With a sable watercolor brush, Karol Wyckoff has spent more than 50 years as a self-supporting, Cape-based artist. She is proud that she provided for herself and her two children as a single mother, putting her kids through prep school and college solely with her artwork.
Wyckoff approaches the business of art with a spirit of collaboration, making it a priority to be active in her community. She supports two different scholarships for art students, one through the Hyannis Rotary Club and one through her alma mater, Rhode Island School of Design. She has had pivotal roles in organizations such as the Cape Cod Art Association, the Scholastic Art Awards, the Cultural Center of Cape Cod, and the Cape Cod Museum of Art. Wyckoff has been a teacher, judge, mentor, and adviser to the Cape arts community.
“I always knew that I wanted to be an artist,” she says. She had supportive parents. By the time she was in high school, she was already winning awards and developing her craft, and in her junior year, she was offered a scholarship to attend the Rhode Island School of Design. Early years spent working in the commercial art, illustration, and advertising fields allowed her to hone her skills as a draftsman and colorist. To this day, she stresses the formal foundations of her work: composition, color, drawing, and movement.
While Wyckoff paints in a variety of media, she prizes her watercolors—she pushes and pulls the paint at will. “With the paint, I can be either loose or tight—the way watercolors should be,” she says. Wide-ranging in her choice of subjects—from vases on a windowsill to a line of catboats on the Bass River near her home—Wyckoff relishes the opportunity to capture the world around her. Her paintings are so technically pristine, “serene” in her words, that they almost feel like fantasies. Not life as it really is, but as it should be. Her pieces are often literally or metaphorically sunny, a reflection of her disposition. “I’m a happy person to begin with, so my paintings are normally bright,” she says. While seascapes and landscapes are frequent, her portfolio is also dotted with portraits, still-lifes, and images of daily life.
The Cape has featured prominently in Wyckoff’s subject matter, but also in her life. She spends half of the year in a house just off Bass River in South Yarmouth. A Mayflower descendant, she traces her family back to this area. She ran her own Wellfleet gallery for years. “I love Wellfleet,” she says. “It’s a beautiful unspoiled part of the Cape.”
While Wyckoff claims to be in retirement, she is as busy as ever. This summer, her work is in a solo show at the Cultural Center of Cape Cod. She is preparing for a retrospective, scheduled for 2014 at the Cape Cod Museum of Art. She attests that she will slow down. But then again, she says, “I’ll probably never retire from painting.”
For roughly 20 years, Mike Wright has been constructing wooden sculptures out of anything she can find—often from found painted wood. “I walk all over the beaches,” she says. “I also dumpster dive—there’s a great wood dumpster at our transfer station that the guys still let me pick. It is amazing what people throw away that still has some life in it!” Wright’s penchant for making things has deep roots. “I always loved to make stuff as a child. I’d do puppet shows—I’d make the puppets, the stages, the stage sets,” she says. When she first arrived in Provincetown in 1984, she bought a run-down Victorian and transformed it into a bed and breakfast. “That was my art project,” she says.
As she immersed herself into Provincetown, Wright continuously took art classes, including one memorable class with Paul Bowen in 1993. “That was the first time I’d ever worked with wood in a fine art way, and it felt right,” she says. Bowen continued to be a friend and a mentor. “I would go to his studio and he would come here, and I’d ask him technical questions. He was really generous with his time,” she says. There is a relationship between the work of the two artists—a commonality in material, approach, and aesthetic—but you’d never mistake one for the other.
Like Bowen, Wright’s pieces are modernist explorations of color, form, texture, and material. Each piece is part of an endlessly varying equation: one spherical form plus one strong vertical, plus a shift in scale and balance, plus a soft, washed out palette, equals resolution. She works in series, exploring a material’s boundaries. “It pushes me to get more abstract,” she says. She takes cues from early Provincetown modernists like Blanche Lazzell and Lillian Orlowsky. “I honor Lazzell by leaving a raw edge, kind of like a white line. I’m drawing, but in space,” she says.
