It’s a journey

by Sue Dawson

ONE OF MY favorite things about teaching is the moment when things click into place. An “aha” moment, where a student gains an important insight, or looks at his/her art with a different perspective. It’s especially clear over time, when we look back at students’ creative work, and see their growth as artists.

Steve Koppel was a member of our first Mentorship group, which began in 2013. When I first talked with Steve, he said he had retired early, and was a “hobbyist” photographer. But he wanted to know if we’d help with a new non-profit he was starting, MyMoments, to “promote recovery and emotional resilience through imagery created on mobile devices.” He’d use his 1:1 meetings with us as consultation on his new endeavor, and would learn from our trainings and retreats as well. The more Steve talked about his idea, I started getting chills (this happens when something resonates for me), and I told him it would be our honor. 

At our first retreat in January, Steve used his Mastermind to do a presentation on MyMoments, and showed some iPhone images as examples of the techniques he was teaching. It was wonderful to see the progress he’d made with his idea, and how quickly it seemed to be catching on. What I didn’t know was that Steve was nervous. Here’s what he said today:

“When I first called, I would’ve called myself a postcard photographer – no sophistication, no subtlety in what I produced. It was in your face, bright colors, pretty postcard photographs. What I wanted to do was figure out how to make photography a meaningful part of my life. Looking back, I didn’t really know what that meant. I remember at the first retreat, being too ashamed to show any of my own work. The decision to show MyMoments iPhone images was a convenient way to participate, without having to show imagery next to the work of the others, who were much more trained in photography as art. The truth is I didn’t have enough confidence to share what I was doing with a DSLR with other people.”

First, it’s important to say that Steve’s early reluctance to share his own work was a blessing, in retrospect, for MyMoments. Now the EDI Institute, Steve’s non-profit organization is helping patients all over the country. EDI, or “Expressive Digital Imagery,” has been incredibly well-received by clinicians and thousands of patients, and plays an important role in therapeutic programs. Steve still donates 100% of his profit on the sales of his photographs to EDI Institute. 

So now I need to connect the dots. I need to get you from the man who was too ashamed to show his work in front of 12 students, to the successful photographer who’s represented by a top photography gallery, and regularly sells his work.

By the April retreat of that first year, Steve was inspired to get back to his own photography. But he didn’t want to shoot postcard photos anymore. He wanted to understand “what expression through imagery is all about – subtleties of light, design, composition.” He started to explore the movement of water, doing long exposures out on the beach in front of his house on Cape Cod. His second Mastermind showed some of the images he captured, which he called “Wave Art.”

The next year, in addition to upgrading his website, Steve worked to capture the “amazing variety of the phenomenon of the Brewster Flats,” a tidal flat where the water flows in and out over miles of beach, with the tides. He set a tripod on a jetty in front of his house, and took images in all different conditions. The artist was beginning to emerge.

Highest - not framed perfectly

During Steve’s third year with us, his second in the Advanced Mentorship, we held our annual retreat on the Cape. Alison’s been represented by the Focus Gallery in Chatham (formerly in Cohasset) for years, and she decided to bring us all there for a visit. And guess what photograph was displayed in the front window…


Cindy Vallino, the owner of Focus Gallery, had begun to represent Steve that spring, and we were all SO excited to see his work proudly on display.  

That year, Steve had chosen a completely different angle on his beloved beach home. He bought a drone, and was able to capture stunning images from above. He also began doing his own prints, on a large Epson printer. At our retreat in October 2016, Steve covered our large table with his gorgeous prints of these images, asking for the group’s help in choosing the best ones. He also generously brought his drone out to Quansoo beach, and gave us all a demonstration. It was a highlight of the retreat (note happy, waving subjects below).


Later that year, he produced a folio of the prints named “Above the Flats,” and gave copies to friends and family. 

above flats 

These days, Steve goes out early, many mornings each week. 
“It’s become spiritual for me. (What I’m doing now is) EDI with a sophisticated camera. It’s all about self-expression. It’s as much about my experience being out there, as the image I’m capturing. It’s about how I’m feeling, mindfulness, expressing imagery from that. I’m not going out for a shoot – it’s really a journey. I’m out there at 4am, while the skies are still dark. The camera is just an extension of my hands now. I know it so well, I don’t have to think – it’s second nature. I’ll notice changes in the light, movement in the water. There hasn’t been a single time I’ve gone out where I haven’t been inspired. It’s not about getting images for the gallery, about sales – I don’t even think about that. I’m capturing what I’m feeling. The camera sees these amazing things happening, that my eyes can’t see. It’s all real, and I could never have seen it, without the camera that I know really well how to use, as an extension of my own being, my own eyes. And that was all inspired by the Mentorship. I give full credit to the Mentorship for getting me to that kind of place with my imagery. And I feel very blessed that Cindy gave me this opportunity, at the Focus Gallery. The only reason I’m there, and able to talk at a professional level, and understand what she’s looking for, is because of my experience with the Mentorship. There’s no question.” 

The feeling that Steve is capturing, in those early morning journeys, looks like this:


I told him how much I appreciate his comments about the Mentorship, but the talent is obviously inside of him. And this is what he said…

“Obviously there’s something inside me that I never tapped before. Without the right inspiration and support, it goes untapped. There’s an ability inside that has let loose, but I credit this wonderful Mentorship program for that. If I had just gone and done workshops and done things on my own, I never would’ve gotten this far. I can really see the difference between what I’ve experienced in the Mentorship, and photographers who just do workshops, and haven’t had the benefit of mentorship, of 1:1 coaching. Having your coaching and nurturing all the way thru is what’s made this all possible.”  

I’m booking spaces for the Mentorship now – it starts this coming week, and we do this program only once each year. Actually, to be honest, each year Alison and I talk about our own plans, and where we want to invest our time. We’ve got our own bucket list, and the Mentorship programs are a huge investment for us. There is always a chance we’ll skip a year or two. 
So if your heart lifts a bit when you think about taking your photography to the next level, now is the time to take advantage of that inspiration. If the Mentorship is on your bucket list, email me right now, 

It’s an honor

by Sue Dawson

I JUST RECEIVED a lovely email from one of our former Mentorship students, and thought I’d introduce you to her.

