Erma Wheeler stayed at the center of artistic activity on Cape Ann for many decades. She first connected to Cape Ann artists in the 1930s, studying with and encouraged by Jon Corbino, Samuel Hershey, Lester Stevens and Anne Brockman. Her work was honored with a major retrospective, “Landscapes Real and Imagined,” in 2003 at the Cape Ann Museum.
Wheeler (1915–2005) painted mainly in watercolor, but is also known for her contributions to the Lost at Sea mural in the Gloucester City Hall—created for the bicentennial in 1976—and other projects, like costume and set designs for choreographer Ina Hahn’s productions at Windhover.
A concise and focused show now on view at Trident Gallery captures Wheeler’s colorful, distinct style. Comprised largely of abstract landscapes, the show has fewer than two dozen works, but offers viewers a direct appreciation of Wheeler’s strengths.
She was bold, but not restless. Works from the ’70s bear a striking technical similarity to works created two decades later, but all share an intensity of subject and color. She was interested in the possibilities of her materials, but did not make that a central notion in her work.
Her paintings are not representational, but calling them abstract is not entirely accurate either. A quarry view clearly shows rock faces, bodies of water, and sky; it also clearly reveals the artist, the individual, examining nature with her own eye.
The Trident Gallery show—entitled “Parallels,” after two works in vertical linear style, anomalies mixed into this mainly landscape collection—produces unexpected pairings. Three “Basalt” works are stylized landscapes, brightly colored save for a central black realization of the basalt intrusions that inject themselves into Cape Ann’s granite foundation. These three paintings stand on their own, as do two striking works sharing the same title: “As the Day Rises,” more abstract than other landscapes, rich in movement.
Another series capturing Blood Ledge Quarry in Lanesville—half a dozen, more than any other grouping in this collection—shows the artist’s shifting views of the same vista. One large work from 1978, simply “Blood Ledge,” has what appears to be an exploding bush in the foreground, blurry and active, dramatically investing the painting with energy. Another—“Blood Ledge 5”—focuses on reflections projected by the rocks onto the water. Another—“Blood Ledge 4”—ignores those reflections entirely, although it appears to use the same light.
The two “Parallels” themselves use the same color palette—apart from the blackness in the Basalt paintings, Wheeler sticks to red/yellow and blue/green in these paintings. She wrote of her Parallels that she was interested in “edges, and how they could meet, and be lost, and meet again,” and these thin stripes of color draw attention to that idea. The set of “Parallels”—composition dates indicate she worked on them through the ’70s and ’80s—parries with subject matter found in other paintings.
Most compelling in this collection is a large untitled work from the early ’70s. A fiery ball of energy, blasting out an encircling corona from its central subject, it must be a landscape. It has a horizon line, sense of dawn or dusk, and a larger object emanating into the foreground like a mountain or rock face. But its impact is luminous, expansive; it does not capture a view, as much as it captures a moment.
As with all of Trident’s shows, Wheeler’s work is organized intently, with carefully chosen sight lines and lighting. The works themselves merit this special attention, and capture the breadth of Wheeler’s artistic energy in just a small sampling of paintings.
“Erma Wheeler: Parallels” runs through June 3 at Trident Gallery, 189 Main St., Gloucester. Visit www.tridentgallery.com or call 978-491-7785.