Wright’s process is intuitive. “I have to let the wood lead the way,” she explains. “I have tried to plan out a piece, but it never comes out how I have it in my head.” The challenge is in letting things happen. Wright’s enthusiasm transcends her process and brings optimism to her work. It is hard to look at one of her pieces without feeling a little bit like a child discovering a new toy.
Wright’s preference for wood is sensual and conceptual. “My senses are really stimulated by wood—visually, the smell, the texture,” she says. “Wood will hold on to whatever it was, whatever it contained. Boats smell like the sea.” Then there’s that unmistakably patina of a worn-out old board. “A human can’t make those kinds of marks—they are just too amazingly beautiful. It is a patina that could only be created by all those years in the water,” she says.
For Wright, found wood is a metaphor for the way in which Provincetown’s history has evolved. “A lot of the pieces I make are related to boats. Using this old, worn-out wood, it’s my way of honoring that history, the fishing fleet and its decline,” she says. “It’s spattered and it’s worn-out and it’s broken.” But ultimately, it is enduring and beautiful.
Part woodworker, part farmer, with a good dose of thinker, writer, beekeeper, and artist added in, Steve Whittlesey doesn’t fit any labels. He owns 1,200 blueberry bushes on his West Barnstable farm, which he opens every year for a pick-your-own operation. “It’s important to me to stay connected to the land,” he says. But for 40 years, his furniture and sculpture art have been constants. “I am a woodworker making sculptural furniture,” says Whittlesey.
Whittlesey has been creating with wood since the late 1960s. Trained as a painter, he fell into carpentry to make money for his young children. “It wasn’t a planned thing,” he says. “I made a stab at a living as a painter, but then we had kids and that wasn’t working. I started as a carpenter, restoring old houses. I’d take out old wood and just started making furniture.”
By the mid-1980s, he was exhibiting in New York, which led to national exposure, boosting his career as both an artist and furniture maker. Up until 2010, he ran the wood/furniture design program at University of Massachusetts Dartmouth. Of teaching, he says, “It was good for me to balance the solitary work of being a studio artist—which I needed. I like to do my work in peace, but then I like to hang out with friends.”
Whittlesey first came to Cape Cod when he was young and returned when he married and built a house in West Barnstable. “West Barnstable was the boondocks in the 1960s,” he says. “In 1971, Richard Kiusalas and I started West Barnstable Tables, which continues today.” Whittlesey bought two and a half acres of Barnstable Brick Company land, which he carved out for blueberries. He has kept bees ever since the beginning.
Painstakingly handmade and beautifully crafted, his furniture pieces are stunning attention grabbers. “I like something with personality,” says Whittlesey, “pieces that move a little bit when you touch them so they have a life of their own.” He is on a mission to create pieces that must be reckoned with—as he describes it, something that gives the user a little “bump,” a surprise. “I’m horrified that most furniture is generally disregarded unless it’s a museum piece or an antique,” he says. “People don’t really have rapport with their furniture.” He is satisfied that his pieces generally command the attention of a room and often become a centerpiece.
Play is a big word for Whittlesey. By pairing master craftsmanship with whimsy, he mixes up the language of woodworking. “I like to play with architectural forms and organic forms with a function of some kind, like a drawer or a secret place to put things, and have those functions be a surprise,” Whittlesey says.
Whittlesey uses any kind of material, from pieces of old boats and houses to driftwood. “The work takes advantage of the materials’ history and the marks of time, but I don’t use those things to be nostalgic. I use them to make the viewer speculate on my work,” he says. His penchant for the old is a testament to his upbringing as a New England farm boy. “It was ingrained in me—sort of make do with what you have. If you needed to fix something, you looked around for a piece of wood and fixed it.”
After receiving a Bachelor of Fine Arts degree from Windham College in Putney, Vermont, painter and Martha’s Vineyard native Allen Whiting came to a fork in the road: Should he try and make it in the big city, or return to the island he called home? “A lot of friends and acquaintances went to New York, but I knew my life’s work was on Martha’s Vineyard,” says Whiting.
Growing up immersed in a beautiful landscape and surrounded by art, it seemed natural that Whiting would head down this path. “I grew up on a farm in West Tisbury, which gave me my muse,” says Whiting. “I was always looking off into the distance trying to figure out the colors. My father was very patient.” Whiting may have not set foot into a museum until he was 20 years old, but he was surrounded by art growing up. Works by his grandfather hung throughout the home and his best friend’s father was famed Vineyard artist Stanley Murphy.
