A deep connection with the senses is synonymous with artists, those tactile beings who crave materials in their hands. The resting of a paintbrush in the palm of a painter, the click of a shutter in the hands of a photographer, the composition of a scene, the satisfaction of capturing the perfect Vineyard light.
Located just off Barnes Road in Oak Bluffs, there’s a place where all of the senses come alive through different mediums of art, a place where Islanders can take a cooking class, listen to musical notes float over fields while children play Frisbee during Musical Mondays, and after leaving the inky chemicals of the photography lab enjoy the soft scent of grass and honeysuckle drifting across the campus.
The place is Featherstone Center for the Arts, the year-round arts center that prides itself on nurturing the next generation of Vineyard artists.
Featherstone is celebrating its 15th anniversary this summer and on Monday will host a gala honoring those integral to keeping the mission alive. The gala, themed Up, Up and Away: Soaring to New Heights, begins at 6 p.m. at the Farm Neck Golf Club.
It’s a community center of sorts, one where you can see new and familiar faces week after week working away at watercolor, photography, rug making, tapestry and stained glass classes, or art camp during the summer. The Tom Maley Life Drawing Class has existed in one form or another for more than 30 years, and took up residency at Featherstone in 2005. Named after the late beloved Island artist, the same group meets weekly for three hours.
Allen Whiting, who currently has a retrospective exhibition at the gallery, was at Tuesday’s class. Executive director Ann Smith said working side by side with successful artists is one of the many benefits of Featherstone.
“You get to rub elbows with these incredible artists on the Island,” Ms. Smith said. “Artists are teaching, participating, supporting and helping the next generation to create art and that’s really important.”
Featherstone began as the Meetinghouse for the Arts in 1980, a group of dedicated artists who wanted a place where the Vineyard arts community could thrive.
Meetinghouse members Mary and Bill Stevens owned Featherstone Farm, the campus’ current location, and when it came time to sell it they wanted the land to become an arts center, not a development. The Martha’s Vineyard Land Bank Commission purchased the 25-acre farm from the Stevens in 1996, and Meetinghouse for the Arts bought six acres within the farm including the six buildings that were part of the horse farm.
What was once just a set of converted barns are now state of the art facilities, home to classes in wheel-throwing, pastels, bookmaking, the art of tapestry, photography and computer classes. There are now two galleries, an outdoor kiln, five art studios, a pottery studio, gardens and a labyrinth.
Margaret (Peggy) Pinney, Featherstone’s first director, said she hopes to see a large multipurpose barn space in the future, but she is happy Featherstone is not just surviving in a rough economy, but thriving.
Ms. Pinney lives and teaches school in Nevis during the year, and in an e-mail to the Gazette she recalled the visionaries involved in establishing the arts center.
“My favorite picture is of [cofounder] Virginia Besse dressed in her skirt and handbag with me in my blue jeans and large paper bag,” Ms. Pinney wrote. She was more than 20 years younger than the two founders. “We are not always so fortunate to be at the right place, at the right time with the right people to make something beautiful and creative happen.”
Mrs. Besse and Mrs. Stevens always had a clear picture of what they wanted.
“The arts draw people together, enrich their lives and are a potent force in expanding the horizons of the individual and the community, “ Mrs. Besse wrote to the Gazette in August of 1995. “The visionis to have a center for all the arts, a gathering space, a place to learn, to create, to teach and to perform.”
Mrs. Besse died in 2008. Her daughter, Anne Besse Shepherd, said her mother would be beyond pleased with today’s Featherstone. In an interview this week with the Gazette Mrs. Shepherd shared a story that revealed her mother’s passion.
“Once my mother decided she was going to do this, it dominated her life,” Mrs. Shepherd recalled. “We bet her she couldn’t go an hour any time during the day without mentioning Featherstone. She failed at every account, and it became known as the “f word” in our family. It was relentless,” she said laughing.
“I didn’t quite get it at first,” she continued. “But you get these people who excel in classes and then have their work shown on the walls, it’s beautiful and it encourages them to go on. It’s really exciting.”
Over the years Featherstone has hosted a number of international artists, such as Taiwanese sculptor Ju Ming in 1997, whose metal sculptures dotted the Featherstone landscape for a year. There’s been a Mexican violinist and a Philippine pastel portraitist, a Turkish poet and a Haitian folk artist. But Featherstone’s core strength lies in its support of Vineyard artists.
Former executive director Francine Kelly was instrumental in establishing a strong relationship with the high schools on the Island, showcasing many Vineyard students in the galleries and even welcoming many of them back for summer internships.
She said choosing a favorite show over her eight years as director was like picking a favorite child, but she thinks when teachers like John Holladay, Kathy Rose and Ellen McCluskey have individual shows in the galleries it’s a perfect example of Featherstone’s mission
“It’s always been said we create community through the arts,” Ms. Kelly said this week. “We’ve tried to develop a community that’s supportive of Vineyard artists.”
Many Islanders have a strong attachment to Featherstone, whether it was the first place they showed their work or the first place they ever looked at a canvas. Mrs. McCluskey, pastel artist and teacher, said the most rewarding part of her 12 years at Featherstone is seeing her various students return as artists.
“It’s amazing to see what people can do, that’s the part I love about the classes,” Mrs. McCluskey said in phone interview. “Anyone from high school students to top Vineyard artists, they try to introduce as much as they can to the people on the Island and visitors. It’s all-encompassing. I love Featherstone, they continue to amaze me.”
Featherstone Center for the Arts’ 15th Anniversary Gala takes place Monday from 6 to 8 p.m. at the Farm Neck Golf Club in Oak Bluffs. Tickets are $125 and available at the door. For more information, visit featherstoneart.org