The Eyes have it

Artist Jo Hay Persists

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by Steve Desroches

It’s an impossibly bright April day when the light spreads unimpeded throughout Provincetown as the leaves have yet to fill the trees, and subsequently the town, with any shade. It illuminates the blue and yellow Ukrainian flags that dot Commercial Street, seemingly at home with the Progressive Pride flags that fly next to them. Many people visit Provincetown to escape the world, but at the same time, there is an expectation that the Cape tip will comment in its way on the issues of the day and stand up for justice and equality. One of the most visible and popular expressions of that spirit is the work of artist Jo Hay, whose large canvas portraits of progressive figures have captured the imagination of Provincetown.

Vice President Kamelia Harris

Walking into Hay’s Pleasant Street studio the striking images of Georgia gubernatorial candidate Stacey Abrams and Vice President Kamala Harris glow awash in color and sweeping, yet disciplined, brush strokes emanating the spirit of these two political giants of our times. Their eyes display a steely cool and calm confidence, captured in Hay’s mind and depicted by her via the brush. For Hay what the portraits represent is both inspirational and aspirational as she contemplates where she’s at in this particular moment as an artist and a citizen in a democracy.

This artistic exploration really began with the presidential election in 2016. Hay thought, like many, that history was about to be made with the election of the first woman president of the United States. That did not happen. Wracked with grief and anxiety over the outcome, Hay’s disposition shifted to despair. Like many, Hay needed to process and regroup. But how?

“I didn’t consider myself an anxious person,” says Hay. “But I’d never been more terrified than in those early days. I needed to find a way through.”

Greta Thunberg

Feeling the fire of resistance, Hay and her partner Carolyn Kramer participated in the Women’s March in Washington, D.C., on January 21, 2017, the day after Trump’s inauguration, becoming part of what would be the largest single-day protest in American history. Shortly thereafter, Hay completed a large-scale portrait of Hillary Clinton, the first of what would become known as her Persister series, named so for when Senator Mitch McConnell, along with all other Republican senators, stopped Senator Elizabeth Warren from quoting Coretta Scott King in voicing her opposition to Jeff Sessions as Attorney General. McConnell finished his remarks against Warren with the now famous, and reappropriated line: “Nevertheless, she persisted.”

Rachel Maddow

It was women like Clinton and Warren, who Hay would also go on to paint, that gave her hope. But it was another woman that really sent Hay on this new political and artistic clarion call, one who is very familiar to Provincetown: Rachel Maddow. The MSNBC political commentator and part-time Provincetown resident helped Hay understand and traverse the Trump years with her explanation of the day’s news and events on The Rachel Maddow Show. It was while painting Maddow’s image that Hay had a transformative moment. She would paint those women who were fighting back at what Hay saw as a dark time. To date, Hay has painted 17 portraits as part of the Persisters series with the 18th to be unveiled this week at the Chatham Orpheum as part of a celebration of Hay, who has been named the inaugural Artist of the Year by the Arts Foundation of Cape Cod. That painting will be auctioned at the Foundation’s Prelude to Summer Gala at the Hyannisport Club in Barnstable, on Thursday, June 9.

In addition to Clinton, Maddow, Abrams, Harris, and Warren, Hay’s series also includes Ruth Bader Ginsberg, Greta Thunberg, Amanda Gorman, Megan Rapinoe, Ayanna Pressley, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Emma Gonzales, Ibtihaj Muhammad, Christine Blasey Ford, Marie Yovanovitch, Nancy Pelosi, and Fiona Hill.

“They all show strength and courage, and a willingness to stand up,” says Hay. “I want to acknowledge that with these paintings. It can feel like a challenge to take on the next one, but their ability to take a stand is what gives me the courage to do the next one.”

Stacey Abrams

Outside of her Persister series, Hay has also painted President Joe Biden and Secretary of Transportation Pete Buttigieg on a 48×60-inch canvas, as well as a smaller portrait of Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy. These and the Persister paintings have always attracted attention when they are on display, be it at The Commons, Womencrafts, or the Adam Peck Gallery, which is where Buttigieg posed next to the portrait with his husband Chasten when they came to Provincetown during his run for the Democratic nomination for the 2020 Presidential Election. In fact, Maddow has also seen her portrait in person, and Clinton, Ginsberg, Thonberg, and Pressley have all communicated that they, too, have seen images of the portraits, with Ginsburg sending a handwritten note to Hay. While the next portrait is still a secret, Hay is planning a future painting of newly appointed Supreme Court Justice Ketanji Brown Jackson. But Hay is still imagining that image. For her it’s all about the eyes when she tries to capture the spirit of her subjects as she draws from photographs and news clips, trying to conjure the essence and strength of the person. Hay is still shaking off the treatment Jackson received at the hands of several Republican senators, which, at the moment, is a distraction. She’ll eventually settle on the joy of the accomplishment, which continually fills her emotional and artistic cup.

“I could retire at this point,” says Hay. “It’s the most thrilling thing I’ve done as an artist. It’s my life’s work.”

Ruth Bader Ginsberg

Jo Hay’s latest painting in her Persisters series will be unveiled on Thursday, April 28 at the Chatham Orpheum, 637 Main St., Chatham. The painting will be auctioned off at the Arts Foundation of Cape Cod’s Prelude to Summer Gala at the Hyannisport Club,
2 Irving Avenue, Barnstable, on Thursday, June 9.
Hay is represented by the Greg Salvatori Gallery,
366 Commercial St. For more information visit gregsalvatori.com or call 774.538.9779. For more information visit artsfoundation.org or call 508.362.0066. For more on Hay visit persistersjohay.com.