Into the Great Wide Open
The Eastham Painters Guild heads outdoors to capture nature on the canvas
Of all the members of the Eastham Painters Guild, Robin Wessman might look the most like “a painter”—or at least a bohemian version thereof. He wears old jeans and a paint-flecked fleece; he even has some paint specks on his neck. A resident of Eastham, Wessman, 62, enjoys working with oil and the process involved in his craft. “Painting takes you to a different place,” he says. “[Once you get] bit by the bug, it stays with you.”
Since 1980, the Eastham Painters Guild has served as a gathering point for locals with the shared passion of painting. The guild consists of 15 permanent members, most of whom live in Eastham. An active group, the guild meets for en plein air sessions once or twice a week at Fort Hill, First Encounter Beach, and other scenic spots around Eastham as well as at locations in Orleans and Wellfleet.
On a warm Wednesday morning in June, Cape Cod LIFE dropped in on the guild’s painting session at Nauset Light. The dozen or so artists spread out around a grassy field that looked more August-burnt than June-green, easels sprouting like the dandelions they shared the field with. To capture the best light, the painters began their day early, before 8 a.m.
Willow Shire, 67, is the guild’s president. During the two-hours-plus session, she divides her time between the following activities: guiding, encouraging, painting, laughing, telling stories, introducing people, and smiling. Humble and self-effacing, she offers warm encouragement to her fellow painters.
A member of the guild since 2000, Shire says she began painting about 15 years ago when she came to the realization that life is finite. She felt she was not being mindful enough and maybe letting important things slip by. “There are only so many lilac seasons [still to come],” she says. Art, she adds, is a way to connect to, hold on to, or capture that slipping-away feeling. “I look at everything differently now—more intensely,” says Shire. “It’s about being aware, paying attention to the natural world.”
On the day of our visit most of the painters set up facing the lighthouse’s red and white tower, but not June Havens. While most of the group is scattered around the lighthouse at various angles and depths, Havens, a botanical artist, is off in her own corner of the Nauset Beach parking lot, painting pink beach plum flowers on green vines. The flowers she paints are beautiful—fully realized and loaded with rich detail. She attempts to capture their essence in her work.
Havens, 78, is a gardener turned painter. When her knees were no longer game for all the bending demanded by gardening, she picked up a paintbrush. She has always been artistic, though. Even before she started painting, she recalls filling any available scrap of paper in her house—from napkins to old newspapers—with sketches and drawings.
A member of the guild since 1994, Havens concedes she “did it backwards,” painting first and taking art classes later. Joining the guild and painting flowers were just natural extensions of what she had already been doing.
To Havens, plants and light are inspirations. She loves to take plants home and tear them apart to see how they are put together—to unlock the mysteries of their creation and inform her art. She is amazed at how tulips and snapdragons, for example, continue to turn to follow the light even after they have been cut and placed in a jar; the flowers are always trying to reach, to grow. Similarly, Havens says she is always trying to develop her painting skill. “I’m always learning, always learning,” she says. “It’s a wonderful way to spend your retirement.”
Another painter, Susan Sagona, was working on a watercolor during our visit. Participating as a guest of the guild, the 70-year-old enjoys painting and the feeling she gets working on her canvas. “It absorbs you completely,” Sagona says. “It comes from a different part of your consciousness.” She adds that painting outdoors, especially with fast-drying watercolors, which are less forgiving of mistakes than oil, has taught her a few things. Among them: “I have learned to work faster,” she says.
Mary Anne Tessier, 79, likes working on pet portraits the most, but on this day she dutifully worked to capture Nauset Light. One of the few guild members not from Eastham, Tessier lives in Yarmouthport and is the former owner of Derbyfield Kennel in Harwich. Tessier says she likes “to play with colors. And if it’s not right, you can paint right over it.” Failing even that, she jokes that if the piece is deemed “unredeemable,” she simply throws it out. “There’s the basket,” she says.
En plein air painting—from the French, literally “in the open air”—dates from the mid-19th century when new paint tubes, like our modern tubes of toothpaste, allowed painters, who previously had to custom-mix their paints in complex arrangements of powders, dies and emollients, greater flexibility to interact with their surroundings and get out of stuffy studios and into the wild.
A professional in the telecommunications industry, Robin Wessman graduated from Southeastern Massachusetts University (now known as U-Mass Dartmouth) with an art degree. Though he doesn’t work full-time as an artist, his schedule affords him plenty of time to paint. Nearly every morning, he wakes up at 5 a.m. to squeeze in a couple of painting hours before work, often returning to the easel again in the evening.
Wessman enjoys painting outdoors, working, as he puts it, “right from life.” He talks about becoming so absorbed in his work that he loses track of his immediate surroundings, like the time he was engrossed in a painting in Chatham and felt something at his pants leg. Tiny rabbits were crawling over his feet as he worked.
On the day of our visit, Wessman worked out a rough sketch of the lighthouse on his canvas. He planned to return to the studio later to work on the values: altering light and dark to create distance and atmosphere. Wessman, whose work hangs in galleries in Massachusetts, Connecticut and Rhode Island, paints seven days a week. “This is,” he says, “what I like to do.”
Members of the guild sell their work every Thursday and Friday in summer at the School House Museum, located across from the National Seashore’s Salt Pond Visitor Center on Route 6 in Eastham. The guild concludes its 2015 season with a show at Eastham Town Hall on Sunday, September 13 during Windmill Weekend.
For all of the hard work these painters put in—and all the artwork they produce—the guild members enjoy themselves and what they are doing. They are friends, they’re involved in each other’s lives and often gather for potluck dinners at The Shire—Willow Shire’s place, that is.
The leader of the guild, Shire, is ebullient, warm and kind. Though she was born in Maine and lived outside Boston for many years, she says she has always loved Cape Cod. She bought property on the Cape in the 1980s, and in 1993 she built a house just a few steps from a location beloved by her family: First Encounter Beach. She moved to Eastham full time in 2000.
Shire’s own work is oil-based. She likes the ability to go over a painting a few times, and if that still doesn’t result in a winner, “that’s when I get out my orbital sander,” she says. Since she only paints directly on wooden panels, she will simply grind the piece down and start again from scratch.
But Shire’s charm and energy are endemic of this group. Regardless of age or activity one would be hard pressed to find a livelier and more focused and dedicated group of individuals. To a painter, the members of the Eastham Painters Guild are enthusiastic about life and color, about air and wind and sea.
For more information about the Eastham Painters Guild, visit easthampaintersguild.com, or call 508-255-8411.
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