Norma Bridwell has been an artist since childhood. But it wasn’t until this winter, shortly before her 89th birthday, that the longtime Edgartown resident saw a public exhibition devoted exclusively to her paintings.
“I’ve never had anything like this before,” said Ms. Bridwell, whose work will be on display in the lobby of the Martha’s Vineyard Playhouse through January.
This is also the first time her artwork has been put up for sale in a gallery.
“We share a little secret,” said MJ Brother Munafo, artistic and executive director of the playhouse. “This is a rare opportunity for islanders to get something from a really good artist who lives among us.”
The drama show, titled My Horizons, offers a retrospective look at an unknown artist who quietly worked on her craft before many more established painters were born.
Opening evening in the Schauspielhausgalerie. – Ray Ewing
The show opened last week with a reception that the artist attended with her son Tim Bridwell – who had traveled from France – and their daughter Emily Merz.
“We all did this together and we felt really good,” said Ms. Bridwell. “It was just something I’ve never felt before because I’ve never done it before.”
When her children were younger, Ms. Bridwell said, she captured what she saw in isolated moments: sunsets at the end of a school day or a look at the Felix Neck Wildlife Sanctuary while she waited for the children to go to class or camp ended.
“My family job was to support Norman,” Ms. Bridwell told the Gazette, remembering her late husband, Norman Bridwell, whose books on Clifford the Big Red Dog (inspired by her suggestion) have charmed generations of children.
The couple met while working as freelance commercial artists, but when the Clifford books hit the market they were able to give up their freelance work and move to the Vineyard, where they first visited on their honeymoon.
“I used to paint and all of that, but it was just something to me and a few members of the women’s club had it,” Ms. Bridwell said. “When we had auctions, I got rid of a few of them.”
One art lover who ended up with a play by Ms. Bridwell was Wiet Bacheller, a friend and neighbor of Ms. Brother Munafo’s.
“One day she stopped me on a walk and said, ‘I have an idea for you: I really think you should show Norma Bridwell’s work,'” said Ms. Brother Munafo.
“[Ms. Batcheller] showed me a painting she had and that’s how it came about. “
The paintings on display in the playhouse are dressed in different frame styles and reflect the career of an island artist who also studied her craft at the Boston Museum of Fine Arts, where she took a regular studio course for more than 25 years.
“It became almost like family,” said Mrs. Bridwell. “I only quit a few years ago and it was very sad.”
In addition to colorful studio still lifes with fruits and flowers, the show includes attentive nature studies and a panorama of the landscapes from one end to the other of the vineyard, with dusky hills and glittering beach and lighthouse scenes. Sometimes she starts with a photo, Ms. Bridwell said, but then her own vision begins to take hold.
“I just figure out which direction I want to go,” she said. “You often end up on one of your favorite beaches.”
With a few exceptions – notably the spacious On the Sound triptych, a view of dunes and water – Ms. Bridwell’s paintings are on the smaller side, and some were acquired at the opening ceremony.
“That surprised me when I saw these red dots rise,” she said.
Ms. Brother Munafo said she was so pleased with the show that they are postponing it until January instead of closing it at the end of a month, as is customary with exhibitions in theater lobbies.
“When I love a show, I love having it longer than planned,” she said. “It’s a pleasure to have Norma there, an absolute pleasure.”
“I am doubly honored,” said Mrs. Bridwell.
My Horizons: Paintings by Norma Bridwell is open during Playhouse box office hours: mvplayhouse.org.