The paintings of longtime Monhegan summer resident Joan Harlow offer an intimate look at life on the island. From “Bedroom Curtain,” a peek outside through the bedroom window of Harlow’s Monhegan cottage, to “Kitchen Doorway I” and “Kitchen Doorway II,” to outdoors-focused pieces such as “Wrangling the Sheep” and “Jamming on the Porch,” Harlow’s artwork gives the viewer a strong sense of what it must be like to live on Monhegan Island, to engage in various island activities or simply to enjoy watching them take place.
An exhibit of Harlow’s work, “Joan Harlow: Island Life,” presented by Monhegan’s Lupine Gallery, is currently on the walls of The Island Inn on Monhegan. The 52-piece exhibit, largely hung on the walls of the inn’s restaurant, is well worth spending time perusing (tip: go before lunchtime or dinnertime, so as to be able to take in the many paintings without disturbing patrons).
Harlow’s slices of Monhegan life give one the sense that one is seeing things very much from Harlow’s point of view, as if her paintings are snapshots taken by her eyes as she goes about her day on the island. One notices that she does not dwell on the usual tourist fare – no dramatic scenes of waves crashing upon rocks, no paintings of exteriors of quaint cottages surrounded by colorful flowers, no lighthouse. Rather, Harlow chooses to highlight a particular doorway, a window, a chair, a small vase of flowers on a table, partially obscured by what appears to be a doorway (“Sylvia’s Montauk Daisies”).
Harlow likes to paint landscapes, too, but in a subtle way, as if we are on the shady, wooded trail with her or looking out of a window upon a leafy scene. Her “Gargoyle” is a nice homage to a large rock in the woods surrounded by ferns.
Harlow’s paintings featuring people are particularly effective. “Victor” is a gentle portrait of a bespectacled man with a mustache and a ball cap, looking very much like he might have recently stepped off a fishing boat. “Good Friends” features two elderly women, one with a cane, strolling along one of Monhegan’s many dirt lanes on a sunny day. “Jerry” captures a bearded Monhegan resident seemingly relaxing and just enjoying the day.
“Coffee at the Duck,” a small, dark-hued painting of women sitting in the cozy cafe area of the Black Duck Emporium, hangs alongside “Low Tide Arrival,” picturing people walking up the ramp to a newly arrived ferry.
“Harry and Vernon” is a large painting focused on two men in yellow raincoats and black stocking caps seemingly coming in from a day’s work at sea. The men’s heads are looking down as they make their way across the somewhat rocky beach. In the background is a small harbor containing several work boats. Harlow doesn’t glorify any element of the scene. She simply presents the scene in as ordinary a way as possible.
It is her ability to create art out of the most seemingly mundane happenings and objects that is Harlow’s forte. Harlow’s respect and love for the Monhegan environment thus shines through her work.
On occasion, Harlow abandons realism for an abstract flurry with a face or with certain details. In “Good Friends,” for instance, she effectively blurs the face of the woman with the cane, making her appear as she might appear to someone encountering her on that little lane, her facial features hard to discern due to the sun flaring up behind her white hair.
“Joan Harlow: Island Life” runs through Sunday, Oct. 7 at The Island Inn, 10 Ocean Ave., Monhegan, islandinnmonhegan.com.