Jean Schnell first took a workshop with Alison on Cape Cod in 2012. She then took our weeklong Martha’s Vineyard workshop in 2013. When Alison and I came up with the idea for a 6-month Mentorship program in 2013, Jean was one of the people we thought would be perfect for it. Happily, she agreed, and worked with us in the Mentorship and Advanced Mentorship for the next three years.

When I’m talking with potential Mentorship students, I often talk about Jean. At our first retreat, in January 2014, she surprised Alison during her first Mastermind (at the two retreats, each person has 30 minutes to present something to the whole group, and ask for feedback or critique – the whole room is focusing on you and your work). At the beginning of the program, Jean had bought a printer, but hadn’t even taken it out of the box. Alison’s first advice was to take the printer out, set it up, and give it a try.

So imagine our surprise, when Jean tacked up LOTS of 8×10 prints – enough to cover our main display wall, plus two rows along the side walls. She had two series of images, and the whole group was engaged in talking about her work. 


From Jean:

“The first year, I began to get a sense of my personal style, and how I see when I take pictures. It was my personal identity as a photographer. I worked on some technical things: low ISO, always using a tripod, and yes, the printing thing. And I began to pull out “projects” from work I had already done. I worked on the “damn website” and put my stuff out there for friends and family to see, which was a first for me, and quite liberating.”

Jean continued on with the Advanced Mentorship the following year, and threw herself into trying new things. She worked on “pure color,” trying to duplicate a Mark Rothko painting in her “studio lab” at her home. She photographed inside the abandoned Marine Hospital on the Vineyard (Alison got them to open it up for her), and showed those images at our Advanced Mentorship group show in May 2015. 

“Most importantly in the second year, I learned how to exhibit work: what goes into an exhibition and how to put it together, how to price work.”

The image below was the top seller at our group show. The editor of a local magazine, MV Arts & Ideas, came to the opening, and later published an article in the magazine, with eight photos from the series. 


At the Advanced Mentorship retreat in May 2015, before the show reception, Jean was already looking to figure out where she should aim her focus next. In her Mastermind, she showed a bunch of different image groupings, looking for feedback. There was a single image that stood out. It was simple – just a wooden chair on a wood floor, with a window behind it, and a plain wall. Light was coming through the windowpanes, and there was a pattern of reflected light on the floor. It was a stunning shot, and we all said so. Jean said “I don’t know why I included that one – I didn’t even mean to put it in here.” She’s Quaker, and had taken the photo at her meetinghouse. It meant something to her personally, but hadn’t made the cut. But the resonance of that shot was so powerful, the whole group encouraged her to do more. I just love when that happens. 

So in Jean’s third year with us, she worked solely on the Meetinghouse project. “I learned how to edit, and make a series in a similar style.” I encouraged her to start a blog, and she did, writing about each meetinghouse she shot, and showing the best images from each one. She posted new blog entries on her Facebook page, increasing her audience with each one. 


Rather than choose just 12 images for a traditional portfolio of her meetinghouse series, Jean decided to do two large Blurb books, and include her writing. She ended up shooting every meetinghouse in Massachusetts, and her books are a wonderful reference for the series. We (Sue and Alison) were blown away when Jean brought all of her prints and put them out on our conference table. Each one was more stunning than the last. 


We helped Jean choose the very best images, and Sue worked with her on design and typography for the books. The books are expensive to produce, and are not for sale. But they’re a fantastic reference for galleries who want to show the images, and a wonderful way to see the entire series. I have copies in the gallery, and bring them out often.

I’m humbled by an email Jean just sent, letting us know what she’s doing now. She called us her “photographic touchstones.” 

“In short, in the three years, I learned the artistic process. It is something I return to again and again. The foundation is now there. I use what you taught me all the time. I give you all the credit for taking me to the level of competence I now feel in photography. I am so grateful for the time I had with you.”

We don’t take all of that credit – Jean’s an incredibly talented artist. I’m honored to say that she blossomed during the time that we worked with her, and deepened what she already had. She invested herself in the process, worked hard to develop her innate talent, and discover her unique vision. These days, she’s revisiting her flower photography, “honing in purely on shape and color. That work began under Alison,” she said, bringing it all full circle. 

For more of Jean’s work, here’s her website. For more on our Mentorship program starting next week, click here. I’ll be sending out emails tomorrow to the 96 people who’ve expressed interest in the program, for just 9 available spaces. If you want to take your photography to the next level, email me now, I’m booking spaces this week.

Making our own way

by Sue Dawson

SO HOW ARE YOU DOING? I ask this because we’re living in a pretty crazy time. Hurricanes, wildfires, earthquakes, politics…. I often wake up in the middle of the night with anxiety these days, to be honest. Things are increasingly out of control, which can make me feel powerless, and worried. When I wake up at 2 or 3am, I read the news on my iPhone, and scan through Facebook. I’m staying in touch with what’s going on as much as I can, both in terms of national/international news, and the everyday posts of my friends and family. I guess it helps me feel more connected, and less vulnerable, to know that we’re all in this together. 

All summer I’ve been talking with people who come into the gallery about this. I’m fascinated by the different ways people deal with the uncertainty of weather events, political upheaval, and the overwhelm of daily life. Some folks turn off the news, choosing to protect their psyches by avoiding what’s happening. That can work in small doses, but inevitably we do get pulled back to reality at some point. Others learn all they can, throw themselves into finding solutions, and helping others. They need to do something. Some people choose to exercise, travel, or do creative work, to find a sense of personal balance that seems so elusive these days. 

