Artist Billy Hoff isn’t one to dissect his painting process. “I push around paint and see what happens,” he said.
This seems to be an oversimplification of his process, especially considering his painting of Bobby Driscoll, one of the pieces featured in his new show at the A Gallery in Vineyard Haven. Mr. Hoff is sharing the walls with fellow Vineyarder Lily Morris in their joint exhibit entitled Emergence which opened on Sunday.
Usually the figures in Mr. Hoff’s paintings form on their own with no distinct identification, but the inspiration for this painting came from the real life story of Bobby Driscoll, the first child actor to be contracted by the Walt Disney Company in the mid-1940s. Bobby was a main character in films such as Song of the South, So Dear to My Heart, Treasure Island and Peter Pan. Mr. Hoff stumbled upon Bobby’s story after collecting editions of Treasure Island by different illustrators, most notably N.C. Wyeth.
“Basically the story [of Treasure Island] is of a boy growing into a man, something kind of hokey like that,” Mr. Hoff said.
Although the character of Jim Hawkins had a happy ending in the book, Bobby Driscoll’s story took a different turn.
“When he hit puberty, he wasn’t a cute kid anymore,” said Mr. Hoff.
After Bobby’s voice deepened and his face lost its innocence, he was quickly dropped from Disney. He turned to drugs, and eventually his body was found without identification in an abandoned New York city building. He was buried as a John Doe.
Remarkably, the entire story of Bobby Driscoll is captured by Mr. Hoff in his painting, which features the boy beginning to age, his face not yet destroyed but already set in a sort of grim resignation.
“People tend to romanticize things in the past,” Mr. Hoff said. “There is this illusion that it was a simpler time.”
Mr. Hoff, who has been painting for twenty-plus years, said he often leans toward anachronistic themes. Other work on display includes a series of maritime paintings, but here again the personal is paramount.
“I can pull imagery out of knots of wood or clouds or anything I look at — I can find faces,” he said. “I could never make an abstract painting because I always pull out figures. It creates a narrative.”
His quiet scenes of life on the horizon have bold, deep colors and from afar often include what appears to be shadowy figures with fancy top hats and seaside attire, their sharp haunting eyes following you around the room. Up close, though, what seemed like solid blue becomes an impossibility of colors, and what was a face fades into the rest of the seemingly haphazard paint lines. In the background of each painting is the ocean. Mr. Hoff wanted to capture the infinity of the ocean while avoiding the cliches of lighthouses or fishing gear.
“The horizon line is big for me,” he said. “We are on the edge of this incredible space. And I think we take it for granted. If you think about it, we are on the edge of nothingness.”
Looking at Mr. Hoff’s paintings, one can imagine two friends talking while packing their suitcases for a heroic sail, or the smell of the salt and the calls of the seagulls as the cabin boys do their morning chores.
“I could probably go into each of these and tell you . . . but it’s like interpreting a dream almost,” he said. “I could tell you what it means to me, but what it means to you is just as valid.”
Lily Morris also wants to leave the understanding of her paintings up to the viewer. This leaves the doors of possibility wide open as her collection of magic realism paintings seem to fuse classic portraiture with the brain blow of an acid trip. For example, in her piece Folding Through, a man with maroon suede pants sits comfortably in a wood-paneled room with his arms crossed. Meanwhile his face is being blasted apart by some unseen force.
Ms. Morris said she thrives on the viewer’s experience, engulfed in the mystery of possibilities that each individual’s thought process takes them through while navigating through her work. Yet she paints with a plan. Her most recent set of work is a modern take on 19th century painter Thomas Cole’s The Voyage of Life, which investigates the passages from childhood, youth, manhood and old age.
“It was a meditation on the cosmic and personal power of each individual, and celebrating that power in a raw way,” she said. “It’s allowing beauty to own its place through its relationship with darkness.”
At the A Gallery’s opening on Sunday evening, Ms. Morris stepped in front of the piece In the Beginning which takes the viewer on a journey from the open space of the universe with planets and stars to plant-like forms which sprout into the gentle innocence of a baby’s face as she takes her first breath of life.
“The infant is looking into the future and all receptors are being blown open to so much stimulation,” she said. “Adult hands are grabbing and comforting the beginning of perception and consciousness.”
Ms. Morris describes her paintings as “storms of associated abstractions that represent an emotional state,” noting the balance she finds between light and dark, beauty and ugliness.
“I’m refreshed by extremes,” she said.
Ms. Morris’s parents run Galen Films, which produces documentaries with a focus on children’s human rights.
“I grew up in one of the wealthiest communities in the world, but was watching footage of children starving to death,” said Ms. Morris.
Ms. Morris grew up on the Vineyard but for the past few years has lived in Brooklyn, Philadelphia and China. Last October she moved back to the Vineyard, reacquainting herself with nature and the rhythms of the Island.
“Slowing way down produced this creative clarity that I didn’t have before; the ability to process the experiences I’d had.”
She plans to continue painting and exploring the stages of life and perception, crediting the art opening with adding to her drive.
“Having my community see the work that I do has propelled me to feel even more momentum. It inspires me to work harder and build the body of work that I imagine.”
“If you throw all of your human energy into something, you will cultivate excellence,” she added. “It wouldn’t matter what medium it was as long as you went as hard as you could.”
Emergence featuring work by Billy Hoff and Lily Morris will continue through Sept. 12 at the A Gallery, located on State Road in Vineyard Haven, across the street from Cronig’s.