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Drawn to the Light

Artist Whitney Heavey embraces nature’s endless palette of inspiration

By Marjorie McDonald Pitts
Photography by Julia Cumes

With summertime ties to Chatham dating back to when she was a toddler, artist and now year-round resident Whitney Heavey channels her affection for the town and its coastal splendor in her art. “I spent a lot of time in Chatham growing up,” says Heavey. “I feel like this has been my home more than anywhere else I’ve lived.”

At her bright, airy studio at the Harwich Cultural Center, Heavey has lined the walls with cheerful paint swatches, vibrant color studies and mainly large-scale paintings in various stages of development. “Right now, I’m focusing on my larger pieces—mostly seascape-inspired, some flowers and landscapes,” says Heavey. “I’m trying to evoke the emotions of the viewer, a memory of a time outdoors, a sense of joy, peacefulness.”

On a side table near a sunlit window is a collection of her delightful sketchbooks, each dated by season and year, containing Heavey’s vivid plein air renderings of local flora and fauna, seascapes and maritime vessels—along with her insightful narrative and detailed notes. “The act of doing a sketchbook outside, like on the beach—you are so present. You have to be,” says Heavey. “I’m not just trying to paint to look like the scene; I’m painting the experience.”

Heavey’s creative predilection for the seaside was nurtured early by her grandmother, who was also an accomplished artist and keen observer of nature’s endless palette of inspiration. “I remember our beach walks,” says Heavey. “My grandmother taught me to experience and notice nature.”

Perched on an easel near the center of her studio is an eye-catching harbor scene with a splendent rising moon reflecting on the water beside a sturdy fishing boat. “It’s at the beginning stages and is inspired by Chatham Harbor, especially the fishing boats, their character and personality,” says Heavey. “And there’s something about the moon—it puts things into perspective, grounding, powerful—I’m obsessed.” The painting began with an acrylic undercoating of an orange hue, upon which Heavey applies multiple layers of oil paint, primarily deep blue tones, a stunning contrast to the tangerine of the moon, as the piece takes form.

Heavey’s well-patinaed brushes and tools are nestled neatly in various containers around the studio. “Some people collect shoes, but I collect brushes, scrapers, squeegees and tools,” says Heavey with a smile as she reaches for a pale blue paint-coated handle. “My favorite is this clam knife.” Scraping the surface of the still-wet painting, Heavey demonstrates one of the ways she adds texture to the surface. “I like to play around with the surface, experiment with what types of reactions I can get from the paint.”

Heavey says she prefers to paint on wood panel, which she finds more forgiving than canvas of her more energetic methods of applying and manipulating paint. “I like the resistance the wood panels provide,” says Heavey. “I love painting larger, being active with my whole body, experimenting with how I paint—getting things going on the surface.”

A graduate of Skidmore College, where she studied painting and spent her junior year in Florence, Italy, Heavey won first prize at Chatham’s Creative Arts Center in 2005, and soon after, her paintings were featured at the Munson Gallery. “Sally Munson really gave my art career a boost,” says Heavey. “It’s been a wonderful relationship. Even though the physical gallery no longer exists, Sally still represents me, and Mark August also sells some of my work.” Additionally, Heavey’s paintings are featured at the Portland Art Gallery in Maine, and she was recently admitted to the Copley Society of Art (Co|So) in Boston.

As Heavey crosses the room, she approaches another painting, of a wave hitting the shoreline. She then pulls an oil stick from a drawer and begins working it into the foreground, adding subtle streaks that appear to add shimmer to the surf. “I love the idea of surprising color,” says Heavey. “I think what I like about my paintings and what I strive for are the little things that aren’t realistic, interplays of color and texture that make my paintings uniquely mine.”,,

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