Motivated by art: At 99, Harwich artist Vivienne Oswell is still painting

HARWICH – Harwich artist and resident Vivienne Oswell will celebrate her 99th birthday this Saturday with a gallery showing some of her most recent work. At a time when many may want to slow down, she finds painting a motivator that keeps her going.

The beauty of Harwich has inspired her to paint for 70 years and she is known to many for her local seascapes and portraits. During a recent interview at Gallery 820 in Harwich Port, where her work is on display and where Saturday’s celebration will be held, a recent customer saw her and came right over. He praised her work and added: “I just wanted to shake your hand!”

Oswell fell in love with Harwich early and moved here with her husband Thomas in 1952. “I moved from Allen Street in Brockton to Allen Street in Harwich,” she recalls with a laugh. Although her sister studied art, Oswell never did. “As a child, my art teacher Miss Burns told me I had real talent and encouraged me to develop it,” she said. “I’ve been selling my work since I started painting.”

After moving to Harwich, she went to work as a photo retoucher for local photographer Chick Craig, who took many graduation photos.

“It wasn’t painting, but I was studying faces.” She laughed when she remembered that the biggest challenge in retouching graduation photos was getting teenage acne out of the picture. Much of the work initially involved black-and-white photographs requiring retouching of the negative, but gradually the studio moved into color work, which Oswell remembers as much more tedious to retouch.

While retouching, she continued to paint in her spare time. When she began to achieve more success in her art, she quit her job. “Painting took hold of me when I started doing more than retouching,” she recalls.

The lessons she learned while retouching faces were used when she focused on portraits. Although Oswell has worked in watercolor as well as acrylic and oil, she finds oil the most suitable medium for portraits because of its ability to blend all kinds of hues. That’s not always true with acrylics, she added.

She is commissioned by companies and families to take portraits to celebrate special occasions and important events. Her portraits can fetch thousands of dollars, and her portraits of children are especially popular. Her secret in portraiture is to get to know the person she is painting, to “feel the character.” She was never formally trained and credits her experience as a photographic artist with helping her develop her portraiture skills.

Her other love is Harwich’s scenery and harbours, especially Wychmere Harbour. The seascapes and nature of her adopted home are frequent subjects of her work, including boats, beaches, lighthouses and seabirds. “I never tire of looking at the beautiful harbors and scenery,” she said. She also painted many portraits of boats. “Owning a boat makes it valuable to a person and worth painting,” she said. “I often paint someone’s boat in a seascape harbor if that’s what they want,” she added with a smile.

Oswell also taught adults and children to draw. When she teaches, she focuses on bringing out the talent in her students, not making them copy her or someone else. For anyone who thinks they might want to try painting, she recommends taking a sample lesson to reveal their talent.

Her arthritis can bother her at night, and if she can’t sleep, she often draws.

She has her own studio in her home, with three huge windows open to the northern light, considered the best exposure for artists because of its consistency. She is passionate about her art, seeing it as a way to “express myself in the best possible way to help others.”

Oswell’s 99th birthday celebration will be held on Saturday, July 16 at the 820 Gallery, 820 Route 28 Harwich Port from 5 to 8 p.m. All are welcome. Her latest works will also be shown.

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