Brooke Adams Paints Our Faces

After a career as an actor, an artist returns to an early passion.

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Although she spent much of 2020 isolated from people, actress/artist Brooke Adams wasn’t feeling all that lonely. She painted portraits, and in doing so found a way to surround herself with many of her friends and acquaintances. “I’ve spent the past year painting these people and talking to them,” she says. “That’s what it feels like. I talk to my paintings.”

Adams recalls hearing a writer speak of a similar experience. “She said that she could be totally isolated and yet have a whole community around her through her characters. When I’m painting I’m always making personal observations, communicating with them, smiling and laughing with them. I feel like I don’t necessarily have to be with people to enjoy their company.”

That very intimate approach to portraiture work has enabled Adams to create a series of paintings in which her subjects display their individual character and speak to the viewer in much the same way that they spoke to her.

In August the Kara Taylor Gallery will feature a selection of Adams’ portraits, along with work by John Davies and by Taylor herself. Adams recruited many of her subjects from among her Vineyard friends including musicians (Kate Taylor, Carly Simon, John Forte, Ben Taylor); writers (Rose Styron, Jenny Allen, Nancy Aronie); artists (Rez Williams and Allen Whiting) and a host of others whose faces may not be quite so recognizable to viewers. The artist’s familiarity with her subjects has enabled her to capture their personalities as clearly as their likenesses.

“Portraits are really where I think my talent lies,” says Adams. “You have to get a feeling for the person. There’s this moment where I’m really looking out at them and they’re looking back at me. There’s an element of soul — or something — that I’m always trying to capture. I make these observations about people’s character that come through in their facial gestures.”

“When you’re doing a portrait there are these moments where the person is really there,” she adds. “Then sometimes you lose them again and you have to go back. There’s always a moment for me when they sort of peek their head out. Sometimes I just see them out of my peripheral vision.”

Adams has a very distinctive style, especially in her figurative work and portraits. Working from photographs, she manages to capture an appealing sort of candid, private-moment quality, even in the images where the subject clearly posed for the camera. From a viewer’s perspective, there’s a sense that you’ve just run into a friend and are sharing a brief encounter. That type of quality is challenging enough when photographing a subject, but for Adams to capture that candid quality on film and then translate it to canvas, while also imparting her own personal style, requires exceptional talent, especially when you consider that the artist is mostly self taught.

The impact of the portraits owes in part to Adams’ inclusion of quite a bit of detail to the backgrounds and truly incorporating her subjects into their surroundings. In some images she has captured her friends in their favorite pursuits — variously painting (Allen Whiting), playing a keyboard (Carly Simon), or strumming a ukulele (Judy Belushi). With others she has chosen to picture them in their homes or in outdoor settings, paying homage to the natural beauty of the Island. Although the subjects are the focus, Adams doesn’t simply use a painting’s environs as a backdrop or prop, but lets it play a
role — making the subject a participant in their surroundings and giving the image even more of a lively, tangible quality.

Adams, who forged a very successful career as an actress before devoting herself full time to painting, says that portraiture and acting share some things in common. “Acting is doing a portrait of somebody really,” she says. “As an actor I always liked to approach a character from the outside in. I try to allow my body language and facial expressions to reveal the emotional underpinnings.”

Adams grew up in the theater — literally. Born in New York City, she began acting at age six in her father’s summer theater in Michigan. Although she’s perhaps best known for her movie roles (Days of Heaven, Gas Food Lodging, Invasion of the Body Snatchers), Adams’ real love is the theater. She starred in The Heidi Chronicles on Broadway (where she met her future husband, Tony Shalhoub) and has appeared in productions at, among other places, NYC’s Atlantic Theater and the Orpheum, the Pasadena Playhouse, and the Yale Rep. In 2010 she returned to Broadway for the revival of Lend Me a Tenor. Adams is also a writer, director and producer. She starred in her sister Lynne Adams’ film Made-Up and her play Delusion by Proxy was produced as a reading at the Martha’s Vineyard Playhouse and the Powerhouse Theater at Vassar College.

