Postcards from the Ledge – 17

Summer begins here with a whisper.
Gonna let the warm air dry out the grass
before I take on the mowing
which needs to be done
before we can plant
the last of the seedlings
which needs to be done
before the week is out
so
while I’m waiting for grass to dry
I’ll paint.

Memorial Day – 2013

From the Reclamation Series

Reclamation lg

 Reclamation – An exploration of a hidden island treasure

 

Hidden vistas, historic vineyard homesteads, echoes of vintage islanders, the tools of their trades and the marks they have left in the wake of their time here are meaningful touchstones for the muses and vivid fodder for the creative soul.  So it was, that when I sat down at my studio table a few months ago and read in the Vineyard Gazette about the Martha’s Vineyard Museum acquiring the old Marine Hospital building in Vineyard Haven, I was eager to see it for myself.

The Marine Hospital was built in 1895 and sits on a prominent hill overlooking what had only a few years earlier, in 1871, assumed its modern name of Vineyard Haven.  Over the last hundred plus years it had become obscured by the substantial growth of oaks, maples and at least one Siberian Elm whose towering beauty still envelopes one entire wing.  I’m probably not the only visitor, when hailing the island from the upper deck of the ferry,  to be surprised by its stalwart presence on the horizon, after the museum returned the landscaping to its earlier state.  While the clearing reveals an old friend on the town’s skyline, it also restores the dramatic view from atop that hill looking out over the expanse of lagoon and harbor and Vineyard Sound.

view from beach road 1910

My curiosity was satisfied when Denys Wortman, MV Museum Board member whose Vineyard roots are deeply woven into the fabric of the island, graciously guided me on a tour of the building last October.  He filled me in on the history of the building which was a 30 bed state of the art hospital treating islanders, soldiers in both World Wars I and II, and sailors who passed through the busy port.  It boasted the island’s first x-ray machine and elevator in a brick addition which was built in 1938.  Walking through its cavernous hallways we peered around the blackened walls of the darkroom where those x-rays were developed and explored the operating room and its alcoves.

The hospital was de-commissioned in the early 1950’s and the St. Pierre family took over its care and ran a summer camp there up until 2006.  You can see echoes of those happy campers in the murals  of sailboats painted on the wall in one of the bright corner rooms.  The building is infused with light by virtue of the many tall windows and the glassed transoms over the doorways which let that light cascade deeply into the space.  When I remarked on the graceful woodwork and the way each of the stuccoed corners was wrapped in a slender finial-capped turning of mahogany, Denny said there is someone on the island who has some extra pieces of those in a barn as his father was one of the craftsmen who worked on the building.

boat and mural

It’s that kind of lore which excites me and makes this building special.  From the half-tiled walls to the pressed tin ceilings, the patched and re-patched plastered surfaces and the ornately decorated cast iron radiators, the juxtaposed textures of weathered brick and smoothly polished patina of creamy porcelain, to the greening of the old copper and the deep marine blue painted baseboards that anchor the vaulted spaces to solid ground… the architecture is elegant in its simplicity and charms the esthetic heart.

I returned to the building many times during that autumn visit and tried to experience how the light and shadows changed over the course of a day.   One morning Denny met me and brought along the museum flag.  When I stepped outside to walk across the wide expanse of front lawn to help him raise it I commented on how there wasn’t a cloud in the crisp October sky.  “Pilots call that Severe Clear”,  he replied.

denny and flag

Back in my Pennsylvania studio when I was looking through the sketches and notes I had taken I found that I had written down that phrase and, for almost every morning of the dozens of days it took me to paint this view from the balcony, the spring sky here was brilliantly cloudless…so the title fits.

Severe Clear

Click Here to see all the paintings in the series.

I didn’t start out to make this a series, but as I finished each painting and saw them leaning along the studio walls it became clear that together they were beginning to tell a deeper story.  One which the building itself had to tell.  I wasn’t there to be a witness to the bustle of its early hospital days, or the loneliness of the few years that it sat vacant, or the second incarnation as children’s voices filled the hallways, but the spirits of those who moved through the corridors during its lifetime were present and as I studied and listened I was beginning to see the first inklings of its next chapter.

