From her home studio on Chappaquiddick, Elizabeth Whelan has become one of the Vineyard’s foremost portrait painters, known for deftly capturing her subjects’ images while providing a glimpse into their lives as well.

Islanders she has painted include jewelry artist Sarah Young in her studio, fashion designer Stina Sayre in her atelier and boat builder and designer Nat Benjamin, looking seaward from the Gannon & Benjamin Marine Railway workshop.

“Nat’s become my poster child,” Ms. Whelan told the Gazette recently. “He’s on my business card.”

More recently, she has painted a series of portraits of women scientists on the Vineyard, including ocean researcher Megan M. Carroll and wildlife biologist Luanne Johnson. Again, her subjects are shown in their work environments.

“Women in science needed a bit of a boost, along with science itself,” said Ms. Whelan, who in 2019 curated a group exhibition at Featherstone Center for the Arts based on the periodic table of elements. Called Inseparable, the show underscored her belief that the arts and sciences are partners, not adversaries.

“When you’re a kid, depending on what your interest is, you tend to be put on a different path. We’re all separated. We’re not really shown how these worlds interconnect.”

Ms. Whelan teaches virtual art classes through the Vineyard Haven Library. — Ray Ewing

Yet artists have the ability to bring science to new audiences, Ms. Whelan said.

“Were uniquely positioned to communicate scientific concepts and also to communicate the interesting things that can be done in the sciences. Artists can think conceptually, on a different plane.”

Science entered Ms. Whelan’s consciousness early on through her father, who moved the family from Sheffield, England to Canada so he could study metallurgy at the University of Toronto.

“Science was always just part of our lives,” she said, recalling family car trips frequently interrupted as her father pulled over to examine a road cut for interesting rocks. “An interest in the physical world though observation... was just a thing you did.”

Ms. Whelan’s life as a working artist also began when she was still a little girl, holding gallery shows for her parents at home in Ottawa.

“I was charging them pennies and nickels for the artwork." Pocketing the coins, she would bicycle to the convenience store for her favorite chocolates. “I realized early on there was a direct relationship between selling art and getting the things I wanted. I was 7 or 8, probably.”

Her family’s encouragement stopped short of backing a full-time art career, however.

Ms. Whelan began her artistic life as a young girl growing up in Canada. — Ray Ewing

“My dad didn’t want me starving in a garret, so I started out in college [studying] microbiology,” Ms. Whelan said. “I was interested in it, but not for the next 40 years.”

Instead, she dropped out and headed east, working as a lifeguard and becoming a graphic designer for a T-shirt company in Virginia.

“I also fell in love with living on the coast, and I have lived in the coastal U.S. ever since."

She and her partner, boat builder Bill Benns, met while living aboard sailboats and later moved to the Vineyard.

Ms. Whelan developed a busy graphic design studio at Five Corners in Vineyard Haven — so busy that she had more work than she could do on her own. She had a decision to make.

“Either I was going to build an agency or I was going to get back to what I loved about doing art in the first place,” she said.

By luck, at that time Mr. Benns was tapped for the job of caretaker on Nashawena Island, one of the Elizabeth Islands northwest of the Vineyard.

“They needed someone who was sort of a McGyver,” Ms. Whelan said. I went along as sort of a hard working person... the helper. We just decided it was an adventure we couldn’t pass up.”

The adventure lasted seven years, during which Mr. Benns began his solo boat building career and Ms. Whelan worked on transitioning from graphic design to fine art.

Largely self-taught, she credits a pair of painting workshops she attended with giving her the basics. By the time the couple returned to the Vineyard, she was ready to launch a new career in portraiture, which seemed her best prospect for making a living as a fine artist.

Her early portraits, particularly Mr. Benjamin’s, soon earned Ms. Whelan a following, and her portfolio now includes corporate executives, a doctor and an architect along with Island workers and children.

“I feel portraiture is a message in a bottle to future generations. We’re telling them who we were.”

Outside of her artistic career, Ms. Whelan remains involved in the effort to free her brother, Paul Whelan, imprisoned in Russia on espionage charges since 2019.

“I spend a good part of my day in contact with people in [Washington] D.C.,” she said. “That has become a good part of my life for the last couple of years.”

Her brother has strong support from the U.S. government, Ms. Whelan said, with a planned visit from the ambassador to Russia next month. It’s not clear yet how the change of federal administrations will effect her cause.

“Every time you’ve got a new administration, you’ve got a new foreign policy approach,” she said.

But Ms. Whelan has been able to keep her professional life separate from the political challenge of working to free her brother.

“Obviously, there’s a huge amount of stress there, but have we not all been stressed?” she said.

The coronavirus pandemic hasn’t slowed her down, either.

“The time that I’ve been able to spend at home concentrating on my own artwork has raised it to a new level,” said Ms. Whelan, who has become a popular teacher with a large following for her online art classes through the Vineyard Haven Library. This year’s course focuses on drawing, Ms. Whelan said, and everyone is welcome, with no special skills or materials needed.

“I’m very keen on reintroducing people, especially artists, to the love of drawing.”

To that end, she also has created the Martha’s Vineyard Drawing Prize, which offers up to $700 in prize money to 25 finalists. This year’s contest is open through Sept. 27, with information posted at

“One of my goals is to get people into drawing who may have felt reticent in recent years to reapproach their love of art,” she said. “I try very hard not to make it a typical art class.”

Elizabeth Whelan’s website is