In her early 20s, Adams spent four years painting prodigiously while living in Spain. But when her acting career took off, she put down her paintbrush and took a two-decade hiatus from the visual arts. After her two daughters were born in 1993, Adams stopped acting and decided to take some art classes. “When I was raising my children I couldn’t focus on just myself anymore,” she says.
Adams threw herself into her new pursuit, painting regularly in her studios in New York and at her home in Chilmark. Throughout the past 20 years she has created a body of work that encompasses landscapes and figurative work, as well as portraiture.

Last year Adams made a conscious decision to retire once and for all from acting. As is the case with many actresses whose fame arose from playing ingenue roles, Adams discovered firsthand that good roles for middle-aged women are few and far between. After she chose to focus on art, she took a very casual attitude toward acting work, taking on a job if something happened to come her way, but she found that she was pulling further and further away from the world which had defined her for so long. “I’ve been doing it [acting] since I was six years old,” she says. “It was my identity, my cash card. It was my everything. It was a huge shift to not be acting anymore but I followed through with it and I feel so much better.”

Last April, at the beginning of the pandemic, Adams and Shalhoub were both diagnosed with Covid. “Actually getting it made it less scary,” she recalls. Neither Adams nor Shalhoub required hospitalization or suffered any serious complications, and Adams managed to find a few positives in a pandemic world. She was able to use the time in isolation productively. Living on the Upper West Side of Manhattan, she spent her days walking her dog in Central Park and painting in a space that she carved out in her apartment in order to avoid the commute to her studio in Harlem. She started focusing solely on portraits, first painting a series of people (including herself) wearing masks. At the end of
May, 2020 the couple retreated to their Island home and Adams focused on capturing various friends from the Vineyard, filling her home studio with familiar faces.

Last summer Kara Taylor asked Adams if she would be interested in participating in a portrait exhibit at her West Tisbury gallery. Adams accepted enthusiastically. In the past she has shown her work on Island at the Dragonfly Gallery and in a solo show at the Art Space at the Martha’s Vineyard Playhouse, as well as at a gallery in Santa Monica.

One of Adams’ inspirations for her Island portraits was a book of paintings by beloved local artist Stan Murphy called Where Magic Wears a Red Hat. Throughout his 50 year career, Murphy captured dozens of Vineyarders with, as the book’s author describes it, “the exacting eye of a seasoned craftsman and the magical soul of a poet.” “I love that book,” says Adams. “It inspired me to do a whole series of portraits of Islanders.” Adams appreciates the synchronicity of displaying her work in Taylor’s gallery, the space that formerly housed Murphy’s studio.

Last July, Adams hosted a sale of paintings to benefit the Union of Minority Neighborhoods’ initiative Black Ballot Power. The sale was a response to her involvement in various Black Lives Matter initiatives, a cause which she has embraced recently, ever since she first took part in the weekly Martha’s Vineyard Black Lives Matter protests last spring. Since the Martha’s Vineyard initiative began last year, shortly after the murder of George Floyd, the group has expanded its efforts from honoring Black lives lost to police violence, to trying to save Black lives on death row. 

“I’ve never really been an activist,” says Adams. “I’m just a person with a lot of empathy. The current situation is so awful, so heartbreaking.” Of the upcoming show of Ndume’s work, Adams says, “This is such a wonderful opportunity to celebrate that art saved his life. I’m all about supporting artists and this will bring my passions for art and human rights together.”

While she may have moved on to a second career, acting (especially in the theater) will remain an abiding passion for Adams. However, art has proven to be a very gratifying and completely fulfilling outlet for her creative energy. “It was a long and hard transition,” she says. “But when I finally said to myself, ‘I’m going to take myself out of this’, it was a huge relief. All I really needed from acting was the creative side. I can get that out of painting.”

“It’s my religion now,” she adds. “I have a lot of faith in creativity. It’s my religion.”

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