Even from an early age, Whiting recognized that there was something special about his home. One day, as a child, he was riding in his father’s pick-up truck when the tree line on their property came into view. “I knew at that moment that something was there for me, but I didn’t know what it was,” he recalls. “I still own that land and I’m still painting it. I’ll get it right one day.”
Much of Whiting’s widely admired work features four simple elements: sky, water, horizon, and foreground, which come together in a quintessential landscape format that never gets tired. The subtle differences in color, season, and depth make each piece its own distinct creation. Using oils allows him to capture the rich texture of the landscape around the artist.
Being a Vineyard native has given Whiting privileged access to many of the scenic nooks and crannies on the island. In the off season, he can enjoy the entire island without the summer traffic, and even after all these decades, he never has to leave his own property to find inspiration.
“Can you legitimately make a career out of painting in the same 10-mile radius your whole life? The older I get the more things reveal themselves,” he says. “Of course I’d love to paint nude women, too, but I can’t seem to get that together.”
Life, that ephemeral commodity, has been good to Whiting. Now, at 67, his plan is to simply stay focused and do the best he can. “This is it. So I just want to make decent paintings,” he says. “Artists are petitioning for that big table in the sky. In this world of art, we’re always petitioning.”
Forrest Rodts likes to let his artwork do the talking. His clever titles reflect little narratives in his paintings, which are predominantly realist illustrations of typical island-inspired subjects: sailing, shorescapes, lighthouses, seagulls. Often playing with dramatic viewpoints, his compositions feel like snapshots, allowing viewers to place themselves in each scene. Standing in front of a painting, your eyes become those of the artist. His yearning matches yours.
Rodts’s knack for setting a nostalgic, romantic scene sparks a yearning for those Cape and Islands memories that we all have: enjoying a Beetle Cat cruise through a calm harbor under a rich morning sky, or lolling in the hot afternoon sand, surrounded by parents in beach chairs, and tailgates full of coolers and towels. Standing in the warm glow of one of Rodts’ paintings, the memories of perfect summer days come flooding back.
For Rodts, the goal is simply to make beautiful images. His prime inspiration is Nantucket, where his family ties go back generations and he spent every summer as a kid. “Having spent as much time on the island as I have, I like to evoke those feelings that I had as a kid and reproduce them for people,” he explains. “Nantucket is home for me, it really is. It’s a combination of a beautiful island with people I’ve spent my whole life around. It has a special place in my heart and it is where I’d rather be.” He has vivid images that remain with him still—the diesel fumes of the ferry, looking out the portal window at the first glimpse of the harbor, peering up at a nearby boat from a swim.
While Rodts was artistic as a kid—“I was the guy who was always drawing,” he says—he didn’t discover painting until college. “I had a couple of professors who let me do a lot of independent studies and let me paint what I wanted to paint,” he says. Looking back, he appreciates the guidance, but also the freedom these teachers allowed him in developing his own style as a painter. “They were very loose—I had guidance, but not in a particular style.”
Rodts relishes in the technical details of painting realistically—perhaps it is in the details that the dream becomes more fully formed. “I love the details,” he says. “I’ve tried to do some things that are more abstract or more impressionistic. I have too much fun trying to make things look realistic. I think it’s more of a testing of what I can do technically and artistically, of bringing an idea to a piece of canvas or a board.”
Driven by intuition, Rodts works on his composition and color palette in small sketches, but leaves the creative magic to happen on the final painting. “Something will hit me. I don’t like to do too many studies because I’ll put too much in the study,” he explains. “For me, it’s about that start of inspiration, and pushing myself to get it out.”
Right now, Jackie Reeves is studying her heart out. “Looking at art history is the most exciting thing to me,” she says. After recently finishing up the low residency MFA program offered through the Massachusetts College of Art and Design in Boston and the Fine Arts Work Center in Provincetown, Reeves is still learning by examining the work of others. “I’m looking at artists that are employing the figure as an abstract element,” she explains. Reeves is concerned with the discourse of painting and where she fits. “I feel like I’m caught in the middle right now and I’ll figure it out,” she says. “I’m just kind of switching back and forth between figuration and abstraction.”
