‘Tough Chicks’: Behold a group of women beholden to themselves


They don’t call it “Martha’s Vineyard” for nothin’. Though we’re not quite positive who the elusive Ms. M. was, and some people called the Island “Martin’s Vineyard” for a century or so, eventually the name of the mysterious “Martha” stuck, and then became official. It also might have been something of a prophecy, since Martha’s Vineyard — past, present, and likely future — is known for its strong, forthright, and sometimes unabashedly eccentric women.

For many of the present-tense Island women who fit that description, you’ll now be able to see their images in various formats, some literally as large as life.

Stretching down the walls of the radiology department at Martha’s Vineyard Hospital, some 40 Island women will make their appearance in a permanent exhibit of individual photographs that are each five and a half feet tall. The subjects stand firm or loose-limbed, sometimes dancing or stretching; looking calmly, coyly, boldly, or even slyly at the camera. Each is strikingly individual, intentionally sui generis — in a class by herself. There’s Bella, in leopard pumps, playing the ukulele. Christina dances toward the camera in bare feet, arms lithely crossed above her head. And in an otherwise formal pose, Jennifer looks upward and beams laughter to the sky.

The radiology exhibit, while open only to scheduled patients in that department, is not the only place to see the collection: we’ve got ti right here; the hospital will have them on their website soon as well. A book version is available at Bunch of Grapes.

Every photo is accompanied by a first name and a short description of the subject’s work or calling. Most locals will be able to fill in the last-name blanks, but leaving out that “data” unpins the subject from one more definition, and encourages the viewer to look for more from the picture. Though I know many of the women, looking at their images I still found myself asking, “How did she create herself? Why did she choose to stand that way? Who is she?”

The project, “Tough Chicks on Martha’s Vineyard: Strong Women Who Strengthen Our Lives,” is thanks to the light-bulb idea and creativity of Paul Lazes, an artist who has worked in a number of creative media — architecture, drawing, music, dance — who now adds photography.

An Island resident for 18 years, Lazes noticed an abundance of Vineyard women whom he’s affectionately come to call “tough chicks.” He explains, “For a long time, I’ve been aware that there’s a high density of unusually strong, independent women on this Island. I come from New York City; every woman I know worked and was smart and ambitious, but it’s very different from here, because the New York women are more apt to be part of a corporate ladder. The Vineyard is different — many women have carved out their own businesses . . . I like that.” Lazes’ definition of “smart” goes beyond business intelligence: “I don’t need people to be erudite. ‘Smart’ means perceptive. People who are aware. People who are independent thinkers.”

Once Lazes got an iPhone, he could turn awareness into art: “I basically just started photographing people,” he says. “I’d bump into them and ask if it was OK to take a picture. And I kept on going.” It’s easy to envision an online slide show or book version of the digital images, but getting from a smartphone JPEG to the over-five-foot-tall photos that are in the hospital is an art journey of its own. While the Island UPS store caters primarily to commercial and retail companies looking to print posters or banners in large sizes — anywhere up to ten by three feet — Lazes saw how that capability could serve his larger-than-life goal; he could edit and adjust his photos on his phone, then email them to UPS for supersize printing. New local tech giving birth to new local art.

Lazes brought a six- by three-foot print to Tanya Augoustinos, owner of A Gallery (formerly in Oak Bluffs, and now opening in West Tisbury for the 2018 season). She was an enthusiastic supporter of the concept: “I thought it would be a great way to honor the women of the Vineyard. A lot of these women I know — they’re my neighbors, they’re my friends, people I’ve seen. I was delighted that he would be focusing on a woman-centric theme.

“I fell in love with the size and the scale of it,” she continued. “I think the fact that they were so much larger than life really made an impact. That’s what caught my attention, making them sort of these goddesses who had a presence about them.”

Meanwhile, Lazes kept finding more subjects, and expanding his “tough chicks” roster. (With the number of Island women who fit the description, Lazes admits, “I could go on forever.”) When Featherstone welcomed a partial exhibit last spring, he was nearing 100 photographs — and including young women and children.


The hospital collection

Monina Von Opel and her husband, hospital board member Edward Miller, and Tim Sweet (who has just completed his term as Chairman of the hospital board) are the visible front team that searches for, selects and then proposes artwork to a committee for possible inclusion in the hospital’s collection. Eventually that art will line the many walls in Martha’s Vineyard Hospital — turning those walls into a wealth of display surfaces for Island-relevant art. (The rules for inclusion are that the work must be by an Island artist or relate to the Island. To date, some 700 pieces of art have been acquired for the hospital’s collection.) It’s Von Opel who actively searches for much of the displayed work, and who first saw some of Lazes’ oversize prints three years ago. Miller and Sweet became instant supporters. Since then, Von Opel has been working with Lazes on the hospital exhibition and permanent display. For her it was the human form writ large that made the difference. “It’s eye-catching,” she says. “It’s normal people. I love that it’s larger than life, but so real — unvarnished, true, strong. Here I am!”

Lazes’ subjects come from all walks and ages of Vineyard life. Native and wash-ashore. Mid-teen and elder. From traffic cop to ukulele player, writer to impresario. Aside from Lazes’ original intention, the only pattern is that of a group of women choosing to live within their own unique and often self-invented lifestyles some five miles off the coast of the United States. While he makes a point of taking his photos spontaneously, Lazes has an uncanny ability to capture an essence of his subjects — contributing to the abundant energy transmitted to the viewer that comes both from an individual photograph and the combined energy of the group.

Looking at the group of images, I was struck once again by the range of emotions. There are smiles, and even some laughs for the camera, but there’s more than one woman showing her determination, another who is beatific, yet a third who is intentionally imperious. Most of all, it is remarkable when you understand the “collective’s” impact on the Island, and that so many women on Martha’s Vineyard (a group much larger than those pictured) have a wide-ranging and outsize impact on our small community. There are the women who start businesses of their own, or run them for others. Those who lead nonprofits, or are civic or environmental activists. There are the artists, photographers, musicians, writers. And just as they lead the rest of their lives, they work in self-invented, unapologetic ways. All of this is often combined with motherhood and child-raising. Perhaps it’s the integration of that strong forthrightness with what some might describe as the “feminine spirit” that encourages a creative perspective, helping in ways both known and mysterious to recreate our Island on an ongoing basis.

“Tough Chicks” appropriately emerges in a year when women are speaking and standing up in new ways. Behold, a group of women who are beholden to themselves. Though it’s likely they have experienced the various slings and arrows of working their way through some in the patriarchy (and matriarchy) on their way to who they are, what stands out is that they have developed a strength and presence, achieving some success on their quest, whatever it may be and wherever it lies on the spectrum from personal to global. The photos make a powerful combined statement; these are women proud to stand for the camera and be recognized by their community as distinctive members of their grander collective. Whatever their past, present, or future may hold.

What more could any woman — human or goddess — ask for?

Here’s the full show:

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In the near future, Lazes’ work will also be included on the hospital art collection website at mvhospital.com/art/collection. Lazes has stated that 50 percent of the profits from sale of the book version will be donated to Family Planning of Martha’s Vineyard.


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