“I’m inspired by the complex and varied atmospheric effects that occur when a moisture-laden sky is affected by light. The coastal environment can seem at times primordial because of how the basic elements of land, sea, sky, and light interact with one another.” That was Willoughby Elliott’s statement leading up to an exhibit of his work at the Left Bank Gallery in Wellfleet in 2011. Today, those words ring down through the years and return with a deeper profundity in a new exhibit of his master works at the Marion Art Center on view now through July 16.
Elliott passed away in 2016, leaving behind legions of students who had the benefit of studying under his guidance at the UMass College of Visual and Performing Arts where he would become chancellor.
Elliott’s natural gifts for the visual arts came early in his life and were nurtured by parents who encouraged their children in whatever pursuits they desired. Lisa Elliott said of her mother-in-law’s parenting, “One son became a [certified public accountant] and the other an artist; both were encouraged.”
Art teacher and artist Kim Barry of Mattapoisett was a student of Elliott and later became a painting partner with him in her studio space. Of her memories and experiences with Elliott she shared, “He was my grad school advisor, and later we taught together, curated shows together at the New Bedford Art Museum, and we painted together.”
Barry said that Elliott was not only a gifted artist in his own right but was a gifted teacher, generous, humorous and, above all else, dedicated. To that point, she recalled that when he demonstrated a painting technique, he would continue the work on his own time so that the students could see the evolution of the method. He could also be a bit direct but usually with a sidecar of humor; as noted by Barry, “He’d often say, ‘You need to take that painting out to the tool shed and give it a couple of whacks.’”
Much of Elliott’s work are his paintings primarily executed from photographs he would take while out in nature. But Barry said she introduced him to plein air painting versus what he called his spiritual landscape. On exhibit now, one will find canvases with deep rich colors bathing the observer in the warmth of nature, lush as velvet and many with evocative titles such as Moods of Approaching Fog, Illuminated Shore, or Warm Marsh.
The gallery spaces not only display Elliott’s painting (primarily acrylic on canvas) but also his well known, screen-printed pieces and his little-known, early clay pots. “His pots are from the 1960s,” Lisa Elliott said. Large, organic, painted, and glazed, the pots take pride of place within the gallery spaces and seem a completely natural extension of the paintings gracing the walls behind them.
A potter herself, Barry said, “I never knew he did pottery!” She went on to say, “They are so free, and he used colors with a painter’s eye.” Barry said of his printmaking, for which he was nationally acclaimed, “He was so methodical and organized.”
And so, the artist seemed to have explored the far reaches of his creative being from the wild and free to the deliberate and purposeful with confidence and, yes, excellence.
The MAC, in giving all the gallery spaces to this one artist, is recognizing the depth of his artistry and the public’s need to see all the beauty offered in pots, painting, and prints as conceived by Willoughby Elliott. While the paintings range from coastal to still-life images, the pots from the free forms of a young artist on an expedition and the screen prints known as serigraphs are exquisite examples of control and precision. The themes of the prints range from rich florals to light, airy sculptural images, again the artist exploring the edges of creative desire.
With so much to take in, it seems a point of reference regarding his painting might be useful. Another student of the arts, Joanne Dunn of Mattapoisett, shared that she was introduced to Elliott’s work while studying under another art instructor. She said Elliott always used intense pink, orange, and red tones to cover his canvases before beginning the actual subject of a piece.
As you stand facing an Elliott painting, you will see where he allowed those deeply saturated colors to peak through here and there, landing delicately but impactfully on the eye of the beholder.
“I relate to the way that a color, mark making, and the layering of paint can be made to express a dominant expressive light, defining the space within each of my paintings.… Derived from specific locations, (the paintings) evolve into idealized spaces, sometimes with an added hint of danger.… My work through its abstractness can inform the viewer about our human origins and our relation to the natural world.”
To learn more about the creative genius of Willoughby Elliott and the Marion Art Center, visit marionartcenter.org.
By Marilou Newell