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Homeward Found: Alison Shaw Finds Her Heart On The Island She Calls Home

Profile by Elissa Lash

Windswept,” says Alison Shaw, describing herself as a teenager standing at the bow of a ferry en route to her Martha’s Vineyard. “And,” she adds with a smile, “terribly romantic.” She remembers, “being on board the Islander, always crying, whether it was en route to the Vineyard or on the return trip to Woods Hole. Something about being surrounded by all this water, being separate, an oasis in the middle of the sea, physically and emotionally – that I would live here some day was for me a no-brainer.”

She gazes at the myriad Vineyard images in her work, while she sips coffee in her studio, an old firehouse converted into an open work space and gallery in the Oak Bluffs Arts District. Her emotional connection to the Island runs deep and remains strong.

Although she had a happy childhood in a picturesque suburb of Washington D.C., Alison always felt that Martha’s Vineyard was her “emotional home - I almost felt I had to apologize to my parents that our home wasn’t home, the Vineyard was.” Alison’s maternal grandparents had a house in Edgartown on South Water Street, and a “glamorous” life, which she describes as “not showy but an interesting combination of fancy and frugal … we didn’t go to the yacht club and my grandparents wore the same winter coats for 30 years, but it was such a different existence, with tea in white china cups decorated with rose petals … you dressed for dinner which was served promptly at 7 in the evening … they drank sherry.” She remembers being so taken with this lifestyle that sherry in a coffee mug was her drink of choice in college.

Upon graduation in 1975 from Smith College with a major in art history, Alison discovered that she didn’t get the internship she’d hoped for at the Corcoran Gallery in Washington D.C. With an overwhelming feeling of a lack of something else to do, she did what she’d done every other summer of her life and went to Martha’s Vineyard. She and five other Smith graduates rented a “loft-like barn house” in West Tisbury. And with this move she discovered another Martha’s Vineyard, not the world of her grandparents, but one that was equally entrancing to a young woman looking for direction.

She needed to find a job, but wasn’t particular about what it would be. A friend dragged her into the Vineyard Gazette. “I was terribly shy,” she remembers, “so she marched me in and introduced me to Dan West, the business manager. I got my first post graduation job.” She was hired as an inserter, manually inserting one section of the paper into the other, a job long-since replaced by machines. She wasn’t bored by the repetitious work. In fact she thoroughly enjoyed all the aspects of producing a newspaper and her new life on the Vineyard.

“On the weekends, there were long walks on beaches like Long Point. I’d bring my camera … it was so easy to drive down random dirt roads and just go explore. Now I’d be totally embarrassed to wander onto someone else’s property … but then, obviously, I felt very free.”

Perhaps she sensed that the Gazette would be her portal into the meaningful and creative world she sought on Martha’s Vineyard. She’d had several jobs here before but this felt different. As a child she’d worked at the Dukes County Historical Society as a lunchtime tour guide, “when the adults went on their lunch breaks, I gave the tours in the Thomas Cooke House.” And as a teen she’d also worked at the front desk at the Old Sculpin Gallery, where she took art classes from Ruth Appeldoorn Mead. Despite having the “art history major hanging over my head” and her initial work at the Gazette being more routine than artistic, she felt devoted to her work. “I felt connected to the creative process of the paper. I wasn’t watching the clock. I was part of a team trying to get the product out,” she says.

Her enthusiasm paid off. Soon she was pasting up ads and starting to submit some of her pictures. Although she says of her early work that she’d “never take ownership of these photos except that my name is on the backs of the 5x7 prints! They’re the opposite of creative – very mundane.” She admits that she had to take many uninspiring pictures to get to what came next in her journey. Since weekly newspapers notoriously pay very little, she was shooting images for the experience. “It was regular practice, and I was lucky to get it. How many places could I come on board with no experience and very little talent and have a built in audience all over the country? I remember that after a few years of having my photos in the paper, people would come up to me and say, you know, you’re really improving!” She laughs as she muses, “how many places would’ve have kept me around when it took four years to just reach the point of improving?”

By year six or seven, Gazette readers reported that they could pick out which photos were hers without looking at the credit. She hadn’t been trying to develop a style, “just doing my job,” but the Gazette had become the vehicle that would bring her to her current status – making a living from fine art photography and owning a gallery.

“Style,” muses Alison, “shouldn’t evolve consciously – it should be subconscious – coming naturally through doing what you love.” The Gazette readers were “a very sophisticated audience, I couldn’t just bang out the same picture week after week.” And this discerning audience began to ask for prints of Shaw’s work. “I was so excited that people liked my stuff, I just gave it to them.” The small semi-weekly paper, which had been a touchstone for Alison while in college and her “Vineyard connection,” allowed her as an adult to push out in many directions. During her 25 years at the paper she had many jobs, from inserter to Production Manager to the Art Director for the Martha’s Vineyard Magazine. She describes her time at the paper as “a personal creative quest.”

Working at a small paper, living on a small Island, didn’t seem to cramp her work or its appeal. “The Island just seems small – but over time it’s actually gotten larger for me,” she says. “There are so many nooks and crannies to uncover. I’ve explored maybe a thousandth of Quitsa Pond.” One assignment she is anxious to pursue is photographing each conservation area on Martha’s Vineyard. She envisions exploring the spaces both on foot and in her kayak. She’s even mapped it out, but needs the luxury of time to do justice to the project. The thing about the Island as a subject, she explains, “you can always go deeper emotionally, and it’s always changing – the shoreline, the landscape.”

