In Whitney Heavey’s oil painting, “Believe,” three sailboats head toward the horizon against a sky washed with the pastel hues of late afternoon. The sun creates sparkles on the water in the foreground and illuminates one of the boats, which is clearly sailing downwind, flying a billowing spinnaker in front of its full mainsail and jib. The languid scene immediately reminds me of summer days out on the Sheepscot River, where I learned to sail. Heavey grew up sailing too, and still spends as much time as she can on the ocean off Cape Cod, where she moved full time two years ago after spending many summers there.
“We are inspired by water—hearing it, smelling it in the air, playing in it, walking next to it, painting it, surfing, swimming, or fishing in it, writing about it, photographing it, and creating lasting memories along its edge,” writes Wallace J. Nichols in the introduction to Blue Mind— his book about the human-water connection that Heavey has found to be especially meaningful. “I’ve been painting the landscape my whole life, but the ocean has always been a really special place for me,” she says.
To capture the ethereal nature of ocean and sky on canvas, Heavey spends her summers paying close attention to her subject matter, combining time in the studio with late afternoons on the beach and weekends in the boat with her husband. “When I made the decision to paint full-time, I started a sketchbook practice during the summers that was life-changing for me,” she says. “I worked hard to set regular studio hours—if I’m not in my studio on a weekday I get twitchy—but in the summer I intentionally set aside time to be able to take in the ocean environment that fuels my work.” Along with her sketchbooks, she takes videos with her smartphone. “You lose so much information in photos; the videos take me back to the sounds of the breeze and the birds,” she says. “I can feel more in the setting when I’m looking at a video from September in January. I can get a better sense of how it smelled—was it a cold northeast breeze, or a warm southerly bringing up the saltiness and the seaweed.” Her use of videos to accurately record a scene doesn’t necessarily transfer to realism in her work. “I’m going for more of an emotional response to the ocean and an emotional connection, and my connection doesn’t have to be the same as the viewer’s.”
Nichols calls Blue Mind “a mildly meditative state characterized by calm, peacefulness, unity, and a sense of general happiness and satisfaction with life in the moment,” Looking at “Believe,” I feel a connection to a familiar piece of the Maine coast, and I know exactly what he means.
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