More creative assignments

by Sue Dawson

WE JUST HAD another group critique call with our Mentorship groups, and I want to share their assignment photos with you. Alison and I just love this part of our programs, where I give an assignment, and each student can upload up to five images to show the group. Half the fun is seeing how each person interprets the assignment, which is purposely open-ended. My hope is always that they’ll broaden their scope, push boundaries, think creatively, and either use their own unique style, or try out a different one. 

This time my assignment was “on the road.” Here’s our favorite shot from each person:

Andrea Dawson shoots in the woods and fields of her Ohio neighborhood, using a shallow depth of field. For this shot, she stayed in the same environment, but pulled back to set this wintry scene, showing the textures and patterns she always sees in nature.


Beth Horstman was traveling, and decided to shoot the runway from inside her plane, at sunrise. 


Brooke Bartletta was also traveling over the holidays. She took this shot on a Colorado roadside, highlighting the monochromatic quality of rusty metal against winter grasses.


Dena Porter panned her urban landscape, and edited the shot to highlight the classic yellow of New York City streets. I especially love the “I ❤︎ NY” sign in the background.


Ilene Hertz usually focuses her camera on a lightbox in her studio, shooting botanical images that she arranges. This time she was inspired to use nature’s lightbox – shooting up, instead of down. It’s a natural extension of her work, that she discovered while walking “on the road” for this assignment.


Jackie Abodeely is a career police officer. When she heard the assignment she “knew immediately” what she would do. Officers on the force say they’re “going on the road” when they head out on patrol. Jackie’s inspired to do more on this subject.


Lucy has been working on a series of self-portraits with a narrative feel, evoking emotion and a personal sense of place.


Rob Skinnon shot this local greenhouse business on his way to work, using unique rooflines and geometric shapes to frame his composition. The arc of smoke coming from the chimneys makes this shot.


Creative assignments

by Sue Dawson

WHEN I WAS in art school (and college art classes), one of my favorite things was the group critique, where we’d tack our homework up on the wall, and listen to the professor respond to each piece. It’s an intense process. You put so much time and effort into your own work, it can be tough to weather the criticism. But it’s so exciting, and inspiring, to see what everyone has done with the same assignment. Of course I most easily remember the time mine was a dud, when a famous illustrator said that my drawing of “happiness” made him sad. But even as I held back tears in that moment, I was inspired to do better next time. My dud wasn’t a bad drawing – it just showed my lack of sophistication. I’d chosen an obvious solution. A surface one. And this professor was having none of it. He wanted us to dig deep, push boundaries, knock him off his feet with our brilliance. He didn’t care so much about the execution, it turned out. He wanted to see concepts he’d never seen before. He wanted to be wowed.   

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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. 

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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.

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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. 

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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:

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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…

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SHORELINE: Around the Island of Martha’s Vineyard



by Alison Shaw (and 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.  

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Shoreline series in the news


Mary Breslauer did this wonderful piece on Alison’s new Shoreline series, in Martha’s Vineyard Magazine

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…

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