Look Again: Artists Changing Styles

Kib Bramhall, In The Bahamas, oil on linen, 24  x 40
The idea of artists making changes and taking risks is an intriguing one. If your work is selling briskly, do you risk alienating patrons who have come to expect a particular product, solely in the name of creative evolution? If it’s not broken, don’t fix it, right?

Kib Bramhall, In The Bahamas, oil on linen, 24 x 40″, 2006

Last spring, I stood, checkbook in hand, staring at the dozen or so new canvases by a Vineyard abstract painter whose work I had long admired. I had finally convinced myself that I could afford one of her larger paintings and was shocked to see that she had dramatically changed her style. My stomach turned over. I felt a huge sense of dismay, disappointment, and yes, even betrayal. The new works barely registered, so great was my surprise.

Each painting reflected her leap into new territory. Looseness replaced tightness, grid-like precision had been cast off in favor of randomness and smudged edges. The palette still had its undeniable hold on me, but I struggled with two basic questions: Why had she chosen to move beyond what had been her distinctive look, and more importantly, did I still want to purchase one of these new paintings?

Edgar Degas once said, “Only when he no longer knows what he is doing does the painter do good things.” When I asked the artist why she had changed her style, she replied simply: “My work has to interest me. I force myself to do something different to reach a new level.”

I have to admit, on an intellectual level, the idea of artists making changes and taking risks is an intriguing one. If your work is selling briskly, how difficult must it be to balance your professional evolution with the fear of alienating patrons who have come to expect a particular product? But as an art buyer, I felt discomfited. I had come prepared to purchase a painting that I envisioned sitting above my fireplace. The new pieces were not matching my fantasy. Could I step back and judge them with a fresh eye?

Kib Bramhall, Weather Coming, oil on linen, 30  x 40", 1982

Kib Bramhall, Weather Coming, oil on linen, 30 x 40″, 1982

Traditionally, the art exhibited in Vineyard galleries would not be characterized as particularly adventurous. But in more recent years, edgier and more contemporary works have been granted wall space in galleries alongside classical paintings of the coastline. Island artists, both emerging and established, seem to be embracing change and its inherent risks as they hone their craft.

Not long ago West Tisbury’s Kib Bramhall, a highly respected painter who for the last half-century has painted realistic landscapes and still lifes in oils, made a two-year foray into abstraction. While some of the paintings incorporated representational elements, some were completely abstract. So significant was the departure that the Martha’s Vineyard Times reviewed the show with an article headlined, “Kib Bramhall Reinvents Himself.” And while most of the abstracts did sell, Bramhall described the response of gallery patrons to his surprising new works as “nervous.” At the opening reception, he detected a palpable uncertainty.

“When I threw them a curveball with abstractions,” he explained, “it was hard for them to know how to react. Was I having a midlife crisis? Had I gone over the edge? I detected an uncertainty of what to say to me, a nervousness about my emotional stability.” Bramhall acknowledged that it was a major departure from what they expected and that he didn’t blame them.

“They had thought they knew me, and now this! I finished with the abstract experiment and returned to realism,” he said. “Because, in the end, I preferred it.”

The venture into abstraction was, according to Bramhall, simply “a desire to explore a new means of expression.” Motivated solely by a wish to try his hand at a new style of work, he largely eschews the necessity of risk-taking in his own artistic endeavors and insists on answering only to his own creative vision. And while he does understand that some patrons might feel justifiably dismayed, “to a point,” by an artist’s departure from the expected, he says that he feels an obligation only to his own artistic compass. In his case, that compass has kept him moving almost unwaveringly along a course that he refers to as “constant.”

While Bramhall’s name doesn’t come immediately to mind as an artist who seems to habitually take risks, Traeger di Pietro and Dan VanLandingham are part of an up-and-coming group of younger Island painters who embrace change and have developed a unique method of encouraging it. They paint in both classical and more contemporary styles and have secured representation on the Island for each genre.

