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Painter Norma Bridwell Gets Her Due in One-Woman Show

by Louisa Hufstader, Vineyard Gazette

Norma Bridwell has been an artist since childhood. Yet only this winter, on the verge of her 89th birthday, has the longtime Edgartown resident seen a public exhibition dedicated solely to her paintings.

“I’ve never had anything like that happen to me before,” said Ms. Bridwell, whose work is on display in the Martha’s Vineyard Playhouse lobby art space through January.

This is also the first time that her artwork has been offered for sale in a gallery setting.

“We’re sharing a little secret,” said playhouse artistic and executive director MJ Bruder Munafo. “This is a rare opportunity for Islanders to get something by a really fine artist who’s living among us.”

Titled My Horizons, the playhouse exhibition offers a retrospective view of an unheralded artist who has quietly been working on her craft since before many more established painters were born.

The show opened last week with a reception attended by the artist along with her son, Tim Bridwell — who traveled from France to be there — and daughter Emily Merz.

“We were all doing this together and feeling really good,” Ms. Bridwell said. “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 would capture what she saw in stray moments: sunsets at the end of a school day, or a view of Felix Neck Wildlife Sanctuary, as she waited for the kids to finish classes or camp.

“My job in the family… was to support Norman,” Ms. Bridwell told the Gazette, recalling her late husband Norman Bridwell, whose Clifford the Big Red Dog books (inspired by her suggestion) have charmed generations of children.

The couple met while working as freelance commercial artists, but once the Clifford books took off they were able to leave freelancing and move to the Vineyard, where they first visited on their honeymoon.

“I did painting and all that, but it was just kind of for me, and a couple of the women’s club members had them,” Ms. Bridwell said. “When we had auctions, I would get rid of a couple of them.”

One art-lover who wound up with a piece by Ms. Bridwell was Wiet Bacheller, a friend and neighbor of Ms. Bruder Munafo.

“She stopped me one day while I was out for a walk, and said ‘I have an idea for you: I really think you should do a show of Norma Bridwell’s work,’” Ms. Bruder Munafo said.

“[Ms. Batcheller] showed me a painting she had, and that’s how it came about.”

Dressed in an assortment of frame styles, the paintings on display at the playhouse 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 class for more than 25 years.

“It became almost like a family,” Ms. Bridwell said. “I only stopped a couple of years ago and it was very sad.”

Along with colorful studio still-lifes of fruit and flowers, the show includes attentive nature studies and a panorama of landscapes from end to end of the Vineyard, with dusky hills as well as gleaming beach and lighthouse scenes. Sometimes she starts with a photograph, Ms. Bridwell said, but then her own vision begins to take hold.

“I’ll just kind of think what direction I want to go,” she said. “Many times, you end up on one of your favorite beaches.”

With few exceptions — notably the spacious triptych On the Sound, a view of dunes and water — Ms. Bridwell’s paintings tend to be on the smaller side, and several were purchased at the opening reception.

“That surprised me, when I saw those red dots going up,” she said.

Ms. Bruder Munafo said she is so pleased with the show that she is holding it over through January, instead of closing at the end of a month as is customary with playhouse lobby exhibitions.

“If I love a show, I love having them in there longer than planned,” she said. “It’s a joy having Norma in there, an absolute joy.”

“I feel doubly honored,” Ms. Bridwell said.

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