Harbor Gallery -August 2009

Mother and daughter show together at Harbor Gallery

by: Joshua B. Gray

photography by: Nicole Harnishfeger

Some of Kathy Kelliher’s earliest and fondest memories are of a small shell-lined piece of the waterfront known as Old South Wharf.

The long wharf is home to many a fine sailboat, charter fishing boat and the occasional small yacht, but it has also been home to a community of artists for as long as many who still populate this place can remember. Here is where Kelliher’s talent and inspiration were forged – in this colony of artisans – under the tutelage of her mother Helen Sharp Potter.

After years of raising families, showing their work here and there around the island and beyond, this mother-daughter team of artists has found a home at their very own Harbor Gallery in this enclave of former fishing shanties, ensconced along the water among many of their colleagues, in an atmosphere that seemingly has not changed all that much in the years that have divided the past and the present.

“I have always loved Old South Wharf,” said Potter. “To me, it feels like an artists’ colony which, I guess, it sort of was for a long time.”

She added that many artists and merchants have been there for years and it is a very friendly atmosphere in which the occupants of Old South Wharf enjoy each other’s company during their quiet times.

Both oil painters, Kelliher and Potter are part of a legacy of artists. Potter learned her craft primarily from her late husband, Ellis W. Potter, who died years ago at the age of 60 and who worked as a freelance illustrator. Kelliher in turn learned from her mother, as did her brother, David (who went on to art school).

Though their art is inextricably linked, their styles differ in as much as their personalities are different.

Potter described herself as a landscape artist who enjoys painting the unique architecture of the island and exploring the many colors (and even the plethora of shades of gray) found here, while Kelliher said she enjoys painting the soothing waters of the Atlantic Ocean and the myriad ponds and wetlands around Nantucket. The moors’ sometimes barren visage has also been the subject of her art, an atmosphere her mother describes as peaceful and quiet. This, said Kelliher, could be a reflection of her personality, or the means of dealing with it, she joked. They both agreed the depth found in painting oils is what has kept them from straying too far from the medium. Potter has now and again experimented with watercolors and Kelliher has worked in sculpture and even goldsmithing at times, but the expression of light found in the oil palette grounds them there.

Old South Wharf itself has been a favorite place to paint over the years. In their gallery space halfway up the quaint walking promenade on the right hang several paintings depicting the bustle of the local scene. Potter called it a paintable place with an atmosphere that draws out inspiration.

“Most of the work done down here is by Nantucket artists and they paint what they love, which is Nantucket,” she said. Potter has taught painting over the years and recalled teaching her daughter and several friends back in the 1960s.

They have each learned from other artists who they have worked with over the years as well.

“I try to learn from everybody,” said Kelliher. “There is something I can learn from every other artist down here, even from a conversation on the best way to clean your brushes or a class at the Artists Association.”

Both women have been members of that island institution for more than 20 years (Potter nearly 30) and said that the organization has treated them and its many other artists very well over the years.

They opened the Harbor Gallery just last summer after another Artists Association member, Barbara Capizzo, retired. Capizzo had held court on the wharf for nearly 20 years with Potter showing her work in the space for more than a dozen. Kelliher also was well at home before the move to their own space last year as she had shown her work further down the wharf at the Tobias Gallery for the previous nine years.

They said operating their own gallery has been a wonderful adventure thus far, but one that has required learning the details of running a business as well. This has presented a small challenge to a couple of lifelong artists, but with the help of family (including Kathy’s husband Dan), they are able to manage their business and personal lives while still allowing some time to paint.

Both consider the opportunity to share their work side-by-side the fulfillment of a long-held desire, but not something they had seriously considered until this particular space became available.

“It really is a dream come true,” said Kelliher. “We honestly never thought it would happen, but we think it is very special and we enjoy every minute of it.”

As they mind the gallery, they are ever conscious of Kelliher’s son, William Cockrell, who gave them much support and help in planning their venture. He died in early March of 2008, but “he is here with us,” said Kelliher.

As they spoke from inside the small space surrounded by years worth of their work, this mother and daughter looked content in the afternoon sunlight. As the Fourth of July weekend and accompanying crowds and festivities approached, they said they looked forward to setting up their easels outside in the coming months to begin new expressions that are sure to be found in the inspiration of the old wharf.

Joshua B. Gray writes about arts for The Inquirer and Mirror, Nantucket’s newspaper since 1821.

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