They are among the greatest storytellers in our country’s history. Tomorrow, they will be gathered in Vineyard Haven to share their colorful tales with Martha’s Vineyard. Of course, the four men weave these tales without a word, and are no longer alive to tell them in person. But their stories live on in their vibrant, expressive artwork.
Selected works of Thomas Hart Benton, Romare Bearden, Benny Andrews and Vincent Smith will be on display at the Carol Craven Gallery beginning at 5 p.m. Saturday, in an exhibition that the gallery owner deems “the greatest art show ever happening on Martha’s Vineyard.”
“It’s a very important show,” said Mrs. Craven. “There has never been anything like it [here].”
The works by the four artists featured fall under the category of African and American stories. “They are all narrative paintings,” she explained. “Narrative painting is really my favorite thing, because I love stories. I was an actress, so I’ve always loved the weaving and telling of the story. So I’m very much drawn to paintings that [have] figural things in them that are meant to be telling a story. That’s what I mean by narrative painting.”
Mrs. Craven describes Mr. Benton, the only white artist featured in the show, as “the most famous artist who ever lived and worked on Martha’s Vineyard.” Born in 1889, he began visiting the Island seasonally in 1918, after he had already established a name for himself in the New York art world.
“He was one of the most important painters of the American regionalist painters,” said Mrs. Craven. After World War I, there was a great push for paintings and depictions of American scenes, rather than the work from abroad that was popular before the war. “He was really in the forefront of that movement of artists. He painted a lot of the Midwest, he painted in the South . . . he traveled a lot.” He also captured the early rural atmosphere of the Island.
In her gallery on Tuesday, Mrs. Craven offered a tour through the paintings, sketches and collages propped against walls, waiting to be hung for tomorrow’s show. Two of Mr. Benton’s were already hung above the gallery reception desk. The Bicyclers, painted in 1961, depicts two cyclists against a sparse Chilmark landscape. “It wouldn’t matter if you had ever been on Martha’s Vineyard or not. The greatness of the painting is still obvious. It pops, it explodes,” said Mrs. Craven, referring to the painting’s vibrant colors and rhythmic movement. The story it tells is subjective, different for the artist and for each observer, she explained.
The other hanging oil painting, simply titled Chilmark Landscape, shows the rolling green hills of the Island countryside. “It’s an important painting because it’s early,” said Mrs. Craven. “It also has all the elements of the most beautiful of Benton’s work.” He painted the landscape in 1925, and it has never been exhibited for the public before this weekend.
The other three artists, Mr. Bearden, Mr. Andrews, and Mr. Smith, were all African American. Their perspective and experience translate to stories about a different side of American life. “[Mr. Benton and Mr. Bearden] in particular would have been in New York at the same time, and their paths no doubt did cross, but because America was made up the way it was then, it was a very different world.
“[It was] not so easy for African American artists to get to be known, established, and so forth. They were known within the community, but [it was] much more difficult for them to find their way into the general art world because of segregation and just because of a lot of racial prejudice. They were a part of very different things because they were telling different stories.”
Mr. Bearden was the most successful artist of the three African Americans featured in the exhibition. “[He was] perhaps one of the most important African American artists who ever lived,” said Mrs. Craven. His watercolor and collage work told stories of black history in America, with a focus on music. Mr. Bearden was a part of the Harlem Renaissance, and much of his work reflects the music and atmosphere of Harlem at the time.
Mr. Andrews, born in 1930, used oil paintings and collage to tell the stories of African American families. His artwork depicts everyday activities such as sharing meals and gardening. Many of his pieces were featured as illustrations in children’s books. Many of the original pieces featured in this exhibition were a part of Mr. Andrews’ estate after he died in 2006, and will be available to the public for the first time at the Carol Craven Gallery. His widow, the artist Nene Humphrey, will be attending the reception.
Mr. Smith was the least known artist in the group. Until recently, even Mrs. Craven was not familiar with his work, though he used to come to the Vineyard in summers and his widow, Cynthia, still does. His colorful paintings were also often used to illustrate books. Several of his pieces for the exhibition depict African scenes. “These were illustrations from African stories,” explained Mrs. Craven, pointing out a harmonious collection of Smith’s vivid depictions of African families and animals.
Mrs. Craven’s emphasis on the importance of this show says a lot about the artists and artwork featured. She is an art world veteran, working as an art dealer in various galleries since 1973. She first got involved in gallery work simply because she needed a job.
“I had studied art history and I had studied painting when I was in college. But my true love was the narrative, being an actress,” said Mrs. Craven. She found a compromise in the art world. “It became something that was a terrific fit for me. I liked it, it was exciting, it was fun. I loved working with emerging artists and helping artists to build careers,” she said. Finally, feeling confident that the Vineyard art scene could sustain serious artwork, she opened her own gallery here 14 years ago. “I could do exactly what I wanted. So to that end I’ve tried to pick the best artists I could find and exhibit their work,” she said. She now divides her time between the Vineyard, where she lives and works at the gallery for four months in the summer, and New York city.
“I really want to impart my enthusiasm, and really the importance of what I’m doing,” she said of tomorrow’s exhibition. “[Visitors] are going to see American history. Not only the white world but also the black world ... I’m just so proud of it, of this show. It’s an amazing event, particularly on the heels of such an historic time.”
This reception runs from 5 to 7 p.m. at the Carol Craven Gallery, located on Breakdown Lane off Holmes Hole Road in Vineyard Haven. The works will remain at the gallery through Labor Day. For details, call 508-693-3535.