Di Pietro’s traditional impressionistic oils are now shown at Edgartown’s North Water Gallery; his more symbolic, conceptual, mixed-media paintings at Field Gallery in West Tisbury. VanLandingham markets his own traditional oil landscapes at the Vineyard Artisan’s Festivals each Sunday throughout July and August at the Grange Hall in West Tisbury, while his contemporary landscapes are on display at PIKNIK by Mikel Hunter in Edgartown and during the winter at PIKNIK’s pop-up store in Boston. Being able to show both bodies of their work on the Island has, in a sense, liberated the painters and allowed them to pursue more idiosyncratic styles.

Change in his work occurs continuously and deliberately, according to VanLandingham of Oak Bluffs. A graduate of the Savannah College of Art and Design master’s degree program, he says the most dramatic transition occurred during his years in the school’s highly regarded program. While he continues to paint the traditional Vineyard landscapes that paid his way through college, he has developed a more conceptual style that explores man’s connection to the landscape, often transposing objects that are in unexpected juxtaposition to a more conventional background.

“My work changes many times a year now,” he explained. “I’m always experimenting. I wasn’t exposed to more contemporary art until Savannah. It’s easy to make the same work but I want to challenge myself.”

While he regards the Vineyard as “a unique and supportive art environment that most artists don’t get to experience,” he also believes it’s important to “step out of the safety net the Vineyard can cast.”

He is prolific, creating what he calls “a ton of work,” enabling him to take risks and let his work change organically. Earlier this year he was honored with an invitation to exhibit at Artexpo New York and has also opened a collaborative studio and gallery space in Vineyard Haven, The Workshop, on Beach Road. Both present opportunities to expand his portfolio and venture into new areas.

“I continue to make a lot of work that collectors will expect to see,” he said. “But I leave myself freedom to go in a
new direction.”

Oak Bluffs resident di Pietro, an artist whose unconventional approach to work is also reflected in his day job as a soft-drink delivery man, adheres to his goal to “paint whatever I wanted from the start so that I would prevent myself from being stuck in a box or being typecast.” He sees constant change in his concepts, yet consistency “in energy, brushstrokes, and instincts.”

“I approach my art with a raw, loose feeling that allows me to be in the moment and to create carelessly in the most accurate way possible,” he explained. Being nervous and excited about new paths is what he considers the most gratifying aspect of his career. “The best part of being an artist is that we encourage change for ourselves — we strive to take risks.”

While he embraces risk-taking in his own work, he acknowledges that it isn’t for everyone. “At the end of the day, if you’re not taking risks and you’re happy, that’s all that matters.” His own philosophy is to “paint anything and everything instead of settling for one way of painting or sticking to only one subject that is a cash cow.”

Deborah T. Colter, Sea Kelp I, acrylic with mixed mediums and collage elements,  30” x 30”,  work on canvas, 2014

Deborah T. Colter, Sea Kelp I, acrylic with mixed mediums and collage elements, 30” x 30”, work on canvas, 2014

Another advocate for self-propelled change is Deborah T. Colter, an Edgartown-based abstract artist whose colorful, textural, and linear work incorporates acrylic paint with elements of collage layered in.

“My work is constantly changing,” she said. “But it’s not so much a major change as it is a circular one. I go
round and round, from periods of loose, organic work to more architectural,
linear map-making. To the outside eye, it can appear to be a major change but, there are consistent elements within
the work.”

Represented by Cousen Rose Gallery in Oak Bluffs, Colter seeks change to prevent boredom, painting to challenge herself, to discover “something new within the work.” To this mature artist, change continues to be a push-pull proposition.

“It’s easy to fall into a comfort zone,” she said. “The work will sell. But I don’t want it to become stagnant, so I have to constantly push and experiment.”

Deborah T. Colter, Point of Departure,  acrylic with mixed mediums and collage elements,  30  x 30”,  work on canvas, 2013

Deborah T. Colter, Point of Departure, acrylic with mixed mediums and collage elements, 30 x 30”, work on canvas, 2013


While she admits that she feels “always out on a limb,” particularly with abstract work in the historically traditional Vineyard art market, she says that making art is always a risk. “You have to take a deep breath and let things go. Let the magic happen.”