She is not attracted to perfection as a photographer. That’s why when she photographs children she prefers to do so when they are grubby and in their element. “I have no interest in taking portraits of kids in their party clothes.” And it is the same with land and seascapes. “I’d love to hike the Grand Canyon, but I have no interest in photographing it – it would be like a postcard. I’m drawn to grittier subjects…you start exploring Menemsha, for example, and it’s pretty grungy.” Her face lights up. “I like to look at those details.”

When she does encounter triteness in a locale she seeks to transform the picture using “creative tools, like moving the camera, severe overexposure, or letting the image be a bit out of focus. I don’t want to just record how it is, but instead I take it as raw material – I’m not looking to show every grain of sand on the beach. I’m looking for what is special.”

Alison’s more traditional Vineyard seascapes have gained her quite a reputation as an Island photographer and sold incredibly well in both local and mainland galleries from The Granary Gallery in West Tisbury to the Ordover Gallery in San Diego, as well as The Old Sculpin Gallery in Edgartown, and the Focus Gallery in Cohasset. However, she doesn’t choose her subject matter based on consumer demand. “It’s a bonus if a picture sells – I’m always photographing for myself. I never think about what will sell.” She sighs but with a wry smile. “I’d make a terrible studio photographer, having to photograph to suit a client.”

Coinciding with her 50th birthday, she is increasingly using a technique she calls “painting with the camera,” looking for a looser, less literal feel in her images. “I went from being hard-edged, precise, controlled, literal and fact-based to trying to capture more the sensation of a scene or element in my work.”

In her popular seascapes this translates to photos that evoke the “feel” of the sea rather than the literal fact of the sea. “The water is moving, the camera is moving, it’s just a blur … like this one,” she pulls up an image on her computer – a rich and turbulent pattern of grey and blue swirls and textured streaks like an oil painting of a flood. “I must’ve shot this a thousand times, it’s a river, but I wanted it to look like an ocean storm. I’m using the camera as a brush – sometimes it is one big stroke, sometimes little movements like sketching.” Indeed, the images resemble grand, emotionally charged, sometimes almost sculptural, abstract paintings more than photographs.

“The triter the subject matter,” she reveals, “the more you must look inward. For example, gondolas in Venice,” she shares another image, streaks of yellow and ochre, shadowy figures. “I ask – how can I interpret them? These movement pieces change as you look at them.”

Much of this new work she hasn’t shown yet and she doesn’t know how this new direction will be received. She admits that in terms of supporting a family she has picked the worst career field and passions. “Fine art, teaching, books, magazine and newspaper publication – this is what I love, but it’s not as easy to make a living as it would be doing commercial work, corporate photography, weddings and portraits. But to this day I’m doing my hobby and actually making a living at it, and for that I feel grateful.”

Obsession, she notes, is actually the key to her best work. She prefers to focus on a subject or technique until she feels she has revealed something. “The way I work, I tend to put all my eggs in one basket. I get narrow in my focus. It’s a risk.” But a risk, she feels, that produces some of her best and most satisfying work. This “narrow” focus is what draws her to book and magazine work, like the well received “Vineyard Summer” and “Morning Glory Farm Cookbook”.

Working on a book or even a magazine assignment allows her to delve deeply into a subject, learning not only about who or what she is shooting but about her craft as well. “The ultimate project for me is doing a book where I explore one subject in depth,” like the book “Schooner” just published in May of this year, where she chronicles the building of the boat Rebecca in the Gannon & Benjamin boatyard. “Watching it evolve, shooting little details … I realized looking back that this one boat for me provided a world of subject matter – perfectly exemplifying the concept of a whole world of images right in your own backyard. The depth and meaning – it comes from within. I never found it boring.”

Another example of turning a particular fixation into a meaningful body of work is her artist’s studio series. Alison noticed her own fascination with the spaces where artists create their work. The first artist she photographed was Allen Whiting and she said she felt “like a kid in a candy store” with various barns and out-buildings overflowing with well-used art supplies.

“Going to artists’ studios and photographing objects such as their palettes and brushes – a seemingly small and intimate subject matter, but for me it becomes so much grander.” The pieces are studies in color, pattern, and texture – with an element of surprise – sometimes it’s hard to know exactly what you’re looking at until you’ve studied the picture for a while, from several angles. The project continues to this day – she visits six to eight studios a year, recording an artist’s tools, objects and work space, and sometimes the artists themselves. Shaw has been pleased that a series like the artist studio project has been well-received, noticing with pleasure that although her work began with iconic Vineyard land and sea images her audience “has grown with my work – they are accepting of the non-traditional.”
The affinity for Shaw’s work has also led many to take classes and workshops with her both on and off-Island. She has taught in locations from New Zealand to Tuscany to New Mexico, but admits a strong preference for teaching photography on her home turf. “Of course I’m prejudiced! I get so jazzed sharing the Vineyard with my students. In exploring the beaches, even if we go to the same beach every day we experience it differently, because of the light and weather. And I love sharing each town’s identity – culturally, historically from the Victorian gingerbread of Oak Bluffs to the clay outcroppings of Chilmark and Aquinnah, the West Tisbury Farmers’ Market, or even the Artcliff Diner for breakfast.”

Teaching is another passion and her enthusiasm for it took her somewhat by surprise. “I’ve always been shy and private – so when I first started teaching I wasn’t sure what I could offer. All I do is press the shutter – so what is there to talk about? It did not come naturally.”

She chuckles as she confesses that she got through four years of Smith College without once raising her hand. “Teaching others, it’s been such a growth area for me. Your life is about growing, pushing yourself – and speaking in front of a class was one of my major areas of weakness, and now it’s one of my greatest joys. I’m sharing something I love doing – and,” she smiles and gestures expansively out the window toward a Vineyard vista, “I’m sharing my favorite place.”