In Memoriam: Nancy Furino

On friendship and art

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Nancy Furino walked into my gallery one spring day with paintings tucked under her arms. I don’t remember the subjects, only that they were landscapes she had recently painted since moving to the Island, and that they were special. With time, I realized that she was pretty special, too.

That was in 1983. Island galleries were fewer in number, mostly showing fairly realistic, summery watercolors of boats and beaches. Nancy’s paintings were oils that carried the weight of their medium as well as of her representations of her subjects. She was painting in a more Impressionist style back then, with broken brushwork, often using a palette of complementary colors that intensified when placed one against another. Those marks slid and danced and made an active surface that described everything she saw. I was enchanted.

Over the years, she brought me paintings that always surprised me. They were always new, always a refining of her vision and her technical skills. The Impressionist brushwork became ever more active, larger marks in swirling patterns that knitted together into more complex shapes. She had always painted en plein air, at least beginning that way, to be finished in her studio. Painting outside can be overwhelming; a vast space calls out for constant attention to what’s in front of you. The strength of Nancy’s paintings was the reflection on her experiences in nature that happened in the studio. That is the time she gave for the painting to tell her what it needed to be. Weak passages were painted over, and the whole surface whipped into the shape she demanded.

During those early years, Nancy painted many iconic Island scenes: Edgartown gardens and church steeples, up-Island hayfields barely contained by stone walls, long views of marshes stretching to the sea, the wild sea beyond. She and her husband, a retired stonemason who immediately took to Vineyard life and became an avid fisherman, would explore the Island’s shores while he fished and she drew or painted. 

Occasionally, they traveled, and Nancy returned with sketchbooks and small canvases filled with scenes of England and Italy, and a head filled with ideas for paintings. Her series of Grand Canyon paintings was beyond anything one could imagine, wide views from unpredictable angles, combinations of colors and shapes dramatically enhanced by Nancy’s vision. When she wasn’t traveling, or when the weather precluded her from painting outside, she set up combinations of her household objects for a still life.

As Nancy aged, her paintings became more and more abstract. There were still recognizable subjects, but the areas of color became flatter and more defined. She had attended art school back in the 1950s when Abstract Expressionism was considered real art, important art. It had to be nonrepresentational. She wasn’t going out to paint on site anymore. There were new paintings of scenes she knew well, and some were unresolved canvases she revisited, feeling that with time she had figured out how to make them better. There were interiors, too, of her familiar rooms, all brightly colored and tightly designed. She continued to make art, always on her own terms, which brought her the respect of the Island’s artists and art community.

I brought a sketchbook and some colored pencils to her in the hospital. Her windows looked out to the roof garden and the harbor beyond. We talked about drawing together on my next visit. We looked at art books. I read her part of the newspaper, or some poetry. Sometimes we listened to music, but she was very frail by then, and sleeping a lot.

Nancy died last October. I don’t think she ever recovered from losing her son, Tommy, that spring. She was also in late-stage dementia that affected her speech and movement. She was still interested in looking at art, even talking about it as well as she could, which I hope will reassure people that their loved ones are still themselves, that they can still have happiness and curiosity right to the end. 

Nancy had been my friend for almost 40 years. Art brought us together, but genuine affection and respect brought us close. 

Louisa Gould Gallery, Main Street, Vineyard Haven, will host a show of Nancy Furino’s work from July 24 to Sept. 24. Furino’s paintings can be seen here:

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