That struggle is visible in her most recent works, in which the figure seems to occupy a very different role in each piece. In some pieces, the figure is all but obliterated, and layered aggressive marks suggest spaces where it might have been. In others, the figure is almost a failed narrative placeholder, a character without a clear story. “Initially, I was really content driven—my work was really about certain things, and it tended to be about the female experience and my experience as a mother of three girls, growing up with six sisters,” she says. “Now, it’s more about surface and paint, texture, composition. I’m finding ways to express it in a more abstract language.”
Reeves’s process is instinctual and intuitive. Her works are layered combinations of drawing, painting, and collage. Gestures are active but varied—sometimes small, frenetic, and repetitive childlike scribbles, sometimes large, graceful, sweeping curves. Almost all of her work features fabricated colors—sometimes hot pinks, electric blues, or neon mustard yellows.
Visual art in some form has been a constant throughout Reeves’s life. Raised by two architect parents, Reeves’s childhood was rich in artistic expression. “Keeping a sketchbook was a natural thing,” she says. “In my leisure time, I drew.” She studied design in college and moved to the Cape in 1995. In 1998, Reeves helped found the Plymouth Community Art Center. With 900 students after its first year, the center was a success, and for seven years, when her kids were young, Reeves helped run the center.
Reeves later found an artistic home at the Chalkboard Studios in the Old Schoolhouse in Barnstable Village. In this progressive enclave, a small group of dedicated artists is working on visual problems in a way that is most commonly associated with Provincetown and off Cape—presenting work that is a little more risky.
Reeves is currently showing her work at the Tao Water Gallery, Provincetown and at the Higgins Art Center at Cape Cod Community College in Dennis. She is excited to move on to the next phase of her career and sees art as a lifeline. “Art is a necessity for me,” she says.
Like a flower, an artist needs love and encouragement to fully bloom. Many artists face being smothered as they develop—teachers, parents, friends, and siblings echo the notion that what the artist is doing isn’t worth it, that it’s a dead-end pursuit. Watercolor painter Elizabeth Pratt was fortunate to grow up being encouraged to pursue her artistic inclinations every step of the way. “It was never squashed by my mother, my father, my husband—nobody ever said ‘this isn’t valuable’ or ‘don’t waste your time.’”
Growing up in southern Ohio, Pratt found early support for her artistic pursuits in school. “I was always encouraged to paint and draw,” remembers Pratt. “I went to a school that had art in first grade, and almost every day I could paint something.” By the time she was a senior in high school, Pratt was taking art classes at the Dayton Art Institute on a full scholarship.
Pratt cultivated a love of watercolors in high school, and 60 years and roughly 2,000 paintings later, she still gets excited using them. “I’ve never felt watercolor had to be little old ladies painting posies,” she says. “You can go the whole gamut in watercolor.” This is evident in much of her work including Coming In and Homage to Audubon, which capture a range of dynamic colors and have a lucid, aqueous appearance.
At the close of World War II, Pratt fell in love with a returning veteran and got married. “I didn’t go on to art school, but he turned out to be very good for my future,” says Pratt heartily. “He told me to go my first class and encouraged me to get featured in galleries and be in shows. He was better than any art school.”
After several years in Morocco and Washington, D.C., Pratt and her husband came to Eastham. Wanting to escape the summer heat in D.C., Pratt began devising ways to spend more and more time on the Cape. Naturally, selling some of her paintings came to mind. “You can’t sell a painting of Washington, D.C., on Cape Cod with much success, but you can sell a painting of Cape Cod in Washington, D.C., very easily,” says Pratt with a laugh.
Pratt, now 85, has never tired of working with watercolors. “I love the freedom of it,” she says. “It’s the fact that I don’t know what’s going to happen. I always tell my students I don’t need to play the lottery because I have the thrill of playing it every day with my watercolors. It doesn’t seem like it’s going somewhere, and suddenly there it is.”
