Tanya Augoustinos Curates A Gallery

Because art is too important not to share. 

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Over the past eight months I have found refuge and relief in the arts to lighten my mood. Prior to this, an unplanned extended stay with my 85-year-old father during a restrictive lockdown in suburban Cape Town, South Africa, offered little more than a few hours of late-night world music and a mosaic of cultural documentaries on a local television network. En route back to the Vineyard I passed through Pretoria and was fortunate to be hosted by a friend whose home is part gallery, lined with early paintings by the prolific South African artist, Kobus Walker. I had to have one — a painting of the zero-sum game Rochambeau, generally known as Rock, Paper Scissors to the English. It captured how the world seemed to be navigating a collective challenge — two possible outcomes: a draw, or a win for one player and a loss for the other. Its muted, trompe-l’œil style forced my perspective to trust balance and buoyancy in a game of chance. 


I arrived home to the Island grateful for its calming landscape and eager to reconnect with my artist friends. As I began to explore and consume as much culture as possible, I discovered several artworks not destined to be viewed in gallery settings or in the public domain. They each appeal to me for different reasons, and each has an ineffable quality that resonates beyond being satisfied with enjoying it quietly on my own. As the Brazilian artist Romero Britto famously said, “Art is too important not to share.” 


Like Britto, a multi-disciplinarian artist who elicits visual expressions of hope, dreams, and happiness with vibrantly colored, bold patterned elements of cubism, pop art and graffiti painting in his work, Jed Devine’s digital doodles are meditative and playful, with a hint of unorthodoxy. Trained as a painter, he switched to black and white photography in 1972 and is celebrated for his technical mastery and particular skill at capturing the effects of light on objects and surfaces, and our response to it. The depth of field, of linear perspectives, and other considerations required to make a good photograph are found in equal measure in his doodles. Improvisational in execution, Devine, who lives in West Tisbury, describes them as, “some quiet, some wild-haired excursions into unknown territory.” They remind me of the abstract expressionist “action painters,” Jackson Pollock and Willem de Kooning, though in Dolby-stereo for the 21st century, super-charged with digital tools that enable clearly delineated lines and shapes with which to express new gestures and purer emotions. 


As we become more alert to environmental changes around the globe happening at an irreversible pace, it becomes more meaningful to document our beloved places in nature in all forms for future generations. A recent collaboration between the Vineyard Conservation Society, Featherstone Center for the Arts, and seventy-plus Island artists will surely inspire more activism toward this end. Another noteworthy collaboration is that of West Tisbury painter Rez Williams and Sheriff’s Meadow Foundation, a local land trust protecting 2,900 acres of land across the Island. Williams, known for his fishing vessel paintings in vivid color, has for the past few years been revisiting landscape painting with an evolving palette, and a trajectory toward abstraction. He has completed six new landscape paintings in his distilling style in the last year, toward a total of seven for the land trust. They concern a series of posters specifically made for the land trust. Inspired by the aesthetic of the vintage National Parks posters launched in the 1930s as part of the New Deal’s Works Progress Association (WPA) project designed to encourage Americans to visit the country’s national parks, this series too inspires us to venture out onto the trails, into the woods, and along our shoreline. 

Williams was given carte blanche to choose the locations to paint and found the variety and complexity that reflects the diversity of the glacial moraine that constitutes the Cape Cod Islands close at hand on Sheriff’s Meadow properties. Each has its own personality, one with a subliminal marking. In Sheriff’s Meadow, Edgartown, Williams craftily added the organization’s logo into the greenery, easily overlooked as an arbitrary tuft of grass. He has on other occasions also added ambiguous elements, which most people never notice. This time it’s a nod to his wife, artist Lucy Mitchell, who designed the logo. 


