Potomska painter wows Art Drive visitors

Aug 13, 2019

Dartmouth artist Gay Gillies may be on vacation, but last weekend she was still hard at work giving workshops and tours to visitors at her historic home on Potomska Point, just off Potomska Rd. in South Dartmouth.

Gillies led a workshop on her fresco painting technique for the annual Dartmouth-Westport Art Drive, which saw dozens of local artists open their studios to members of the public from August 9-11.

She held a workshop on a sunny Saturday morning from the shaded patio of her garden overlooking the sea.

“This garden is registered in the Smithsonian,” she said. “Not I think for its exotic plantings, but for its particular contrast to the landscape. And so it’s evolved over time, like paintings.”

Her house itself has also evolved over time, with many additions to the original structure. 

According to Gillies, the original house was built in 1680 and was used as an inn for passengers awaiting a ferry that used to cross the Slocum River at a landing nearby. 

She is a part-owner of the shared family home and comes for six months of the year, often inviting houseguests to help fill the many bedrooms.

The house includes an original tavern bar area, as well as a wooden staircase with odd gaps that according to family lore housed runaway slaves on the Underground Railroad.

More recent additions include the kitchen, an outdoor shower, and a sunroom overlooking the sea and the river.

For the Art Drive Gillies had prepared plaster-covered square canvases for visitors to try their hand at her fresco painting style, a technique she developed after travelling in Italy and all over the world.

Gillies uses oil sticks, pastels, acrylics, charcoal, and other materials in her paintings, all applied to a surface of dried plaster to give the pieces a layered look.

She said that she loves using plaster because it lends her artwork the flaws of an imperfect surface.

A handful of visitors watched Gillies demonstrate her technique before walking through the house while the artist explained the various works on display.

She described each piece and the inspiration behind them as well as pointing out notable features of the house itself.

“This is quite an evolution of work,” she said, indicating a large piece that was hanging in the garden patio. 

“First of all, this is an exact rubbing of the inside of a slave house built out of oyster shells. The West Indian slaves brought this technique to the coastal Georgia area.”

Clusters of oysters used in a type of concrete called ‘tabby’ were visible in the painting, which made use of bold ink lines, light blue watercolor, and iridescent pigments to make the image come alive.

Other paintings made use of a variety of materials, including oxidized indigo, dyes made from mushrooms she foraged herself, and even clay on paper.

At one point during the tour, Gillies even gave one piece that hadn’t worked out to one of the visitors who said that she liked it, Westport resident Diana Carns.

Carns said that Gillies’ workshop was her first stop on the Art Drive. 

“I’ve been to other Art Drives and things like this, and this was a very special experience,” she said. “Gay was extremely generous with sharing a lot of her inspiration and ways of working. It sort of transcended just an art talk.”

Carnes is an abstract painter and printmaker herself, and said that she does the Art Drive every year. “It’s an amazing experience...This place is amazing.”

Gillies’ houseguest Carrie Stone also attended the workshop. “I’m enjoying hearing about her process,” she said. “That to me is really interesting.”

Stone added that she learned a lot. “Maybe I’m a wannabe artist,” she laughed. “I do lettering, and I was interested in design and commercial art. So this is way more free than I am in my art.”