Dartmouth artist paints water, reflections

May 19, 2019

Like the sea she paints, Dartmouth artist Heather Stivison is multi-faceted and changeable.

Originally from New Jersey, Stivison moved to Dartmouth in 2014, leaving a high-powered job as a museum director and President of the Mid-Atlantic Association of Museums to rediscover life on the other side of the canvas.

She had been working in museums for twenty years — but she was always an artist at heart.

“I was dying to get back to my original training, which was as a painter,” she said. “And so I came up here hoping that I could get back into that. And that is exactly what’s happened.”

Stivison is currently completing a masters in Studio Art at UMass Dartmouth.

“It’s been a complete sea change. It’s been enormous,” she said. In her last job, she traveled a lot, and had to think about managing and strategizing and look at financial reports.

But now, she said, she’s thinking about “our human emotions and how they can be revealed in paint — it’s like a complete turnaround.” She added thoughtfully, “it’s much more human.”

Stivison can barely remember a time when she wasn’t an artist.

Her mother was an art teacher, and started her out at a tender age. “She started me in oils when I was five,” Stivison said.

After getting an education in museum studies and fine art, Stivison began a career as an artist in Manhattan — but balancing family, art, and commuting to New York City became untenable, and she switched to museums.

“I love museums, I’ve loved them all my life,” she said. “So it was a wonderful career.”

But she’s thrilled to be painting again.

Stivison describes her focus at UMass as “the feminine sublime” expressed through the subject of water.

“When you think about our experience of water, when you’re floating in water, you’re kind of weightless and everything else is left behind,” she explained, adding that the theme is meditative, even reflective.

“Hopefully, when [the paintings are] finished, it will allow people to do a little meditation of their own,” she said.

Stivison draws her inspiration from the water in the South Dartmouth area in which she lives, and the beautiful nature she’s found here.

“Since coming up here, I’ve been really checking out the water. I love being on the beach, I love being on a boat, I love anything to do with water,” she said.

Her first paintings were traditional seascapes. But her focus gradually shifted to patterns and colors, and since coming to UMass she’s enjoyed painting more abstract work.

“[Painting] is just something that I can’t let go of. You sort of get into a zone, you get into this creative process where the colors and the pattern...they’re just sort of all connected.

“It’s very rewarding. It’s rewarding even when the painting goes badly.”

Stivison uses oils, acrylics, and watercolors — sometimes more than one type — in her paintings, because she loves a layered look, using translucent paints so the viewer can see hidden images beneath.

Her work will be shown all over the South Coast over the summer, including at Dartmouth’s Norton Gallery in Padanaram.

And she loves the art community in Dartmouth.

“It’s such a wonderful art community up here, with supportive people — both artists and art collectors,” she said.

Stivison said she’s having more fun doing abstract art than figurative art, although she never thought that would be the case.

That doesn’t mean she’s giving up more traditional figurative work.

“I was always a super realist,” she said. “Even in my work in the city...I could do very tiny detailed work very precisely. And I can still do that.”

But she said that she finds the new experience of abstract and expressive work to be “very rewarding.”

Stivison added, “It’s almost like jumping off a bridge into something brand new — it’s a little bit scary, but exciting.”

Her work will be on display at the Norton Gallery on 330 Elm Street, South Dartmouth throughout the summer.