The museum had begun to move some of its acquisitions into the future home, and I found a particularly symbolic beauty in the dear old row boat that was resting against the standpipe in the downstairs hallway.  Through the open door behind it you could just catch a hint of the mural depicting the “Sweet 16” Menemsha wooden sailboat.  A real life version of which is tarped over and grounded on blocks outside and just around the corner.  Though a fair enough challenge to capture the building and the boat faithfully in all their weathered-chip-painted glory… I had a blast painting them both.

And I learned something about myself as an artist over the months of producing this collection of paintings.  With each one I dug a little deeper into the surfaces, took more time to study the textures and stepped further out on that edge of rendering.  I went from seeing the rooms first as vessels of color and light and then slowly, as details came into sharper focus, a sort of map would appear.  A map of stories.  Those finely chiseled cracks in its well used surfaces were asking to be painted honestly and I had to find the courage to listen and to work harder at seeing the building…and myself.

Both acts of… reclamation.


And Finally…

If I did this right, this should post all by itself on the morning of the Granary Gallery Show opening. And if all else goes well, Pat and I will be waking up to a beautiful day on the Vineyard as you read this.

As I am writing this tonight it is almost midnight and we are still a week away from leaving home, the studio is full of carefully wrapped paintings, the trailer has yet to be cleaned out, and there is much packing yet to do…so you can imagine that this new technology is playing little tricks on my weary psyche.

It has been a long and rewarding journey to make my creative way through this series, Reclamation. And without further ado, I give you it’s finale…

Severe Clear – 40″ x 70″

Severe Clear

My guide at the beginning of this journey was Denys Wortman, a MV Museum Board member whose Vineyard roots are deeply woven into the fabric of the island, Denny was a fountain of information.

I returned to the building many times during that visit last autumn and tried to experience how the light and shadows changed over the course of a day.   One morning Denny met me and brought along the museum flag.  When I stepped outside to walk across the wide expanse of front lawn to help him raise it I commented on how there wasn’t a cloud in the crisp October sky.  “Pilots call that Severe Clear”,  he replied.

Back in my Pennsylvania studio when I was looking through the sketches and notes I had taken I found that I had written down that phrase and, for almost every morning of the dozens of days it took me to paint this view from the balcony, the spring sky here was brilliantly cloudless…so the title fits.

I became intimately familiar with every one of these buildings, and boats and trees over the many weeks of working on this painting. But it was the tiniest of details that the muses insisted on which kept a sparkle in my bleary eyes. The pinpoint of green in the traffic lights at the drawbridge, the rigging on the tall ships, the picnic table where Pat and I eat Chef Hesi’s sushi,  the ducks in the rippling current, the flecks of red paint on the oar…and the best of all…the little dog on the back of the boat.

You will need a magnifying glass to see him…I sure did.

So now my tale is told. The Martha’s Vineyard Museum has already begun the renovation work to revitalize this old Marine Hospital, and bring about it’s next incarnation as the future home of the MV Museum. I hope this series of paintings will offer another layer of historical perspective on the long life of this building to those new generations to come who visit the museum.

Now you all go out and have some good old summer fun… and we will raise a toast to you tonight…thanks for listening,

Heather


Memorial Day

Memorial Day – 24″ x 26″

Memorial Day

A sketch of this painting appears in the catalogue that we made for this series. Here’s a peak…

sketch72

It’s always fun to look back and see how closely I come to the initial ideas for a composition. In this case what I seemed to have been most focused on was the quality of those raking shadows across the clapboard. The colors and intensity within varied wildly from one side of the wall to the other and the colors of the fire escape bounced back up to influence them further. And the title, which came to me in part because I started the sketching on Memorial Day, and mostly because the colors and the lines somehow kept reminding me of those patriotic swags that drape over holiday porch railings.

This was actually the last one I painted in the series. I was winding down after spending over 300 hours working on the big one, which you will see tomorrow, and was positively bleary eyed from all the tiny details. Once again, I realized that this last one had to embody all the lessons learned about peeling paint and rusting iron, how much wavy glass to leave in and leave out, how to stay true to the architecture and its weathering and mostly, how long it takes to build up a realistic portrait of over a hundred years of the life of a giant old building, that sits on top of a hill, on an island, off the coast of New England.