Elissa Turnbull’s poetic illustrations published on Instagram were impossible to gloss over. With elegant lines and a unique style, she succinctly communicates complex subjects enabling translation immediately. She documents her daily routines and challenges as a parent, often with whimsy, humor, or brutal honesty. Upon discovering Leaving the Workforce, I am immediately reminded of heartbreaking realities in impoverished neighborhoods in South Africa when non-essential workers were grounded. I’ve been too distracted to ponder what the parallel is in the U.S. As Turnbull explains about this illustration, “In September of 2020 alone, 865,000 women left the workforce, many of them married. As schools were closed and the caregiving burden increased, data suggested that the lower earning spouse in dual income households was opting out of the paid workforce.” Most of Turnbull’s illustrations are simultaneously serious and aesthetically compelling. As the pioneer illustrator Robert Weaver said, “We have to show the notion of left-handedness and depict crime on the street, not a couple on a date.” Sometimes art makes us happy, at other times it makes us uncomfortable. 


Some paintings take on a life of their own while seeming to be wholly premeditated and carefully mapped out ahead of time. Such is Barbara Kassel’s, The Plague, which she started a month or so into the pandemic. “I just started from the upper left corner and let my mind wander into the imagery that came as I painted.” Kassel found respite in the labor-intensive process of painting small, square mosaic tiles meditatively. For imagery, she started with an uprooted oak tree, a symbol of stability here on the Island. The inverted house, contents in disarray with inhabitants in flux across the canvas, clearly expresses the feeling of being shaken to one’s core. Symbolic aves (birds) permeate the painting. The still life on the round table is static, an attempt to make some order out of the chaos. Tools of the artist’s trade lay casually alongside a globe with North America, and a 17th century star chart representing the constellation Cygnus. Despite it all, a peace dove is nestled in the imaginary sky, with an olive branch, it’s beak and wings outstretched, emanating hope and peace. 


The Cape Floristic Region, encompassing the southern tip of Africa, is an area of enormously high plant diversity and endemism. Much of this diversity is associated with the fynbos biome, home to one of the world’s richest floras. Fynbos is a pyrophyte, or fire-loving vegetation, adapted to the presence of fire. Fire acts as both an agent for germination of seed in the canopy and in varying depths in the soil, as well as a nutrient source to enrich. Island artist Kara Taylor salvaged a burnt endemic tree from the slopes of Table Mountain, home to more plant species than the whole of the United Kingdom, and collaged it with pieces of Shweshwe, a popular printed cotton fabric used for traditional clothing. The Tree of Life accompanies a series of paintings — How Far is Now — which is currently on view in Cape Town. Symbolic of the symbiotic relationship between fire and fynbos, the tree reminds us that not all catastrophic events lead to destruction. About the piece, Taylor says it’s about “.. the deceiving interdependence between fire and fynbos, out of ash comes life, it needs each other to exist, that rejuvenation”. Seeds that lay dormant for extended periods are awakened by the most unlikely, inhospitable element to generate new growth, which in turn generates new seed, continuing the circle of life. 

White Male Peacocks is a painting by Lily Morris from her series Ex Avibus. Created in 2020 during the peak of the first waves of the pandemic, the series questions our collective flight, and the flight path of the historic paradigm shift we find ourselves in. Morris references the augurs of ancient Rome, who by observing the habits and movement of birds — augury — could gauge omens of consent or disdain from the gods in matters of civil life. The Roman statesman Cicero called augurs “the highest and most responsible authorities in the state.”

Morris says, “After a year of sickness, death, and fear, as we attempt to chart a new course into the future, Ex Avibus invites you to look to the birds — their ferocity, their magic of flight, their proximity to both the heavens and the tumult of the terrestrial realm. We stand today to devine not the auspices of the old gods, but a more complex reality: one where we must plot a path forward that recognizes the scientific, the historical, the known and the unknown amidst a deeply uncertain future.”  

As this future unfolds, may we not emulate the ancient Romans by elevating a handful of individuals to god-like status, based on blind faith.

One constant remains: that art distinguishes us from other species and endures as a uniquely human achievement. As curator Katerina Gregos succinctly shares, “Art is the last frontier of unregulated free expression, which is particularly important at a time when the commons, public space, and information arenas are increasingly being privatized. In that sense, art is born of and advocates freedom.” 

That’s why it’s too important not to share.  

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