‘Endless Summer’ kicks off in Westerly

“Downtown Westerly,” oil on panel, by Susan Stephenson. (Photo submitted)
“Downtown Westerly,” oil on panel, by Susan Stephenson. (Photo submitted)

One tends to think of a land trust as an organization that protects and preserves a community’s natural environment — beaches, woods, open land. But land trusts often play another vital role of protecting and preserving buildings in cities and towns.

As part of its urban initiative to enhance cultural and retail offerings in Westerly’s downtown area, the Westerly Land Trust has been redeveloping commercial properties, including the historic Industrial Trust Building (built in 1914), which the land trust purchased in 2005 and has its office.

The building, with its dramatic high ceilings and balconies and beautiful granite walls, naturally lends itself to exhibiting art. Earlier this month the land trust kicked off its first art show in the building, “Endless Summer.” Curated by Kimberly Charles of the Cate Charles Gallery, the show features paintings by four local contemporary artists.

“It’s a very attractive, wonderful historic building, and had been an underused venue,” says Deborah Kotchen of Stonington, a member of the Westerly Land Trust urban committee.

“We came up with the concept of developing a partnership between the land trust and art galleries and curators who have the ability to create compelling and innovative art shows,” Kotchen explains, “enhancing the cultural experience in downtown Westerly. On the other hand, for artists it’s a timely concept. Many galleries welcome a satellite venue where they can exhibit and showcase their artists.”

The plan is to mount six annual six-week art shows in the Trust Building, curated by galleries in Connecticut and Rhode Island that include paintings, multi-media pieces, sculpture and photography. 

The art of ‘Endless Summer’

Charles, whose gallery was formerly located in Stonington and most recently Providence, chose four artists she represents: Annie Wildey, Susan Stephenson, Harriet Moore Ballard and Deborah Randall. The women’s paintings all echo the theme “Endless Summer.” Each artist has about 10 works on exhibit.

“When I hung the show,” Charles says, “I tried to bring the eye of the viewer in from the beginning, to follow the lines and the colors from one painting to the next, pulling you all the way around the gallery, the same way a good painting pulls you in.”

Stephenson is chair of the Lyme Academy College of Fine Art painting department. She paints entirely on site from direct observation and all of her paintings are in oil on birch panel.

“Susan grew up in a geodesic dome in Louisiana, and so she has an interesting curvilinear perspective on things, even though she’s a realistic painter,” Charles says. “I like her work very much because it’s bright and clear and has a lot of light, and the colors are very true to nature. She also often uses window reflections.”

Stephenson is showing a mix of works from years ago to very recent, all in keeping with a Rhode Island theme.

“Visitors may recognize some local spots,” Stephenson says. “Watch Hill, Miquamicut and Ashaway are just a few of the painting locations that can be seen (in the show).”

Annie Wildey is a Mystic-based artist with a Stonington studio who’s known for her large oil paintings of waves.

“Annie captures the feeling of the ocean — you feel like you’re there with the waves crashing around you,” Charles says. “When you stand back, it almost looks photorealistic, but when you get up close you see how the paint is put down in a loose and free and playful way.”

“Most of the paintings are fresh off the easel, except the large seascape ‘Misquamicut Mist’ on the balcony, which has been on loan at the Rhode Island senator’s office in Washington, D.C.,” Wildey says.

“My previous ocean paintings are more moody and atmospheric,” Wildey continues, “so the new work speaks more to the summer theme with clearer skies and a brighter, more colorful palette.”

Ballard is an abstract painter, and her work in this exhibit was created over the past two years.

“Harriet plays with space and manipulates it with color and line,” Charles says. “She infuses the paintings with elements of her everyday life and whatever is happening in the world right now — almost like collages. Her compositions seem like a disregard for reality but are still recognizable. Elements are drawn, anchored by patches of color. Her perspective, unlike Susan’s, is imaginary, fanciful, but nonexistent.”

“My subject matter is a grab bag of images, containing referential objects like a bowl and boats, to abstract marks and grids,” Ballard says. “My newest paintings in the show are titled ‘Summer Morning’ and ‘On the Back Porch.’”

Randall paints semi-abstract/impressionist landscapes and seascapes. This work is from her ongoing series inspired by the natural beauty of Maine.

“She focuses a lot on the sky and the clouds,” Charles says. “You never get tired of looking at them. They’re not typical landscapes, the almost abstract quality gives them a unique edge. The viewer comes into the painting, almost like you have a view, a window out, but it’s an impressionistic view.”

“I tend to paint with summer colors in mind. Maine is full of color and light in the sky and land,” Randall says. “I’m not aiming to make a representational painting of a particular setting, but rather hoping to evoke the feeling of being present in the landscape through atmosphere and color.”

Together in the new gallery

The artists are enthusiastic both about the Industrial Trust Building gallery space and showing their work together.

“Our work interacts well in this setting, and the colors and patterns of one artist’s work plays beautifully off the others,” Stephenson says. “These are all artists I’ve known and admired for years. Every one is a powerhouse, and I’m proud to be showing with them — they’re so inspirational.”

“I’m thrilled to be included in the exhibition and to show alongside all these talented artists,” Randall notes. “We have different styles and subject matter and yet the work is complimentary.”

After moving to the Connecticut/Rhode Island Coast in 2011, Wildey says she’s watched downtown Westerly bloom and is thrilled to be part of the first exhibition in the new gallery.

“It’s an interesting building architecturally and historically,” she says. “With the addition of new lighting and temporary walls, I think the exhibition looks really great in the space. I’m excited to see how it evolves as word gets out that there’s a new gallery in town.”

Stephenson says moving to Rhode Island also had a huge impact on her work and career, and she feared the jewel-like scenery would be doomed to development.

“The first time I saw a Westerly Land Trust sign, it announced that one of my favorite spots near Weekapaug would become a protected working farm. I thought, ‘Thank god for the land trust,’ and I still repeat that phrase fairly often,” she says. “It’s a great organization and I’m grateful that they’re also interested in protecting landmark architecture as well as natural spaces.”

“Putting Kim Charles, the talented gallery owner/curator, together with Debby Kotchen, a masterful event organizer, made for a terrific exhibit,” says Ballard. “With this kind of professionalism, the new Land Trust Gallery has a future.”

Editor's Note: This version corrects the spelling of Annie Wildey's last name in the second half of the story.

“Early Morning Mist,” oil on canvas, by Annie Wildey. (Photo submitted)
“Early Morning Mist,” oil on canvas, by Annie Wildey. (Photo submitted)

IF YOU GO

What: “Endless Summer” exhibit; a portion of the proceeds of art sales benefits the Westerly Land Trust.

Where: Trust Building, 10 High St., Westerly; parking is free. Lot is across the street on High Street.

When: On view through Aug. 17, Wednesday - Saturday from 1 to 7 p.m. and Sunday from 1 to 5 p.m.

Info: www.westerlylandtrust.org or call (401) 315-2610

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