The pandemic has affected us all, and for artist Heather Sommers, it has been a demarcation signaling a shift in her work. Once working in clay, just before COVID hit, she turned to painting. As Sommers explains, “I’m on a new trajectory. I love the challenge of mastering a new skill. During my years as a sculptor, I thought in volume, weight and surface texture. I was very aware of objects in space. Now that I paint, I see color like never before. I have a richer visual experience of the world around me and a new outlet for creative expression. His ‘Portrait’ exhibit currently hangs in the West Tisbury Library.

His works are rich visual and visceral encounters, imbued with gesture and texture. Sommers learned the technique of cold wax and oil paint when she attended a workshop just before the world shut down. For this type of painting, you mix oil paint into viscous wax, then layer it on a board or thick oil painting paper. Although eschewing all three-dimensional sculpting, it is not surprising that this painting technique intrigued her, as it gives the possibility of creating all kinds of surfaces by scraping, pulling, rubbing, dragging or adding more of pigment with either a rubber rib or roller.

For a theme, Sommers turned to portraits of family members for the personal connection, although form, color and texture are her focus rather than detailed realistic renderings, although she uses old photographs as source of inspiration. Once selected, Sommers applies coats of the paint-infused wax mixture, then can add additional colors and reveal the original underlying hue by wiping away portions of the newly applied paint. You can see it in her striking self-portrait, in which sheaths of color depict her body and frame the more modeled work of her facial features. In another frontal portrait, “Youth”, you detect more of the back and forth of the technique where Sommers scrapes away the pigment to create the boy’s brown hair and eyebrow streaks, revealing the bold blue beneath. Similarly, Sommers engraves the floral pattern in the same way for the wallpaper.

“At Chesterfield Gorge,” the same youngster is in three-quarter length, looking sideways rather than straight at us. Here again, the wide fields of color focus our gaze on the complexity of the boy’s hair with its varied shades of brown and pretty golden highlights that seem to reflect the rays of the sun. Although lacking any specific details, Sommers’ gestural manipulation of his hair indicates that he has just emerged from the water mentioned in the painting’s title. In the amusing title of “Pandemic Princess”, the three-quarter-length young woman looks us straight in the eye not with a veil, but a black mask, which stands out strikingly against the seductive warm and cold pastel colors. Here again we can see how Sommers worked the addition/subtraction technique into the young woman’s tangle of hair, creating a riot of textures and gestures animating what is otherwise a serene scene. She says of her process, “It’s kind of like trying to guess what layers I might want, and going back and forth to find them and bring them out.”

More recently Sommers has begun to work on oil paint paper in a more subdued, flexible and freer manner, letting the underlying white of the paper show through and giving compositions an internal glow. “It’s a little less about layering,” she says. “I think I’m going in that direction. More summary. I find that I like to leave large sections of white.
Sommers adds: “I have always dabbled in painting, but I mainly worked in clay and I called myself a sculptor. But there was a moment when I knew I had just explored painting as much as I wanted. I want something more immediate so I don’t wait for the clay to dry; no need to bake it or make a glaze. I wanted something that if I felt like working on it at midnight tonight, I could go paint on it.

“Portrait” is open during library hours from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. Monday through Thursday, 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Friday and Saturday, and noon to 4 p.m. Sunday. The show can also be viewed online at wtlibraryvirtualgallery.org.

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