The Art of Jessica Pisano Takes Flight

'Stories We Share' 40. x 40, oil on canvas.

‘Stories We Share’ 40 x 40, oil on canvas.

How the painter learned to embrace contradiction in order to find balance.


Nature has a way of attaining balance. When solar energy heats the earth, hot air above the surface rises through denser cold air, creating a region of low pressure. In an effort to equalize, zones of high pressure rush in. You feel this in the wind. You feel it in local coastal breezes. You feel it in the trade winds of the Hadley cell.

You feel it in the work of painter Jessica Pisano.

In the artist’s large-scale oil paintings, trees lean streamline to the breeze, their every bend shaped gradually by the winds of time. Birds react more immediately to the currents, tilting their delicate wings ever so slightly to generate lift. These subjects, painted with impeccable detail upon dreamy abstract backgrounds, dance to the subtle music of air rising and falling. The wind steps lead, they follow.

Pisano’s art is conscious of the delicate balance at play here, the interwoven yet disparate natures of the wind, the birds, and the trees. The constant presence of stability, and the potential for flight.

When it comes to the evolution of bird flight, scientists have two main theories. The first is that tree-dwelling vertebrates learned to glide on the wind from the “trees down.” The second is that land vertebrates learned to jump, and eventually take off, from the “ground up.” Pisano, who started her art career hand-coloring photographs, said her current body of work evolved from the ground up, when she started painting trees.

Jessica Pisano with some of her artwork.

Pisano was a “summer kid” who came to Martha’s Vineyard to live with her dad in her freshman year of high school. After flying the coop “as far away as possible” to study art at Lewis and Clark College in Portland, Oregon, Pisano returned to the Island to open the Belushi Pisano Gallery with her mother, Judy. While Pisano enjoyed the work, it was difficult to balance being both a gallery owner and a painter. Faced with the choice, Pisano opted to focus on her own art full time. She moved to Newport, Rhode Island for several years, and only recently returned to build a spacious studio on her property in Vineyard Haven.

In the beginning, Pisano’s soft yet concise approach lent itself well to landscape painting, and she found success rendering coastal scenery. Even so, the dramatic, expressive trees — perched alone on windswept cliffs or keeping sentinel in the middle of an open meadow — pawed at Pisano’s attention. “What I noticed along that journey was that I was becoming more interested in the trees than the landscapes as a whole,” Pisano said.

Around the same time, Pisano was developing a taste for abstract painting, which satisfied her need for intuitive expression. Rather than feel torn between the need to render highly detailed images and the need to paint freely, Pisano was inspired: “I decided I didn’t have to choose one or the other. So a lot of my work is a combination of abstract and realism.”

The combination is stunning. By taking the birds and trees out of their natural environment and juxtaposing them with an ethereal wash of color, the definition of the subjects is amplified, as if a bird might flitter right out of the wood panel and into the room. By changing the context of the subject, Pisano says her hope is to “create a dreamlike experience.”

“Flight Pattern” 48 x 48.

Pisano’s backgrounds begin with loose, broad washes of oil paint. “I make intuitive marks,” Pisano said. “I don’t think about it beforehand, I just attack, and I discover the shapes and textures that those initial marks make.” While some backgrounds present as skylike or botanical, Pisano says the interpretation is entirely up to the viewer: “It’s just a textural space to give it that contrast of the real and the surreal.”

This technique also draws attention to the subjects, positioning the birds and trees as symbols, characters in a greater mythology.

“On a symbolic level, trees for me are incredibly poignant,” Pisano said. “I love how they symbolize life and strength and wisdom, and protection and shelter. They represent stability, because their bodies are rooted in their ground and their branches expand into the sky.”

For Pisano, the expansion to painting birds was a natural progression. “I was feeling that my tree series needed an opposite, a yin to the yang; a subject that’s light and airy constitutes freedom,” she said.

“Under The Morning Light” 32 x 48.

Pisano’s paintings are self-aware of their symbolism. They do not overachieve by masking the symbolism of the subjects in too much clutter, nor do they underachieve by washing over it halfheartedly. Instead, the birds and the trees are served up on a platter, presented unabashedly for the viewer to consume. And so grand, so profoundly archetypal are these symbols, that the viewer is free to interpret the work in whatever way is personally meaningful, adding his or her own individual insight to a collective mythology of birds and trees that dates back to the earliest cave paintings.

“I love art that reaches you emotionally,” Pisano said. “Every individual viewer gets their own reaction. I’m not trying to make a statement with each piece, I’m not trying to say anything at all in particular, I’m just interested in creating something that is alluring to people, that people will be drawn into and question. I want to conjure up an interesting emotion.”

Pisano also plays to the emotions by orchestrating relationships among the subjects themselves. In paintings with multiple birds, Pisano said, “the birds together are in a dance of their own. I think the connection between them is something I’m striving for.”

As in many human relationships, the forces which bind the birds — or otherwise pull them apart — are not always self-evident. In “Stories to Behold,” two birds face one another head to head, in a mirror-image stance that is simultaneously defiant and vulnerable. In “Stories We Share,” a circling pair appear connected at the heart by an invisible thread. One floats slightly above the other, as if to tug the thread, and we get the feeling that the center will not hold, that one bird will break free of the centrifugal force and rocket off in the opposite direction.

Some birds appear magnetized, while others turn their backs — perhaps in an effort to desert their companions, perhaps in an effort to initiate a chase. Fickle as feathers in the wind. The relationships are as complex and as carefully wrought as the birds themselves.

“Stories to Behold” 26 x 26.

Nowhere is Pisano’s careful hand more evident than in her precise recreation of a hummingbird: the curvature of the needling proboscis, the invisibly quick motion of the wings, the shining throat feathers which Pisano gilds in silver and gold leaf — an intricate process she studied in Italy.

The way hummingbirds generate lift is unique among birds. Most birds are able to fly based on Bernoulli’s principle: Their wing shape is such that air flows faster over the wing, and slower under it. Hummingbird wings are so thin they violate Bernoulli’s Principle. Instead, the tiny aviators must generate lift through flapping alone. At a rate of about 70 times per second, hummingbirds flutter a fully extended wing in a figure eight, which produces lift on both the up- and the downstroke.

The high-speed process is made up of many intricate movements, although to the human eye, the motion may look blurred, or even nonexistent. Hummingbird flight is, in itself, somewhat of a paradox. But it’s the contradiction, the very existence of two opposing forces, that creates balance.

Pisano says the delicate hummingbirds are “gorgeous” and “incredibly fun to paint,” so it’s no wonder she has made them the stars of her next series — quite literally. In her newest body of work, Pisano will reimagine the constellations, with hummingbirds featured as the key stars and a glimmer of gold and silver leaf trailing between to form the “lines” of each figure. The series is an expansion of her painting “Orion’s Belt,” in which three sparrows are positioned across the wood panel in the same way Alnitak, Alnilam, and Mintaka are scattered across the waist of the Hunter.

“Orions Belt” 48 x 48.

In painting the constellations, Pisano has evoked another great body of symbolism, a mythology that seems to arch through all time and all space. It’s as if the scope of her work is expanding along with the universe, accelerating from a sort of creative Big Bang. What started rooted in the trees took flight in the form of birds. Now it has launched free of the atmosphere, of gravity, of constrained space. Climbing higher and higher so that everyone can see it. Generating lift.

Jessica Pisano’s brand-new Martha’s Vineyard studio is open for tours and showings by appointment. Go to to schedule a visit.

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