Sargent Gallery celebrates 30 years with exhibit by artists inspired by Thomas Hart Benton

Beavan Burkett

In 1989, the Gay Head Gallery, now renamed the Sargent Gallery, hosted an exhibit of the work of Thomas Hart Benton. The show, put together by relatives of the famed American artist, was timed to coincide with the centennial of Benton’s birth and the corresponding retrospective of his work at the Whitney Museum in New York City. The artist’s daughter, Jessie Benton, provided 13 scenes of Martha’s Vineyard, painted during the time that Benton lived and worked on the Island.

Now, 30 years after the official opening of the gallery in 1987, owner Megan Sargent is once again honoring the Island’s most celebrated artist with a show featuring artists who are, in one way or another, influenced or inspired by Benton.

In some cases, there is a direct connection between the featured artist and the famed regionalist painter and muralist. Benton’s grandson Anthony Benton Gude has contributed some pieces to the show, including a couple of landscapes where his grandfather’s influence is clearly in evidence. Mr. Gude’s work also includes a traditional seascape and a painting of a shark.

Thomas Hart Benton, Courtesy National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution; Gift of Mr. and Mrs. Jack H. Mooney

John Nickerson Athearn, who was born and raised on the Vineyard and who served as a kindergarten teacher here for many years, knew Benton. He was part of an artists’ scene that flourished on the Vineyard in the mid-20th century. “John loved learning about art from Willie Huntington,” says Ms. Sargent. “Willie was a well-known watercolorist. That whole crew would make music together.”

Mr. Athearn’s appealing miniature watercolors of Island scenes are not done in a similar medium or style to Benton’s rural scenes, but there is a similarity in the sense of liveliness, even in the images that have no figures in them. One can see a similar affection for the curves of the land, the honoring of the Vineyard’s agrarian and fishing tradition, and the way that the simple dwellings depicted complement the scenes so well.

Mr. Athearn has a very distinctive style that combines blurred, rather raggedy edges created by the watercolor’s saturation into the paper and very distinct, detailed features in the houses and figures depicted. The artist’s small scale adds to the charm of the pieces, which carry correspondingly small price tags, making it possible for just about anyone to add a little piece of the Vineyard landscape to their home.

Proceeds from Mr. Athearn’s paintings will go to the Wildlife Refuge Fund. His philanthropic initiative aligns well with the nonprofit Sargent Gallery’s mission to support environmental causes.

Longtime Vineyard artist Ellen Liman, who has studios in New York City, Palm Beach, and Martha’s Vineyard, is perhaps best known here for her flower paintings. However, the pieces included in the Sargent Gallery show are all landscapes, done in a very painterly fashion with lots of texture and confident brushstrokes. Ms. Liman’s landscapes are very dramatic and full of motion. Like her flower paintings, the artist’s landscapes display a mastery of color and composition that remind one both of the work of the impressionists in style and the abstract expressionists in terms of color and heightened drama.

Also displaying a unique style is a newcomer to the local art scene, Beavan Burkett. The son of Bridget and Matt Tobin, Mr. Burkett was born and raised on the Vineyard, where he works as a carpenter. The Sargent Gallery show will mark the first time that Mr. Burkett has shown his impressive work on the Island.

The skilled artist uses a sort of dabbing technique to create a lot of vibrancy to his striking landscapes. Skies and rolling fields are built up with distinct shapes — similar to, but less rigid than a pointillism technique. The result gives a feeling of texture, almost as if the work was done on unfinished wood or another rough surface. Mr. Burkett is certainly an artist to keep on eye on.

The last of the show’s featured artists, Judith B. Howells, is a plein aire painter of considerable talent. Her Vineyard landscapes feature a bold color palette somewhat reminiscent of the work of Thomas Hart Benton.

The show will also feature of the work of jeweler and sculptor John Pagliaro, who creates beautiful pieces from arrowhead fragments and silver. On display at the gallery are a few of Mr. Pagliaro’s unusual sculptural pieces, made up of multiple ceramic pieces encased in heavy wooden frames.

A visit to the historic home housing the Sargent Gallery is worth the trip to Aquinnah alone. Artwork is displayed throughout several rooms in a home environment. The rural setting adds much to the charm of the gallery, and one might even spot a strutting peacock joining the small menagerie of pets to be found roaming the property.

A reception will take place on Friday, July 7, from 6 to 8 pm and will feature the Yard, with several dances based on Benton murals and figurative work. The Sargent Gallery is at 32 State Rd., Aquinnah. 508-645-2776;