Professional Nonprofit Theater on Martha's Vineyard
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Fred J. Hancock exhibit showcases the shape of shadows

by Brooks Robards, MV Times

East Chop is the subject for Fred J. Hancock’s watercolor and photography exhibit, “Life in the Shadows,” on display at the Martha’s Vineyard Playhouse through Sept. 6. Hancock is a New Hampshire native who married into a Vineyard family. He’s lived on East Chop since 2005.

Hancock received his undergraduate degree in theater design from Boston University after a quick stint as a medical student. After that, he went to New York University and got his master of arts in theater design. He became an assistant lighting designer on Broadway, and went on tour with shows and regional operas. He became a freelance set designer after spending 11 years with a company that produced corporate meetings. He worked as a lighting designer at the M.V. Playhouse. Throughout his career, he maintained his work with photography and watercolor.

Hancock’s painting instructor at BU advised him, “Shadows are not really black.” “Looking more carefully at the color in shadows opened my eyes in many ways,” Hancock said in his artist’s statement. “Highlight and shadow give subjects shape, but color in shadows brings a painting or photograph to life.”

Almost all of the 21 pieces on display capture some aspect of the Vineyard. Hancock takes photos regularly on his walks around East Chop. Some continue their life as photos, while others provide inspiration for his watercolors and an occasional acrylic painting. His interest in watercolor comes because he finds he has the best control in that medium.

While his photos and watercolors could be called landscapes, they often foreground buildings and objects like the East Chop Lighthouse, or a red gas pump. One of his favorite photo subjects is a sculpture designed by Frank Lloyd Wright, which he shoots in each season.

The photo “Shadow Fencing” depicts a white picket fence that tosses its shadows into the foreground. In the watercolor “McCormack Gables,” the foreground consists of East Chop rooflines with blue sky and a pale arrangement of clouds above. The watercolor “Dock on the Pond” focuses on a dock jutting left into the intense blue of Menemsha Pond. The composition pleasingly balances the diagonal of the dock with short marsh grass heading right. The large seascape photo “Sky, Sea, and Moon” moves from the figurative to abstraction.

Hancock’s one acrylic painting in the show, the largest work on exhibit, is a portrait of the Old Whaling Church. It illustrates the artist’s interest in the interaction between highlight and shadow. A corner of the building and its first three columns dominate the composition. They are mottled with blue, green, and purple shadow, while the other columns progress toward white, limned with blue shadow. A dark tree trunk angles toward the columns from the left in a contrast between natural wood and construction. Like “McCormack Gables,” “Whaling Church” approaches its subject in an interestingly unconventional fashion.

The mix of photos, watercolors, and acrylic complement each other as representative of Hancock’s work. It’s easy to see that the precision of line emphasized in his photos also characterizes his watercolors. “Life in the Shadows” will remain through Sept. 6.

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