Mahon About Town Article

As originally seen in MAHON ABOUT TOWN / November 2017

‘Just Curious’ by Marie Claire Rochat

I met up with Madeleine Hay in the pocket park across from the Jared Coffin House. I had only a vague recollection of the place when she suggested it as a quiet spot to meet. She was there, seated on a bench framed by a vine-choked trellis, dressed in a dainty summer frock, her hair tied back in a loose bun — a composition rather reminiscent of an Impressionist painting. We spent an hour or so talking about the formative years that have shaped this young artist, many of which have been on Nantucket. I learned that Hay is a self-described “bleeding heart,” she holds the lessons she learned growing up as guiding principals, and that she cherishes and is truly grateful for the people who taught her the things that she believes matter. She loves Nantucket and is deeply troubled by the changes she has witnessed and those that she imagines are in store. She exudes a naivety, yet has a better sense of who she is than most 30-somethings I know. She seems really content – and these days, that is really something.

A Nantucket native, Hay left the island for a decade or so to attend high school, college, and pursue a career in the fashion industry. It is one that any aspiring young fashion designer would envy. During her junior year at the Rhode Island School of Design, (where she studied Apparel Design), Hay’s sketches caught the eye of a scout from Ralph Lauren, and she was invited to intern with the company. Months later, she was selected out of a highly competitive pool to work for six weeks in the “wildly creative” house of London-based Alexander McQueen. Upon graduation, she returned to Ralph Lauren, where she spent four years as a woman’s wear designer. She left in May of 2016, moving back to the island to pursue her art — and to join the family business: her mother is Kathleen Hay, principal of the interior design firm that bears her name and her dad, Robert, works alongside his wife as an architectural draftsman. Now 26, she has never looked back.

While Hay has recently dabbled in digital art, she works primarily in watercolor and pen and ink. I was particularly intrigued by her Fading Island series, which combines both mediums, and steered our conversation to this collection of wispy impressions of buildings — some notable landmarks, others homes on quiet lanes — that appear to be fading away . . . the straight edges of the walls bleeding out across the paper to white edges, the architectural features blurring, intentionally by brush stroke and unintentionally by virtue of the fluid medium. In some places, there is an absence of color, almost like film that has been overexposed; in others, a tear of watery paint lends itself to the melancholy theme.

“Fading Island is an homage to “old” Nantucket — a tribute to this island that I love so much,” Hay told me, thoughtfully. “Anyone who has been here for a while knows how “home” is changing so drastically with overdevelopment. The island’s moodiness, its ghosts, the fog — have all been roots for my inspiration.”

There is an ethereal quality to these, one that draws the eye over and back over and prods the imagination to wonder what was there and what was taken away. Interestingly, her artistic process is very much about adding and taking away — tapping into a traditional Japanese aesthetic known as Wabi-Sabi, which the artist embraces and explores in much of her work. The tenets are centered on the beauty in imperfection, impermanence, and transience. 

“For these Fading Island pieces, I do a very detailed pencil drawing, then intuitively let the brush go where it wants,” she said. “Then I remove some of the paint, add more detail with ink, and then more watercolor. I apply, and then I take away to get the faded look. It is a zen-like approach.”

Her much more lighthearted Beach Babes is a series of gestural illustrations of surfer girls executed in pen and ink — a playful nod to one of the island’s favorite pastimes. “I live vicariously through them [surfer girls] because, while I am dying to learn to surf, I am deathly afraid of sharks,” Hay confessed. 

Hay’s devotion to her island home is noble and genuine — and she backs it up by donating a portion of the proceeds from each sale to a local charity. Her website lists the six she supports, followed by a quote from Audrey Hepburn:

“Remember if you ever need a helping hand you will find one at the end of each arm. As you grow older, you will discover that you have two hands: one for helping yourself, the other for helping others.”

I asked Hay what drives this philanthropic spirit. “I want to give back in some way, shape, or form — it’s always been something I really felt. At first, I was donating to larger, global organizations, then I decided to give to my community because I love it so much.”

These days, when she is not traveling up and down the east coast working design jobs with her mother, Hay can be found in her studio in the attic of her childhood home. Like so many Nantucket artists, she is inspired — not only by the island’s architecture, but also the rawness of its natural, often simple, beauty: a distinctively marked pebble found while walking, the enveloping way the fog and mist close in on the beach in early spring. Now, with the bustle of summer past, Hay is looking forward to her winter project: teaming up with her sister, Isabelle, on a children’s book. Clearly the next chapter in this young artist’s journey is about to unfold.