“Whose underwear is this?” asks artist Betty Wolfson with a laugh.
“Usually I ask permission to photograph and then paint someone’s laundry line, but I didn’t get the chance when I snapped this one somewhere in Vineyard Haven. Now I’m hoping the owner will recognize her silky panties and step forward.” Surely the unknown laundry-hanger will do so if she happens to see the poster painting for Let It All Hang Out, when Featherstone Center for The Arts presents works this Sunday by the North Hampton and Oak Bluffs artist.
Many artists have focused — one might almost say obsessively — on a single subject for their paintings: for Degas it was dancers, for Monet it was for a long stretch water lilies, and we’ve all heard of Picasso’s famous blue period. For Ms. Wolfson, her many watercolors of laundry lines, fun and engaging as they are, derive from her deep commitment to a cleaner, better planet.
“Hanging clothes instead of running a dryer,” she notes, “is a conscientious choice we can make in our daily lives.”
She explains this seated on her Oak Bluffs porch on Massassoit avenue, her Victorian cottage with its moat of flowers, mauve-pink clapboard and buttery trim one of the neighborhood’s many showpieces. She has treated this reporter to a spread of fruit, muffins, doughnuts and limeade with seltzer. She explains: “My husband and I love to entertain. We’ve always thought we’d be happy running an inn.” You know intuitively that their guests would be even happier.
Petite, energetic, with bright green eyes and strawberry blonde hair, Ms. Wolfson’s chatter about random acts of conservation is so infectious, you feel she can preach to the choir and wring from it still higher, richer octaves. The rooms of her exhibit at Featherstone will be devoted to this theme of greening choices. “There’ll be a reading/inspiration room with a foam core board where people can write about whatever has inspired them — movies, books, poetry. We’ll pass out clipboards with scraps of donated paper so people can jot down Web sites or any of the ideas that might be sparked.”
In addition to the artist’s paintings, the gallery will also display, in a mini-beach created by the artist, her line of ceramics, looking as if they’ve baked in the kiln of Mother Nature: some of the stoneware gleams with swirls of greys, blues and terra cotta, others bear quixotic crinkles in organic hues of rust and cream. “They’ll be nestled in sand with beach treasures like blue lobster tails and oyster shells,” says Ms. Wolfson.
Another mix of art and conscience is cleverly revealed in the artist’s line of cards entitled Infinite Passabilities. Inside cards decorated with designs woven from a rare pink seaweed that washes ashore on occasional Oak Bluffs tides, removable papers await inscription. In other words, “Happy Birthday, Aunt Jenny” can be re-used by Aunt Jenny to scribble “Get well soon!” to her neighbor, Mr. Maxwell. Once the last slip of paper has paid the card forward, new slips can be added, preferably with recycled paper.
“The cards fit standard-sized envelopes,” says Ms. Wolfson, “so they can be used indefinitely.”
Another nifty feature for the upcoming exhibit is the line of bags the artist has sewn from fabrics destined for landfills. “It’s all top-notch material like Laura Ashley. I’ve gone around to designer show rooms and asked for their leftovers. It’s the sort of project more people can undertake, and right there make a difference.”
Ms. Wolfson is constantly amazed at how one person’s effort can inspire others. “One day I took a bag and decided to see how many cigarette butts I collected in the two blocks from my front yard to the beach.” The answer to her quest was hundreds — hundreds of cigarette butts — which she had considered rendering into a collage until she decided this particular piece of art might prove too gross for further contemplation. In her ciggie-stubs trek to the beach, however, she encountered a man smoking a cigarette on his porch. He asked what she was doing, and when she told him that discarded cigarettes are not only unsightly but require time to biodegrade, he nodded thoughtfully. On the next occasion when she passed his house, he hailed her and proudly pointed to the tin can he’d parked at the edge of his porch for future smokes.
Ms. Wolfson grew up in Los Angeles and worked in the school system, often with a hand in art instruction. Later, when three of her four siblings had migrated to North Hampton in western Massachusetts, she too moved to that town. It was in this magical land of five colleges that she met her husband, Steve, who had come to U-Mass, Amherst, as a college freshman, and has since stayed for an indefinite number of decades. They have two grown daughters, Julia, 24, and Dana, 20; the former got married only two weekends ago in Providence. Ms. Wolfson quips, “I’ve mounted a wedding and an art show in the space of half a month, and I’m exhausted.” Nonetheless, she looks as if she could go out and pick up another 500 cigarette butts.
Retired from teaching two years ago, the genesis of her upcoming solo show began last year when she took a painting class at Featherstone taught by Vineyard artist Ellen McCluskey. Ms. McCluskey sponsored an exhibit of her students’ art. Featherstone director Francine Kelly called Ms. Wolfson with the cheery news that one of her paintings had sold. Ms. Kelly herself was taken with another of the aspiring artist’s early oeuvre, this one entitled Olive’s Undies, and opined, “I’m surprised that one didn’t sell.” Ms. Wolfson mused about an entire exhibit devoted to conscientious choices. A year later Ms. Kelly called to say, “Let’s do it!”
When viewers arrive at Featherstone this Sunday they’ll be able to see Olive’s Undies, as well as a watercolor called Dancing Partners with tights twisting in the wind as if engaged in a passionate tango.
Another, entitled Painter’s Pants, shows the hanging laundry of an Oak Bluffs gent named Reggae who drapes his garments on lines but also on branches of backyard trees. “It’s a very Caribbean look,” says Ms. Wolfson.
Quotations will be scattered throughout the rooms, with such festive newspaper titles as Grateful Violinist Gives Concert For 200 Cabbies, and the sticker on Pete Seeger’s banjo which reads, “This machine surrounds hate and forces it to surrender.”
“I’d like everyone to be aware of how careful choices make performance artists out of all of us,” says Ms. Wolfson.
Budding performance artists are invited to attend the artist’s reception on Sunday, Sept. 14 from 4 to 6 p.m. at Featherstone Center for the Arts on Barnes Road in Oak Bluffs.
The exhibit will run through Oct. 1. Gallery hours are noon to 4 p.m. daily.