In the summer and shoulder seasons at the gallery, Alison and I promote and sell Alison’s fine art photographs. We’ve done this for many years, running our own business around Alison’s (and my) creative work. But for the last five years, we’ve chosen a different goal in the off-season: to nurture the work and creativity of serious amateur photographers. We developed our 6-month Mentorship program to create an ongoing supportive relationship with each person, working with you over time. Our goal is to help you find your unique creative voice, and to provide you with strategies that enable you to make the most of your skill and creative expression. These days, spreading the wealth and nurturing the creative voices all around us feels especially important. We need art right now, as artists, and participants/viewers/readers. We need to keep connecting with each other.  


Alison and I designed the Mentorship as a roadmap – customized for you – to identify your dreams, and create a plan to achieve them. There are trainings on things like creativity, Lightroom, writing an artist statement, and putting together a portfolio of your work. You become part of a group of peers, who support each other via our private Facebook group, and at the two weekend retreats. The highlight of the retreats are the Mastermind sessions, when each student has a block of time to present your work, get support, feedback, suggestions, and the group’s full attention. It’s a powerful experience to have the whole room focused exclusively on you and your work – some of the best insights have come from Masterminds. Throughout the Mentorship, you’ll have one-on-one sessions with Alison, focused entirely on your photographs, your workflow, and your goals. And sessions with me, where we look at your website, writing about your work, and getting your photography seen and appreciated by others.

It’s hard work. It is. No sugar-coating that. Your results will be directly proportional to your investment of time and effort. But this is about your creative life, after all. It’s time to stop kicking the can down the road, and thinking you’ll be able to focus on your creative work some other time. We all need your creative voice. And you do too.

40 people have done this before you, each of them full of reservations and excuses, each of them nervous that they picked now to jump in. There’s a section on our website where you can see a list of some Mentorship student accomplishments, look at portfolios of students’ work, and read their thoughts on the Mentorship experience. 

We’re not solving world hunger over here. This is our small contribution. I think that art, music, film, writing – and all forms of creative expression – are crucial to our health and well-being. Use us to help nurture your own creative exploration.

For more info, go here, and click the blue link under the photo to download a pdf. Or email me: The Mentorship starts on October 23rd, so let’s talk. 

Waiting for the purple one

by Sue Dawson

NIKON just came out with a brand-new top-level DSLR, and Alison’s psyched. She uses the D810, which has 36 megapixels. The new D850 has 46 megapixels, which is enough to merit the purchase. But it’s not all about megapixels. It doubles the D810’s maximum ISO, and has a cool screen that tilts so you can view at different angles. Suffice it to say that Alison wants it.

So then this crazy thing happens – the Nikon branch in Asia/Africa did a promotional excursion with 32 top professional photographers, giving them each a D850 to try out. Here’s the photo of the pros, posted on Instagram:


Here they all are again, as headshots:


Notice anything? … I’ll wait… 

They’re all men. ALL 32 of them. And I may be wrong, but is there just one black guy in there? From the African branch of Nikon? 

Photographers and industry analysts are having a field day with this one. Here’s an article in F-Stoppers, and another in Digital Photography Review. I’ve seen it on CNN, and other media too. 

NikonUSA put out an apology on social media. Alison emailed her Nikon rep to complain, and got a very nice apology within minutes. It was a big mistake, and they seem genuinely sorry that it happened. 

I just want to say that Alison has been a professional photographer for over 40 years, has taught workshops all over the world, and has faithfully used Nikon cameras throughout that time. She’s as much of a pro as any other photographer – she’s a photojournalist, artist, gallery owner, teacher, and mentor to many. She was even on the cover of Nikon World back in the day, with a nifty vellum overlay:


Here’s the promo piece for the issue – showing what Alison looked like in 1983 (I discovered her work that same year. We met briefly in 1984, and began working together at the Vineyard Gazette in 1987). 


In addition to working with Alison since 1987, I worked with some of the most talented photojournalists in the world, when I was a designer at The Boston Globe – many of whom are women. Female photographers are just as good, just as professional, just as talented as male photographers. This all goes without saying. And yet, we NEED to keep saying it. And saying it. 

I’ve read a bunch of comments, tweets, and Facebook posts about this. Like the awesome one that says women just need to wait for the pink, sparkly version of the D850. Reminds me of these actual Bic pens “for Her” (click the link to read customer comments, if you have time). The “beautifully smooth,” sparkly, pink and purple pens inspired a great Ellen monologue (worth watching, after the obligatory ad):


Nikon could do a purple and pink D850, that would fit perfectly in ladies’ hands. Hmmm….


Interestingly, I’ve also seen posts by women who think Nikon’s mistake is no big deal, and that people are overreacting. Yeah… no. Complacency isn’t in my genes. Or submission to patriarchal societal norms. I don’t need matriarchal society either. Just equality, and respect. 

Alison still wants the D850. And I think they should give one to her, like they did for those 32 men, and have her represent them. She’d love to. They need people like her, just doing a fantastic job with the equipment. While female. 

What do you think? Post a comment and let me know..

EPILOGUE, 9.23.17
Thanks for all of your support, and great comments!
– As far as I know, there’s only a black D850 – I made the purple one in photoshop 😉
– Just got an email from Amazon Prime, suggesting the Bic pens “for Her” – since I was interested in them…

Better late than never

by Sue Dawson

SO MANY people have been coming into the gallery and mentioning how glad they are to see Alison on Instagram, that I thought I’d ask her a few questions about joining into the social media craze. Just to give you a little background, Alison has a Twitter account, tweets very occasionally, and never follows anyone else. To be honest, she doesn’t get the allure of Twitter – perhaps because she’s not a movie star, politician, musician, or under 35. She had a personal Facebook page, but again, didn’t really use it. People kept friending her, she kept saying yes, and when she got to thousands of “friends,” she realized it felt too weird to post personal things to people she didn’t even really know. Not her thing to snap a photo of the pretty swirl in her morning latte, or pass along the latest political rant (actually, that’s more me). We switched her over to a business page (which we both monitor) and that works much better. 

