To know an island

A guest blog: by Kelsey Perrett

IT DOESN’T TAKE THAT LONG to see an island that’s less than 88 square miles. About a week, I would have guessed when I first moved to Martha’s Vineyard this May. All it really requires is one long drive down State Road, a stroll around downtown Oak Bluffs and Edgartown, maybe some sidetracking to hotspots like Menemsha, and you’re pretty much qualified to drive a tour bus.

One week, to see the island in its entirety. The length of an average summer vacation.  But how long to know an island? To come to understand the character of a place—its beauty and its quirks—in the same way you know your oldest friend?

This is a question I came to contemplate when I began working at the Alison Shaw Gallery in Oak Bluffs. At times, the island made me feel a bit claustrophobic. Even if you tried to leave in mid-summer, the influx of tourists could make it impossible to obtain a boat reservation. I wondered how anyone could spend more than a few months here without going completely stir-crazy. But then there was Alison: a woman, who like me had moved here the summer after graduating college, and never left. Not only had she made the island her home, she had made it her primary inspiration, and the subject of more than 90% of her work.

For me, spending so much time around Alison’s work was a means of getting to know the Vineyard intimately. Sure, it was a small place, but there was a lot to look at if you learned to look at it the right way. Flipping through the archives, I realized Alison must have taken hundreds, perhaps thousands of shots of Lucy Vincent Beach. Yet each one captures a different mood, a different angle of that one gorgeous spot. In some, somber gray haze encapsulates the beach’s signature rocks, while others are painted with the pastel wash of sunrise. Others still capture the idyllic splash of a wave on a crisp blue day.

In this way, Alison’s photos suggested to me that there were many ways to see the Vineyard, and therefore, many ways to love it. They so perfectly displayed how a solid stripe of color on a moored boat contrasts with the liquid blue beneath. Or the way a vibrant Menemsha sunset silhouettes ships and fishermen against an orange backdrop. Or the varieties of mist that collect atop a still Lagoon Pond at dawn. The oldest were in black and white, showing off striking contrasts. The newest: abstract smears that emphasized the interplay of light and color. They captured not only a place, but the living spirit of that place, the little idiosyncrasies that have made islanders and visitors fall in love with Martha’s Vineyard over and over again.

Anyone can take a snapshot of a new place, because its newness makes it immediately remarkable to the photographer. But that doesn’t make it art. It’s the ability to re-envision the mundane that blesses the true artist. So how long does it take to know an island? Ask Alison Shaw, and the answer would likely be “a lifetime.”

One Response

  1. Debbie says:

    You’ve captured the essence of the island and of Allison ever so well. Well put.

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