Life work of island artist on display
Jamestown artist Jeanne Bunkley has earned the reputation of Grand Dame of the Jamestown art scene. All may see why in a retrospective of her portraits and paintings showcased at the library this summer, with the opening reception tomorrow, July 27, from 5 to 7 p.m.
The exhibit features several of the veteran artist's larger paintings, such as "Jamestown House Party" and "Gossip." Also featured is a selection of her charcoal portraits in the library hallway.
Bunkley, a member of the Art League of Rhode Island and the New England Printmakers Guild, is a founding member of the Conanicut Island Art Association (CIAA).
Bunkley maintains a self-depreciating demeanor towards her mastery. "I can't imagine anyone buying them," she says of her art pieces. Nevertheless, many people have collected Bunkley's art, with numerous commissions completed over the years.
Bunkley remembers one commission that made her especially nervous. The request was to paint a portrait of a military officer, an admiral, who had died. The officer's wife had rejected a painting by another artist, and Bunkley was hired to create a better rendition. Only one photograph of him as a young man was available for her to use as a guide. She was compelled to imagine how a man she had never met had aged. Yet his wife was satisfied with the portrait. "That was not an easy task," Bunkley adds.
In the 1970s, Bunkley sketched two series of portraits of Jamestown men about town in a snapshot of recent history. The renditions are sure to bring back memories for islanders who knew the men of bygone days. From Caleb the plumber to Bill Pimentel, one of the last Jamestown ferryboat captains, Bunkley captures likenesses of familiar faces, tugging hearts as only photographs would otherwise. She sold many from the first batch of 40, and then sketched another 20.
"Men don't like to sit (for a portrait). They yawn and fidget," she says with a wave of her hand. Squirming sitters did not sway her from approaching locals on the street to ask them for a pose, though. "I did them in an hour or less," she adds.
Bunkley's style does not stop at portraits. Her village studio bursts with still-life flowers, colorful landscapes, festive scenes of garden parties and beach days.
Bunkley studied at the National Academy of Design and the Art Students League, both in New York. She also studied at the Grand Central School of Art and Design, recalling the train rides into the city from Bronxville. "In those days, you didn't get a degree," she notes.
Bunkley chose various artists with whom to study, including portrait artist Jerry Farnsworth. "You don't study with just one artist, or else you end up painting the same way," she comments. Bunkley was awarded the William H. Fogg Memorial Scholarship during her training.
Jillian Barber recalls being awestruck the first time she met Bunkley years ago at one of her art shows. At first she thought Bunkley seemed "imposing," but summed up the courage to approach her. "I was shy," Bunkley protests, surprised to learn about the first impression from long ago.
Barber goes on to gush admiration and respect for Bunkley. She came up with the idea to exhibit Bunkley's art in a retrospective, so the rest of the community may enjoy her art as well. "She's an indomitable spirit," Barber adds with affection.
Bunkley's artwork can be found in private and public collections, most notably the Naval War College Museum.
The show at the library will run until Oct. 27.