Bottom line, Alison isn’t much of a social media type. But Instagram kept coming up. Everyone was encouraging her to jump in – friends, family, colleagues, students, gallery customers. She did sign up for an account, but never posted anything on it. People even started following her, with zero posts. Nada. So in April, I updated my “Marketing and Social Media” training for our Mentorship students, and found examples of prominent photographers’ pages on various social media outlets. I wanted the group to look at what’s out there, and I talked about each platform. And amongst the professional photographers’ pages, in all its glory, I surprised them all with Alison’s proud Instagram page…

instagram alison
We all laughed. Then this past June, Alison jumped into action. Seems like a great place to start our interview…

SUE: What did you think when I showed that empty page?
ALISON: Haha (sighs and leans back a bit). I think I said “Here’s a great example of ‘Do as we say, not as we do.’ ” 

Did it light a fire under you at all?
It really wasn’t until we were promoting our first show of my new SHORELINE series, that I thought, ‘what could be so hard about Instagram… If they can all do it, I can do it.”

Did you just start posting, or did you have a plan?
My plan was to do regular posts on that one subject, the SHORELINE series. I started at the end of June, a week before the show opened, putting out one new image each day. I actually amazed myself that I could keep up the pace and be consistent about it. It was easy, and fun.

And what’s been the response so far?
I’m now over 500 followers, growing each day, and I love seeing “likes” on my posts. And what’s so fun in terms of being a teacher, is that I’m keeping up with what my students are doing. The people I’m following are primarily either photographers whose work I admire, other photography professionals, and our students. I’m really using it professionally, not personally. I don’t even follow my own kids (sorry, guys). 

Do you think this will get you to shoot more?
I think it’s going to be motivating for me. With SHORELINE, I tried to do all new images. But I’m not taking a worthy new image every day – certainly not in the busy season. So I’m now dipping into my archives, and most of those are a new look at my lesser-known images. In the long run I think it will motivate me to get out with my camera, because eventually the archives will run dry. Over the course of the next month, I’m looking to dig back into my b&w Vineyard Gazette archives, to promote a show at Featherstone this September. One of our Advanced Mentorship students has just started on Instagram, and is promoting her future show by posting an image every day. She’s already sold two prints, just from promoting the show ahead of time.

Why is Instagram resonating more than the other social media?
It’s purely image-driven, and is super easy to use. I don’t need to be sitting at my computer – I can do it all from my iPhone. It’s clean, simple, and even I can understand it. No operator errors. I don’t have to be asking you every day to dig me out of a social media mess 😉

I’ve noticed that you’re regularly cropping horizontal images to square. Why is that?
I think the horizontal display makes the image too small, and the square is more interesting, classier, more concise. I find that 90% of my images survive the square crop. With verticals, I’m leaving them as a vertical, to keep the larger display. 

Interestingly, you’ve posted one personal image.
Not really. I’ve been posting in anticipation of events, and one of them was the Ag Fair. So I was able to sneak in a picture of Sarah (our daughter) and her blue-ribbon-winning pie, from well over ten years ago. I was being a proud mom when I took that photo, but it nudges over the line to a professional shot in this case. 


Are you gonna post through the winter? 
I hope so. That’s my plan. I hope we have an interesting winter, so I’ve got something to photograph. 

Any parting wisdom about jumping into Instagram?
Just do it.

SUE again: And thank you to everyone who pushed her to do just that! Here’s the link if you want to follow Alison’s Instagram.

SHORELINE: Around the Island of Martha’s Vineyard



by Alison Shaw (and if you must know, Sue Dawson)

HAVING MARTHA’S VINEYARD as my primary subject matter for more than 40 years certainly comes with many rewards, but also with its share of challenges. In the years that I’ve spent photographing these 100 square miles, I’ve constantly had to push myself to see the island anew. And sometimes I struggle to maintain my inspiration, creativity, momentum, and stamina, to keep shooting the same place for so long. If I lived in “America” I could simply go to the next town in search of new subject matter. Actually, I do go off-island to re-energize and shoot in other locations, and it does help. But I still have my one heart- and soul-touching muse – my island home.

So when I need to re-group, I remember one of my favorite quotes, from Marcel Proust: “The true voyage of discovery lies not in seeing new landscapes, but in having new eyes.” It’s not about finding a new environment, as fun and adventurous as that can be. It’s about finding something within myself.  


Sometimes this means exploring a particular facet of the island more deeply. The search keeps me engaged and motivated. I love pursuing a project, which forces parameters, gives me structure, and organizes my thoughts. Recent projects have included photographing inside the wooden boat building shop at Gannon and Benjamin, in the studios of island artists, or documenting the island’s lighthouses.

In retrospect, seeing the island in new ways is not limited to the subjects I choose to shoot, but how I choose to shoot it. Over the years, my style has evolved dramatically. Going from black & white to color around 1990 was like trading in a box of charcoals for a set of oil paints – it felt like having an entirely new island to photograph. Fifteen years ago, I developed a new technique, where I move my camera as I shoot, creating more painterly images. In my most recent stylistic evolution, I moved from a super-saturated color palette to soft pastels and neutrals. 

My most recent project has been photographing the shoreline of Martha’s Vineyard. This may seem like an obvious subject to choose, since I’m naturally drawn to the shore, and rarely photograph the inland vistas of the Island. But as much as I’m drawn to the Vineyard’s coastline, I get into the rut of returning to the same spots, looking for variations in weather rather than location. In 2014, I was obsessed with the new Fishing Pier in Oak Bluffs, and every time there was thick fog, stormy seas, or blizzard conditions, that’s where I’d go. In 2015, I was obsessed with the stone jetty between Inkwell and Pay Beach. I’d look out my window, see the condition was flat calm, and head for that one spot.


Returning to these same locations over and over, as much as I enjoyed it both personally and artistically, clearly had its limitations. And then it occurred to me: The last time I’d photographed at Makonikey, on the North Shore of the island, was in my “high-impact-color-sunrise-sunset” phase in the early 90’s, using my clunky Pentax medium-format film camera. The same was true of Big Pier on West Chop, which I’d last shot for the Vineyard Gazette in the late 80’s, with my 35mm Nikon and black & white Tri-X film. Ditto Lambert’s Cove, Stonewall Beach, Katama Bay, Tashmoo Beach, and so on. Not to mention the many locations on the Vineyard shoreline that I’d never even laid eyes on before.

