Homecoming: Max Decker Returns to His First Love

Max in studio on parents property

Following a 10-year stint as a musician in New York City, Island native Max Decker has come back to his roots — painting and Vineyard life.

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Fresh out of Boston’s School of the Museum of Fine Arts in 2006, Max Decker returned to his boyhood home in West Tisbury and did what he’d been trained to do: He painted. And painted. And painted.

For two years he carted his small landscapes to the Vineyard Artisans Festivals down the street and sold as many as he could create. His loose, evocative style caught the eye of Michael Hunter, then owner and curator of PIK-NIK Fine Arts & Apparel in Oak Bluffs. Mr. Hunter bought six of Mr. Decker’s small paintings for himself, and invited the fledgling artist to show his work at the gallery.

The synergy between Mr. Hunter’s sophisticated, more urbane aesthetic and Mr. Decker’s youthful energy led to the development of a second body of work — large, moody, urban landscapes that commanded prices of more than $10,000 each — and a collaboration that lasted several more years.

Mr. Decker’s dual passions, painting and music, propelled him off-Island to a new home in Brooklyn, N.Y., in the fall of 2006. He continued to commute to the Vineyard seasonally, returning to paint feverishly in the makeshift studio he carved out in his parents’ barn, building a collection of landscape paintings early each summer that would satisfy the growing demand. He experimented with different venues, showing a few pieces at the Field Gallery in West Tisbury as well as at Edgartown’s Eisenhauer Gallery. During the off-season he searched for music gigs at New York City’s smaller clubs.

After continuing the commute for three years, Mr. Decker took a five-year hiatus from painting. The dueling interests became too difficult to manage, and he decided to stay in the city year-round and focus on electronic music. To pay the rent, he also learned to design and craft custom jeans for a startup company.

In the meantime, his two brothers returned to the Vineyard, and Mr. Decker married Canadian-born schoolteacher Laura Jordan. Their union produced a son, Robin, now 1 year old. Feeling the tug of family connections from the Island as well as the reawakening of his interest in art, he and his wife decided to leave New York and make their permanent home on the Vineyard.

“Don’t raise a kid in Bushwick, Brooklyn, if you can avoid it,” Mr. Decker says, chuckling. But in a more serious tone, he explains that he’d always thought he would return to painting and to the Island. “My parents and brothers are all living here again,” he says. “My wife and I would come to visit, and she’d have a little cry every time we had to leave.” And although he loved many aspects of life in New York, he missed the quiet beauty of his home, and the space to work.

This past December they moved to Vineyard Haven, and Mr. Decker, now 34, resumed his life as a landscape painter. With a few differences.

“Before, it was more like a summer job,” he explains. “Now I want to make quality paintings. I care way more than when I was younger. I’d rather make less money but paint what’s good.”

Mr. Decker has come back once again to the barn on his parents’ land, this time designing a more serious space in which to paint. And while he has returned to his classical roots as a landscape painter, he finds himself thinking much more seriously about palette and nuance. In the process, he says, he feels once more like a novice painter.

“In some ways I feel like I’m just learning for the first time,” he says. “I’m figuring out what’s important both in subject matter and style.” Trying to avoid creating what he calls “postcard images,” he is instead searching for “what’s tucked behind something more obvious.”

Employing a more muted palette to affect the feel of his paintings, he says that his challenge is to “find that level of detail, or just the right light.” Working from digital images that he shoots as he travels around the Island, he also relies on photographs his mother shoots as she walks. He views the images on his computer screen, sometimes printing them out, and then goes directly to paint (oil on panel), eschewing the drawing process. He often paints smaller sketches, which lead to larger pieces.

Mr. Decker says that his work is inspired by the masters, citing the Tonalist movement of American art in the late 1800s, with its emphasis on atmospheric, muted hues. He also admires the pastoral landscapes from the mid-19th century Hudson River School, a movement that reflected a love of nature depicted in a moody, romanticized style.

Describing landscape painting as his “first love,” he cites the beauty of the Vineyard as an influence, as well as his desire to “just move paint around.”

“I’m studying with the masters,” he explains, “taking a piece from this one and that one.” He adds, with undue modesty, “It’s yet to really coalesce into my own unique style, but I’m cautiously optimistic.”

Chris Morse, owner of three highly regarded Island galleries, the Field, the Granary, and North Water, is enthusiastic about Mr. Decker’s return. He’s invited the artist to exhibit his work at the Field Gallery in West Tisbury this summer, with a two-week show scheduled to open on Sunday, August 6.

“I’m glad he’s come home,” Mr. Morse said. “Max is a very accomplished craftsman. His work harkens to a bygone era, but he puts his own spin on it. I’m excited to see what’s happening in his studio.”

Field Gallery director Jennifer Pillsworth echoes Mr. Morse’s sentiment after a preview of more than 30 pieces Mr. Decker has in progress. “Standing in Max’s studio, nestled deep in the woods,” she says, “I’m really struck by the similarity of the landscapes he is currently painting with his physical surroundings. He’s exploring the Vineyard landscape in a way that comes only from living in a place so deeply, for such a long time.”

Mr. Decker is pleased that his new works will find a home at the Field Gallery. “They have eclectic taste, and a wide range of artists and mediums,” he says. “They really make the art pop off the wall. It doesn’t hurt that they’re nice people, too.”

Friend and former PIK-NIK gallery owner (now owner of Mikel Hunter, luxury clothing and fine art boutique in Edgartown) Mr. Hunter is also watching for Mr. Decker’s re-entry to the art scene. “There’s a niche he can fill on the Island,” he says. “Max is regaining his momentum, and bringing 10 years of life experience to his new work.”

Now that he’s back in the quiet studio with brush in hand, Mr. Decker can reflect on the past decade: “I think putting down painting for an extended period has helped me gain insight into why I love it, and why it’s vital for me to continue to do it now.”

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