Even as a seasoned professional, Pratt’s yearly wish is that she’ll continue to grow as a painter. “I’d like to go out thinking that the art community respected me and I hope I will be remembered happily by them. That’s all I want,” she muses. It seems a safe bet that this artist’s legacy will live on as one of mastery and longevity.
Hillary Osborn and Doug Rugh are partners in art—and in life. Married for over 10 years with two young children, they share a gallery and studio together in the Queen’s Buyway Shops in Falmouth. Not surprisingly, in person and in conversation, they bounce ideas and sentences back and forth seamlessly. But sharing art, work, and life is not without its challenges.
“You have to work at it,” says Osborn. “The fact that we have kids keeps us shuffling around and trading off a lot. It’s a juggling act.” And a successful one on all fronts. Since opening in 2008, the gallery has been strong. At the time, both artists transitioned from separate studios at the Cataumet Art Center. “We had two separate careers before,” says Rugh. “Now, often collectors will buy from the other one. So there’s overlap. Two halves make more than a whole.”
With easels set up in mid-practice, paintings stacked from floor to ceiling and covering almost every available wall space, Osborn and Rugh’s Falmouth gallery is truly a working studio. The couple organize weekly drawing and painting sessions with live models, sometimes in their studio in the winter, more on location in the summer. Osborn teaches a few students privately. “We designed this so the space could be used as a classroom,” says Rugh. “We put on cultural events here, readings, talks, that sort of thing. We want to do more of that.”
Combining the gallery with the studio allows for direct interaction with customers and collectors, something that artists rarely get to do. “It’s great to engage in thoughtful discussions about art with customers,” says Osborn. “When you walk into the studio, you’re going to learn something. You participate with the person who is creating these objects. It’s kind of an unusual experience. We’re hopefully giving our visitors something.”
This dynamic interaction is an added benefit. “Lots of people come in here without any art background,” says Rugh. “They know what they like but they don’t know why. So if you teach them a little bit or show them a little bit about composition, they love it!”
While both Rugh and Osborn are representational in style, you would never mistake one artist’s work for the other. Rugh works very much in the style of classical realism, having been trained at Schuler School of Fine Arts in Baltimore. “It’s one of these ateliers where you do the old master thing—grind your own paint,” describes Rugh. He delights equally in the technical side of painting and in the primacy of painting from life whenever possible. “The landscape changes. It moves while you’re out there. Water shifts, clouds change. It’s fluid,” says Rugh. “It keeps it interesting. Artists have to adapt. We don’t want a frozen world to paint. We want life—slices of life.”
With Richard Diebenkorn and Fairfield Porter as some of her heroes, Osborn takes a slightly more contemporary approach; some of her landscapes become quite abstract in their composition and celebration of form and color. With her background as a sculptor, Osborn made the transition to painting as she realized that, once she left school, a foundry would be hard to come by. “Working with color really got me excited,” she remembers. “Translating objects in my world—I realized that painting could solve my artistic dilemmas.”
With two artists married and under one roof, they inevitably inspire one another. Their connection can bring on the uncanny—to the point where they have even, on occasion, gone out to paint from the same spot on the same day, unbeknownst to each other.
Says Osborn, “One day, we were so in sync, we sat in the same spot. We didn’t even know it had happened. I must have had this feeling; oh, this is where Doug was!” Adds Rugh, “But she always paints the other way. She tends to paint the big, open vista and I take the detailed view. We’re influenced by each other. We come in every morning to see what the other has done. But I don’t want her to paint the way I do.”
Brad Nelson often thinks about his Southern Baptist upbringing in a small town outside of Louisville, Kentucky. Those beliefs cast shadows that Nelson still sees. “For me, it comes back to religion,” he says. “Growing up, that was truth. It was something I couldn’t see, but I believed. It’s faith . . .that something is right, or something is good. You have to have faith regardless of what you believe in.”
Nelson puts his faith in painting, investigating the difference between artifice and truth. In graduate school at the School of the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston, his work, which often intertwines sculpture and painting, circled around ideas of truth, mainly through representational painting. In 2005, his thesis exhibition featured carved and painted sculptures that mimicked gallery features: an electrical outlet, a wooden stool, a piece of lined paper. Only upon close inspection was it clear that each item was a construction—a canvas or a piece of carved insulation foam, painted with oils. It is still an object, just not the object that one was expecting.