At first this idea just sat and percolated – I hate to admit it, but I let it stew for at least a year. There was definitely a good amount of inertia at work here… the urge to turn my alarm clock off, to spend far too much time planted in front of my computer, and to sit at home with a cat on my lap. The “just do it” mantra I had always tried to instill in my kids simply wasn’t working for me. Ok, we did move – that was a big deal, after being in the same house for 29 years. I spent lots of time picking paint colors with Sue (she calls us “color nerds”), going to the thrift shop every day looking for just the right end tables, and coming up with a garden plan.


Eventually, once we got settled in the new place, my inspiration kicked in – and when it did, I became a woman on a mission. The fire was lit. I decided to photograph the entire shoreline of the Vineyard – one rocky shore, one beach, one sunrise, and one sunset at a time. 

My first steps were all about planning. I picked up a couple of excellent Island maps at the Land Bank office in Edgartown, and began figuring out access via conservation areas. Then I went on google maps in satellite view, and began examining the perimeter of the island, step-by-step, picking out large rocks and lone docks. I studied the tide charts – some scenes would be better shot at high tide, while others would be better at low (not to mention the fact that high tide could often present a challenge for navigating my way around rocky points on the North Shore). Sunrise and sunset times, in addition to the phases of the moon, all figured into the equation. 


As to weather conditions, once upon a time I might have been looking for what I considered to be “perfect” conditions for photography. But these days, I’m much more willing to go with the flow, a philosophy I developed during the course of teaching countless week-long workshops on the island. I used to agonize over picking the most promising mornings to meet up early. But these days I schedule a sunrise shoot for every morning of a workshop, and let my students know that unless it’s pouring rain, I will be there at the assigned location, in the pitch dark, waiting for them. The weather is fickle in New England, and that’s a good thing. I’ve grown to love never quite knowing when it’s going to be a good morning for photography. Another of my favorite quotes is from Woody Allen and is tacked to the wall over my desk: “90 percent of success is showing up.” 


Over the past six months of shooting for this project, I’ve often arrived home long after dark, with my sneakers full of sand and my tripod in need of a hose-down. When I set my alarm early, I actually go out and shoot – or even better, I rely on my internal alarm clock, which has served me well when I’m truly engaged in the prospect of my early morning photo expeditions. I’ve discovered both rocks and docks that I never knew existed. And I’ve been out there for magical moments of light and weather I would have otherwise missed. 

We are introducing over 30 new images from Shoreline: Around the Island of Martha’s Vineyard (©2017 Alison Shaw) at Alison Shaw Gallery this summer, with a whole new group I just hung on the walls for our Arts District Stroll tomorrow, 4-7pm. Inspired by my working map, Sue created a snazzy one in Photoshop, so you can see where each photo was taken (there’s a big version at the gallery).


It’s become increasingly clear to me that there is so much more to this subject than I originally anticipated. There’s plenty of walking, kayaking and shooting still to come, so be sure to look for more images in the years ahead. 

Should you sign up for this year’s Mentorship?

T H E R E ‘ S    N O T    M U C H    T I M E    L E F T   .   .   .

 by Sue Dawson

I’VE BEEN having some great conversations with potential Mentorship students over the past week. They’re deliberating about whether to join this year’s program, which starts on Monday afternoon. They have questions about what to expect, what they’ll learn, how they’ll grow. I love these conversations – I’m sure they can hear me typing sometimes, trying to precisely capture their insights, so I can remember them later.

I thought I’d share some insights with you…

– One person said he loved Alison’s critiques in the workshop he just took with her. In other workshops, he hasn’t always agreed with the teacher’s critiques, and walked away confused, unclear about what’s “right,” and what’s “wrong.” With Alison, she’s so clear in her critiques, even if he doesn’t 100% agree, he totally understands why she’s saying it. He doesn’t have to wonder whether he’s “right” to disagree, because her clarity empowers him to make educated decisions. My take is that her teaching style leaves room for interpretation. She’ll say whether or not she likes an image – don’t get me wrong – but you’ll understand why. So you can decide your own take on it. She’s not saying “this is how to think,” or “this is how to see.” She’s educating you, so you can think and see for yourself.

– Another person said he’s been shooting a lot, and worried that he’s “all over the place” in terms of subject matter and style. But then he wondered, “Or am I? Is this all moving me toward something else?” He’s concerned about not having a “singular style,” a unique voice. Because his direction isn’t clear yet, he’s listening to advice and trying different things. This is a huge reason we added Masterminds to our Mentorship program. At each retreat, you’ll have a half hour to present something to the group, and get feedback from everyone. We’ve seen incredible things happen as a result of this process.

One time, a student presented some selections from her work at different stages, and was looking for a new focus. There was one photo she threw in at the last minute, of a wooden chair sitting in the corner of a room, with a beautiful pattern of light streaming across, from a window above. She said “I don’t know why I tossed this one in. It’s from my Quaker meeting. It means a lot to me, but it’s a one-off.” Everyone loved the image, and wanted to know more. So she talked about her faith, and what it’s meant to her. This image really spoke to her deeply. We all encouraged her to pursue this further. So she started taking more photos of meeting houses near her, and getting gorgeous, evocative images. She decided to visit all the meeting houses in Massachusetts, and I encouraged her to write about each one too, in a blog. Thus began a labor of love that has culminated in two Blurb books of images and text, that are her portfolio of the project. She made these to show at galleries and museums, and to potential publishers.

This is just one example of many. It’s hard to explain the energy that’s created in your Mastermind, where the whole room is focusing on you and your work. Alison and I just did a Mastermind of our own, at last weekend’s Advanced Mentorship retreat, and Alison’s more inspired than she’s been in years.

