Works in Progress - Winter 2012

The Preservationist

By Jessica Wilde | March 21, 2013


As the island of Tangier disappears into the Chesapeake Bay, artist Debra Howard preserves with oils its landscape and its people. The discrete speck of Virginia, population 727, is inhabited by watermen and their families who still speak a Cornish dialect more than 200 years after the first settlers arrived. As the island’s artist in residence, Howard created a plein air painting every day for the past year to document the eroding land and its seasons. Now, with no intention to leave the island and having become director of the Tangier Island History Museum, she has gained enough trust and understanding to begin depicting the people. “I paint now with more energy, passion, and immediacy,” Howard says, “which coincidentally reflects the very nature of the island. This place is raw.”

Howard particularly relates to Tangier’s women; many are reserved, seldom venture out on boats to crab with the men, and avoid the outdoors during the hours when tourists come and go on the ferries. “The people tell the story of the island whether they want to or not—their language, the way they approach a stranger, the way they are with their own family,” she says. “They are a part of what I am trying to preserve.”

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