eye will be filled with the sense of her past and her beauty — the ongoing effort to survive, to give, to inform, and to reward us, and we will take it from there. –Doug Kent, 2000
Doug is survived by his daughters, Nettie Kent Ruel and her husband Colin, and Elizabeth Kent and her partner Spencer Binney; his five grandchildren, Levi, Willow, and Coco Binney, and Razmus and Wyld Ruel; his brothers, Thomas and Charlie Kent; his sister, Ellen Mora; and extended family and friends. He was predeceased by his brother Peter Kent.
Doug lives on through his artwork, which has been shown in galleries in Massachusetts, New York, Los Angeles, San Francisco, and Tokyo. Besides the many private homes and collections, his work is in museums and collections as far afield as Singapore, Australia, Japan, Europe, and Latin America.
Doug was an Island character and a part of Vineyard history who will be missed by all who knew him and his work.
A memorial will be held to celebrate the life of Doug on Nov. 10 at the Martha’s Vineyard Agricultural Hall in West Tisbury, at 4 pm; all are welcome to attend. Stories about Doug are welcome and encouraged.
Funds are being raised to purchase a memorial bench at Polly Hill in honor of Doug. Donations can be made to gofundme.com/f/douglas-kent.