– One person said our price felt high, and gave us a couple examples of mentorships that cost less. We’ve done a lot of research on other programs, but just to be sure, Alison jumped in and did the research again. She looked at prices, duration, and what you’d get for your investment. Each one that cost less, delivered less. There are some great teachers out there, and wonderful programs. She just didn’t see another like ours. Our Mentorship is truly one-of-a-kind, and we’re very proud of that. Here’s what you get:

  • FOCAL POINT TOOLKIT – Set goals, and track your progress through the Mentorship. This sets your intention for the six months, and creates the velocity for your experience.
  • YOUR OWN PASSWORD-PROTECTED PAGE (new this year!) – You’ll have your own page accessible via our website, where you can find all program info, upcoming appointments you’ve scheduled, your list of goals, downloadable notes from your calls with us, and a personalized to-do list for your reference
  • SEVEN CALL HOURS with ALISON – These calls will be all about you and your work – developing your own unique creative style, staying consistent and keeping focused. You’ll send Alison jpegs of your latest work before each call. During the call, you’ll see her screen live on your computer, as you both discuss your photos, and she makes suggestions shown in Adobe Lightroom. Learn how to be your best editor, get custom training, feedback, motivation, and brainstorm ideas. Alison will give you customized assignments that will keep you inspired, and define your next steps toward your goals.
  • FOUR CALL HOURS with SUE – Get an Art Director/Gallery Owner’s eye on your body of work, and advice on your portfolio, graphic identity, website, book ideas, writing, and marketing. Talk about mindset, and open up your creative flow. Brainstorm project ideas.
  • SEVEN TRAININGS – Our in-depth trainings cover a number of topics,which have included: getting in touch with your deepest creative self; writing an artist statement and bio; marketing your work; communicating with galleries, and having a show of your work; Alison’s digital workflow; publishing a book of your photography; and a fine art printing Q&A with a master printer.
  • TWO 2-DAY RETREATS on MARTHA’S VINEYARD – Experience the island off-season, when all the locals can relax and truly enjoy this unique place. Starting with a Friday-evening drinks and hors d’oeuvres get-together, and culminating in student Masterminds on Saturday and Sunday, you’ll meet other students, learn a lot, and have the unique opportunity to get feedback from the group. Develop your artist statement, body of work, and project ideas with the support of other artists. Alison often talks in-depth about her work, sometimes showing edits, images that didn’t make the cut (and why), and her creative process. Sue will bring her designer’s eye to the discussion.
  • PRIVATE FACEBOOK GROUP – This is a great opportunity for feedback and technical support, from all past and present Mentorship students. Post your photos and questions, and get feedback, answers, and encouragement on your progress. Sue and Alison monitor the group page regularly.
  • 20% OFF IN THE GALLERY – For the duration of the Mentorship, you’ll get our best discount on all fine art prints, books, posters, and cards.
  • YOUR WORK ON OUR WEBSITE – Take advantage of our international audience. After the Mentorship ends, we’ll post a photo of you, your artist statement, and a slideshow of your best work during our six months together, with a link to your website if you have one.

I’m making appointments for calls, and have times available from now until Monday at noon. I’d love to talk with you! Just email me,, and we’ll set up a time. Here’s the pdf with more info. And here’s the link to our student pages, showing their work and accomplishments. One more thing – we almost decided not to do the program this year, so we could focus on a couple projects of our own. But we’ve put those off for now. This means we may not run the program next year (not sure yet), so if you’ve been wanting to join, this is the year!

From one of our retreats

From one of our retreats  (Photo by Vincent Chahley)

So much to think about …

by Sue Dawson

WE’VE BEEN thinking a lot about teaching lately. Alison just finished teaching her week-long workshop here on the Vineyard, and we’re planning a weekend retreat for our Advanced Mentorship group. I’m also just starting to email people on the “interested” list for our 6-month Mentorship, which starts soon. But it’s funny what Alison and I talk about a lot these days…

First, picture us sitting at a cafe, drinking a latte (me) or a short latte with an extra shot (Alison), after a morning walk on the beach. Or maybe we’re hanging out on our back deck in the evening, with a drink and a deck of cards. Or working together in the kitchen. Usually, we talk about work, kids, family, cats, friends, and ALL THE STUFF WE NEED TO DO. See how I put that in caps? There’s always a lot to do, and it mostly fills the conversations we have, in a good (responsible) and bad (uni-focus) way.

But around this time of year – when the gallery season is almost over, the crowds of tourists have one more weekend of fun before things start to close for the season, there’s a chill in the air, and leaves are starting to crunch underfoot – we start to talk about what we want. Now that summer’s over, how do we want to spend this fall, winter, and spring? After such a busy season, what do we need? What will fill us back up again?

Alison wants to shoot more. She wants inspiration. Accountability. A project. A mentor – to push her, support her, and bring out the best in her. I want to create my own art – painting, writing, maybe try new media. I want inspiration. Accountability. A project. A mentor, to get the juices flowing, and support me in my creative life. And we both want to spend time with other artists, inspiring each other, and pushing our learning curve steeper, more challenging, and therefore more fulfilling.

In short, we want to take a Mentorship like ours. Seriously. We’ve fallen in love with the program we created, and we want someone to do this for us! I know, Alison’s already “there,” right? Wrong. There is no “there.” As an artist you need to keep growing and learning. And there’s nothing like doing that in a group of like-minded artists, keeping the bar just high enough to inspire, and holding you accountable to your dreams.


I’d like to say we’re all setting the alarm for pre-dawn and jumping out of bed when it rings, so that we can be on location for that amazing sunrise we’ll be hearing about later on Facebook. Or making the first phone call to set up a shoot for a project we’re excited to start. Or writing that first draft we’ve been musing about for ages. But most days, to be honest, we’re going through the 12,893 emails in our inbox, folding laundry, or troubleshooting a hard drive crash – all things I’ve done today (and yes, I have that many emails in my inbox). We all need something to lift us out of the everyday grind, get us inspired, motivate  – and sometimes validate – us creatively.