From abstract paintings to woodcuts, pen and ink drawings back to abstracts, then abstracts with recognizable imagery, now back to more abstracted imagery, Chilmark painter Wendy Weldon has spent forty-plus years as a professional artist, inspired, she says, by such risk-
taking artists as Helen Frankenthaler, Richard Diebenkorn, Mark Rothko, Gauguin, and Gregory Gillespie.

“You have to be uncomfortable, to experiment, to try new things,” she stated. Change, to Weldon, comes from a place within, from a desire to break out of a comfort zone. “There’s a voice that says, ‘You know how to paint this already. Paint something you’re not comfortable with.’”

Weldon relishes her freedom as a self-employed artist, recognizing that “in contrast to a regular job, we don’t have a path, a boss, a straightjacket on.” And while she believes that risk is a constant presence in her work, she admits that sometimes it holds her back. “Anxiety is every artist’s nightmare. But you just have to show up. Do your job. Paint. Work. I approach it like any type of anxiety — I take a walk, do yoga, meditate, but stay in the process.”

Now showing at North Water Gallery, Weldon’s iconic barn and stone-wall imagery is less and less evident as her work continues to evolve. She credits her time at the Featherstone Center for the Arts’ printmaking studio as an important catalyst for change. “I love working there. You don’t have to do something great. It’s not a huge time investment, and I often incorporate print ideas into paintings and vice-versa.”

While a change in style can be stress-inducing to the painter and jarring to the patron, it can also prove disruptive to the unsuspecting gallery owner. Maintaining a balance depends on understanding what to expect from a cadre of artists. Known for his own intrepid nature, Michael Hunter, owner and curator of PIKNIK for the past seventeen years, invests a great deal of time in keeping up with his artists’ work.

“It’s important to stay current so there are no surprises,” he explained. “Through studio visits and phone calls, I can usually see the evolution in an artist’s work. But sometimes things come out of left field.”

While he feels that it’s his job only to curate and not to be overly influential, he does offer his opinion on new directions, when solicited. “The relationship requires a lot of trust,” he said. “If asked, I offer my opinion but I can’t overstep. You don’t want an artist to have an attitude like, ‘It’s time to make the doughnuts.’ I think they would feel trapped if the passion leaves a body of work.”

Though he welcomes the opportunity to view works in progress, Mr. Hunter feels that it’s solely up to the artist to dictate change. “It’s my prerogative to sit out one dance if I don’t connect to a new body of work,” he said.

In early spring, he was eagerly anticipating the arrival of artwork to stock the store for summer. “I like to keep things fresh and current. I’m chomping at the bit to see new work on the wall. It inspires me!”

Chris Morse, owner of the Field and North Water Galleries, as well as the Granary Gallery in West Tisbury, has been involved in art sales for nearly thirty years. Inherent in the business, he acknowledges, are the sometimes opposing forces of commercialism versus creativity. “I work closely with a lot of artists,” he said. “But I don’t think I’m leading them.” While he maintains a close collaboration on creative direction with realist painter Steve Mills, he also represents Island photographer Alison Shaw, who he says works completely independently.

The artist’s desire to change, he believes, is his or her privilege. “It’s hard to force someone to do what they no longer feel they want to do,” he pointed out. Citing one artist who had painted views out of windows for five or six years, he said that the painter’s abandoning the very successful genre had disappointed Morse. “He didn’t want to be known as ‘the window guy.’ But I miss them. They sold well.”

In spite of my own jolt last spring when confronted by the artist’s new work, I stood for as long as twenty minutes trying to detach from my expectations, casting a fresh eye at the vibrant paintings before me. I walked away. I came back. I walked away again. Then I wrote a check for not just one, but two new pieces that would hang above my mantel. They weren’t the same as what I’d expected. But I liked them. And more than a year later, I still do.

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