“Paint has so many faces,” says Nelson. In his recent series of paintings, titled “Even Mountains Cast Shadows,” Nelson uses nature as a jumping off point to talk about intangibles. “The mountain pieces were more about the beliefs that I have and how I affect people,” says Nelson. “We all create these things that other people have to contend with. Symbolically, that’s the mountain.”
After graduate school, Nelson spent three years teaching art in Sedona, Arizona. Influenced by the beauty around him, Nelson wasn’t interested in landscape painting. “There’s no way I could sit down in front of a vista and paint it and do it justice,” he says. “It’s too grand. I started making these models, and I began to understand the vastness—what I enjoyed about those vistas. It was more the light and how it hits those shapes and rocks. The models were the rock formations.” Nelson’s models are small dioramas made from piles of crumbling, raw pigments placed on paper surfaces. Nelson constructs the walls and then lights the scene, then paints from observation with the model as his subject. The paintings resemble strange, otherworldly landscapes. “The viewer has a role to play,” Nelson says. “They are confronted by these things that are realistic and believable.” Or unrealistic and unbelievable. Nelson is after ambiguity.
Nelson has recently looked to the Cape, where he lives in West Falmouth, as fodder for his work. “I’m starting to think about connection to place,” he says. “Taking ideas of the beach and the water and the sky and how they are extremely abstract things in a certain context.” Nelson and his wife, who has deep Nantucket roots, felt drawn to the region. They have settled into life here, both developing careers as painters, raising young children and teaching—Lucy at Falmouth Academy and Brad at Rising Tide Charter School in Plymouth. “It feels like home,” says Nelson. “I think this is where the new series of work is coming from. Finding balance. A new perspective.”
For Heather Neill, Martha’s Vineyard has always been a constant amid a life of changes. “I moved every two years of my life, but I always went back to Martha’s Vineyard,” she says.
Neill has been visiting the Vineyard since the 1980s. “I used to rent this little cottage in Chilmark. The Vineyard very quickly became a home for me, a refuge, and also a source of income,” she says. As a lover of history, in her visits to the Vineyard every year, she has become captivated by this place where time stops.
She gets excited over a recent project in which she explored a marine hospital built on the island in 1895, abandoned and privately owned until last year, when it was bought by the Martha’s Vineyard Historical Museum. “It literally looks like the patients and the nurses just walked out and left,” she says. “Long hallways with stairways, the tiles half way up the wall. The transoms above the windows, the way the light goes through the architecture—you get this crumbling, cracking patina of the lives in these rooms.”
That description also fits Neill’s paintings. There are often open doors or windows that create a feeling of anticipation and of movement—that something has happened, someone just left the room, or that something is about to happen. The specificity of the light in her work is also a trademark. Realist in style and technique, Neill’s work feels whimsical and symbolist in content. “History is important in the props that I use. I like to take those things and tell new stories,” she says. Neill constructs vignettes of seemingly unrelated items that tempt the viewer to create a back story. The objects she chooses almost seem like modern allegories, symbols from her own life. “I’m not telling a specific story and I don’t have one in mind when I’m painting,” she says. “It’s synesthesia—things coming together.”
Neill’s own personal history is one of trying new things. “I always wanted to be an artist. All through high school, I had a fantastic teacher who was very inspiring,” she says. While she knew she loved art, it took her a long time to commit herself to painting. At Connecticut College, she majored in both art and psychology. Along the way she farmed, worked as a framer, and became an expert chair maker, selling her hand-built Shaker-style chairs at places like the Smithsonian gift shop.
In 2001, she finally decided to focus on painting. “I thought, if you don’t try it now, when are you going to try it? I really didn’t start doing this until I was in my 40s. I’m telling stories in a way that’s probably a little different than someone just coming out of art school,” she says. “I’m very conscious of that and how a mature artist approaches subjects. As I move forward, I really want to be doing this for the rest of my life. And what will the paintings look like 20 years from now?”