So while we’re busy looking for a program for us, I’d love to talk with you about joining the program we’ve created for you. As of today, there are 9 spaces available, and I have 85 people on my “interested” list (I’m in the process of emailing each one). This year, we’re starting on October 24th, and taking a break between Thanksgiving and the new year (nobody gets much accomplished during that time anyway). We’ll pick up again at the beginning of January, and go through May 19th, 2017. All the info is here, but I’m happy to answer any questions you have. Just email me (, and we’ll set up a time to talk.

Funny timing: As I write this, it’s flat calm, and the early evening air is cool. Alison just ran down the stairs and is heading out to shoot…

Just thought I’d share one of the photos Alison got, when she went out to shoot at Poucha Pond that evening…


Hard to believe it’s been 10 years

by Sue Dawson

ALISON SHAW GALLERY began on July 20, 2006. Our first sale was a notecard, to Alison’s cousin’s wife, Jana. I tried to just give her the card, but she insisted on paying, so I asked for a dollar bill. It’s still in my desk drawer in the gallery, so I see that dollar every day. It’s really hard to believe it’s been there for 10 years already!

Ever since we moved into our little building in the Arts District of Oak Bluffs, we’ve been fascinated by the history of this place. In honor of our 10th anniversary, here’s some of the history we’re proud to be part of:

1914sm88 Dukes County Avenue used to be a one-engine firehouse – one of several in town, including the t-shirt shop across from Nancy’s Snack Bar (Engines 1 and 2), “Highland Hose” near the Ocean View Restaurant (on Church Avenue, Engine 3, now the home of one of our customers), and the building in town that’s now “Cottagers Corner,” which was originally Town Hall from 1882 to 1966, and over time also a police and fire station, before the Cottagers acquired it.

So let’s go all the way back to the beginning – in 1880, “Cottage City” seceded from the town of Edgartown, and established their own fire department. In 1907, the town name was officially changed to “Oak Bluffs.” Our building was built in 1914 – we found the date, along with three initials, on the shiplap upstairs that was uncovered during our renovation over 90 years later. 1914 was also, of course, the year World War I began.

Our building was “balloon-framed,” which means the studs went from ground sill to top plate (roof), and the second-floor joists were nailed to the studs. So the second floor was basically held up by a bunch of nails. This would turn out to be a problem for us, but I’ll get to that later. The piece of land we’re on is part of the MVCMA, or Martha’s Vineyard Camp Meeting Association – the “Camp Ground,” as locals call it. Turns out most of the cottages in the Camp Ground were built using balloon framing, which was the standard at the time. We believe the Town of Oak Bluffs built our building to house Fire Engine #4, in what was called the “West End” of town.

Nelson Amaral was one of the captains of Engine 4. From his January 2012 obituary in the Vineyard Gazette, “(Nelson) began as a junior firefighter at the age of 14, and spent 56 years in the department, 35 of them as chief. The Wing Road fire station in Oak Bluffs is named for him.” Nelson Amaral’s first cousin, Steve Amaral, worked with Engine 4 for 38 years, beginning in 1956. He succeeded Nelson as captain of Engine 4 in 1975, and stayed captain for 23 years, until 1994. Steve’s pictured below in 1961, in front of the station, next to Engine #4. By the way, Steve will be fishing in his 70th derby this fall (MV Bass and Bluefish Derby) – he’s only missed one, when he was in Korea. If you see him, say hi for us, and a big thank you for his many years of service to town and country.

Engine 1

In 1996, the building had been vacated for a few years, after the centralized fire headquarters was built at County and Wing Roads, to house all of the engines in one place. The MVCVA (Martha’s Vineyard Center for the Visual Arts), which was “formed in 1991 as a non-profit, non-competitive, unifying organization for visual artists,” bought the building from the town. The group of energetic and creative women who ran the MVCVA painted the interior, put in the glass doors we have today, and opened the Firehouse Gallery. They sponsored workshops, classes, and talks with local artists, and had a weekly drawing group (with model) that met upstairs. As you can see from the photo below, the group celebrated the building’s legacy with more than the gallery name!

mvcva dog

In 2006, we got a call from a member of the MVCVA and local painter, Renee Balter. She said that the group wanted to sell the building to a local artist, and encouraged us to submit a proposal. It wasn’t an ideal time for us, so we thanked her and said no. A number of weeks later, Renee called again. “I’m sorry, but I just see you in there!” She asked us to reconsider, thinking we’d be a good fit. Alison and I stayed up all night to do a proposal, buoyed by Renee’s faith in us, and submitted it literally in the last hour before the deadline. As you can surmise, the group chose us, and allowed us to rent the building for a few years first. We moved in at the beginning of July.


We had a LOT to do in order to open our gallery. We painted the walls white, and the floor teal. We used a deck paint for the floor that was pretty toxic, and I remember our neighbor Annie came by late one night and thought we were a little loopy from the fumes. I designed a sign using one of Alison’s seascapes – we had the sign printed as a huge sticker, so it’d be the actual photo rather than a painting of her photo. I knew it would fade over time, not being an archival print. So, I thought, photos fade to blue, so why not just start there? It worked. Melissa, of About Signs, made the sign, and her husband hung it, just before opening day.


But there were a few setbacks…. Mold in the basement (bleached). Termites in the baseboards (exterminated and wood replaced). Rusty oil tank outside (removed). Lots of stuff upstairs, including a working sink (we’d deal with that later).

studio before 2

After builder Todd Leuenberger sheetrocked the center shelf unit to make a display wall, and built doors for the back so we could hang more photos, we managed to open our gallery!


Our two kids were as excited as we were. Sarah (left, below) and her best friend Hallie (right, below), and Jesse (that’s his back, in the second photo) with Iris and Miles Albert, were here for the opening.



We were thrilled. And then…

This is the part where the balloon framing comes in. When gallery season was over, I asked our architect, Chuck Sullivan, to survey the setup, and see if he had some ideas about the upstairs. He came over to take some measurements, and I said “… and we’re ok with the weight of all our file cabinets, flat files, and shelves, right?” Um, that would be no. He went upstairs and jumped up and down a few times, and said “Not only should you not move any stuff up there, I don’t want YOU to go up there.”