 


Island Passages

Island Passages – 18″ x 26″

Island Passages

I had to revisit that porcelain sink
and the verdigris on the copper door handle
and the cool lavender light
framing the warm glow in the hallway
and the barest hint of a fire escape
and the sweet sharp elegance
of those hairline cracks in the plaster
but my favorite part of this painting
was discovering
upon very close inspection of my reference photos
the tiny thumbtacks used to hold some old strings in place
and the dearest little shadow
that was cast by the one
that I secretly tacked
onto the wooden peg rail…


Sailing Camp Shadows

Sailing Camp Shadows – 26″ x 36″

Sailing Camp Shadows

By the time I started this painting I was deep into the zone.
I had found the essence of the story I wanted to tell with this series
and was deeply committed to telling it honestly.
I had learned how the light could change the color of the walls in every room.
How the quality of that same light could alter the temperature of the shadows.
Yet I was still finding little surprises along the way.
Like how, in this room, on this October morning,
that light could tease itself in an obscure angle
in front of and behind the open door
and cast a theatrical raking light right back up the wall.
I wanted to play with that so I added the oar.
It lives here in my studio but the painting needed some middle ground
and so did the story being told.
It is meant to represent the Sailing Camp Days
and the now empty former hospital rooms
had few traces of happily playing children.
But the rainbows
filtering in at the edges
seem to echo their voices.

So too, would that oar return to play a roll in the final painting in this series,
but you’ll have to wait a bit longer for that reveal…


Maplines

Maplines – 18″ x 24″

maplines

So, this is where it started to get real
I worked for several days
laying down layers of loose color
I knew it was the detail
the incredibly rich detail
of the stuccoed wall that was in play here
and it was great fun to build up the earthy colors
almost as if I had plastered it myself
and replastered
and repaired that replastering
but at some point
I think it was after I danced those dark lines of tin
underneath the peeling blue paint on the ceiling
I made the leap of faith
and committed to take those cracks
to a whole other level
and, as I mentioned in the catalogue,
that’s when I began to listen
on a much deeper level
to the stories the building
had to tell.


Vineyard Porcelain

Vineyard Porcelain – 24″ x 36″

Vineyard Porcelain

The view of those beautiful bricks framed by the tall pair of windows made me feel as if I was looking into a corner of some 18th century European city. Transported in that way, the warm earthy colors needed to become prominent and saturated to play off the contrasting cool blues in the tiles and the sink.

For most of the time it took me to paint this I was listening to The Magus, by John Fowles. Talk about contrasts. I was 18 when I took a course on that book in college. My friend Rex had insisted since it was being taught by his favorite professor, the poet William Meredith. A whole semester dwelling deep in the psychic depths of Fowles was intense to say the least and rereading it in my mid-fifties was a wild trip down that memory lane.

What shocked me the most was how incredibly naïve I was at the time of the first reading. Learned interpretive teachings aside, I couldn’t have had a clue what was really going on in that story. Not that I pretend to understand it much better now, but the decades and layers of life lessons in between made it feel like I have grown a heavy rain sodden wool coat of flesh over that tender young college student.

The patina on the outer surfaces of this building is like that coat.
Hard traveled…and well earned.


The spaces in between…

When I settle in to work on a big painting my focus narrows, the creative energy tightens, and all the weeks of slogging through pondering compositional elements and deciding what to keep in and what to leave out, of sketching and panel prepping, and of reworking those sketches and printing out piles of detail reference photos…it all reaches a crescendo and, like the stretching of a rubber band, it suddenly snaps ! …and the first brushes hit the canvas. So it was, all that creative momentum strung taut, when I began the large painting, Severe Clear, for this summer’s Granary Gallery show.

But now, some 300 easel hours later, I am looking back and see, on my camera’s photo stream, that there were some wonderful moments in the spaces between all those long days of lifting brushes. When I paid homage to my most favorite springtime rituals. When I literally stopped to smell the roses, and to enjoy the first of the fiddleheads, and the first grilled pizza of the season, the annual pilgrimage to the Sheep and Wool Festival, to sit of an afternoon in the studio garden with loving family, and to enjoy this wonderful life we have together.

I’ll be telling you about the rest of the project, of which this painting is a keystone work, in little bit,  a series of paintings which feature a Marine Hospital on Martha’s Vineyard that is about to open a new chapter in its historic life, but in the meantime…here’s a sneak peak at the big one, Severe Clear, and some of the studio highlights experienced along the way…

And now, I give you… Severe Clear

Severe Clear