So we moved it all out. The whole gallery we’d worked so hard to create. And we asked Harold Chapdelaine of Stonebridge Building and Design to fix things. He and his crew gutted the entire place. It’s an historic building, and needed to be preserved, so basically our building is one huge cabinet. It was a little wonky. Crooked. Settled. So they firmed it up by sistering things, bolting things, installing huge steel beams held up by wide supports in the walls and 6-foot concrete footings, and hurricane ties to keep storms at bay. We had a metal roof put on, and two square windows out front where there had been one. The radiators were removed, and a propane heat and a/c system installed. And I did my thing on the computer to design the upstairs space (see below), just as I had for our last studio on Circuit Ave.

studio layout


The upstairs studio turned out beautifully:


fire lightHarold found clapboard under the shingles out front, so we asked him to put new clapboard on. We picked a paint color we still love (and give out at least once a year to people who want to use it). And we did one more important thing. We asked them to preserve the red fire station light. They kept it in place, and fixed it so we could turn it on if we wanted to. Jokes about our “red light district” ensued.

After around five years, we officially bought the building from the MVCVA group. Because it had been a fire station, we got an environmental study done, to make sure there were no issues with oil or gas on the property. Then we found out there was a cesspool – no septic. Bummer. So we tied into the new town septic system for a cool $20,000 fee. That’s the commercial fee, including everything a restaurant might need – even though we just had one toilet and one tiny sink.

We also asked the MVCMA (if you’re getting bleary-eyed from acronyms, that’s the Camp Ground, which owns the land) to please move their access road over and remove the asphalt from out front. It was a safety issue for our customers, as cars used to cut across right in front of the building. At first we just dumped some shells out there, for timing reasons, as this GoogleEarth photo shows:

gallery with shells

Then we hired Crosslands Landscaping to install our gorgeous bluestone walkway, lawn, and garden, which Working Earth has been maintaining and improving ever since. Ta dah!

this gallery

If you’ve read this far, thank you! And please join us tomorrow evening (Saturday, August 6th) from 5 to 7 pm, for our 10th Anniversary Party. Alison and Lew French will be signing their new book. Herring Run Kitchens will provide fantastic food. Joanne Lambert will pour you a drink. And Sue will be behind the front desk and her wall of computers (don’t ask). Hope you can come!

Join us on Saturday: Book launch, and P A R T Y

I JUST DUSTED OFF some old binders of medium-format transparencies, did a little digging, made a few calculations, and realized I’ve been photographing the work of stonemason Lew French for nearly 25 years. Wow, talk about time flying. In the course of those 25 years Lew and I have spent countless hours together, traveled many thousands of miles to photograph his work, completed two book projects, and he even built a wonderful beach stone fireplace in our old Farm Pond house.

I’m proud to announce the launch of our second book together, Sticks and Stones, at our gallery this Saturday, August 65:00-7:00pm. Lew and I will be there to meet you and sign books.

Our first book together, Stone by Design, was published in 2007. Every single photo was shot on Martha’s Vineyard, where Lew had created all of his master stonework and gardens. Nearly 35,000 copies sold, and the book really put him on the map as not just a craftsman, but as an artist. CBS Sunday Morning did a fabulous segment about Lew, he’s been piling up awards and honors for his work, and he now has fans all over the world.

As a result, Lew’s not just a Martha’s Vineyard stonemason anymore. His well-deserved reputation has far exceeded the shores of the Island. So the stonework that graces the pages of Sticks and Stones took us to places like Brazil, the Adirondacks, Maine, Washington DC, Cape Cod and Boston.

My most memorable trip for this book was, without a doubt, my trip to Brazil in January 2015. I left the Island in near-zero temperatures, and photographed “sea smoke” on the ferry trip across Vineyard Sound  (caused by frigid air meeting slightly warmer water). You might need to “like” my Facebook page to see the video below:

Sue captured Alison’s adventure shooting “sea smoke” in frigid weather, on her way to Brazil in January 2015. There’s even an appearance by Chris Morse, owner of the Granary Gallery, who took some photos of his own.

When I got to Brazil 24 hours later… well… let’s just say that Brazil in January is hotter than anything we can even imagine here on the island. After picking up provisions from a market in a remote small village, we headed many miles up into the mountains on a deeply-rutted, tortuously-bumpy red dirt road. We finally arrived at Lew’s home, nestled in a valley, at the base of thousands of acres of Brazilian rainforest. Lew built the home he shares with wife Claudia, and has created stunning stonework and lush gardens on their property.

Alison shot this video with her iPhone in January 2015, in Brazil, where she took photos of Lew and Claudia’s house for Sticks & Stones

The next four days were spent rising early and pretty much devoting the entire day to photography. I worked hard to capture the wild and dramatic setting of the house, the massive interior stone wall and fireplace, the many unique features of the home (including his own version of the traditional stucco and stone wood-fired cookstove), and even furnishings which Lew crafted of wood and stone.

In whatever down-time we had, it was much too oppressively hot to hike up the mountains and into the rainforest, but it was just the right temperature for an occasional shower beneath the waterfall on Lew’s property. We ate fruit I’ve never even heard of before, from some of the thousands of fruit trees Lew planted on the land. Geckos and other critters skittered through the house in search of a cool place to hang out. Wild horses ran in the distance, and monkeys chattered at dusk, far up in the mountains. At night I was grateful for the mosquito netting that surrounded my bed. “No, Alison, you’re not on Martha’s Vineyard anymore….”

Five days later (far too soon) I did the whole trip in reverse. It was a heck of a lot easier getting down the mountain that it had been going up. That is, it was easier until I got back to the winter temperatures I’d left less than a week before. That transition was a little rough, I must admit.

Please join us this Saturday for our book signing, and to celebrate our 10th anniversary season of Alison Shaw Gallery. Sue and I are very blessed to own this gallery together, and we want to share our celebration with you.