“I’m not a portrait painter,” says Donna Pomponio. “What I am trying to do is get under the forehead and into the psychology of the person — to peel back, so that what you are painting is a life.”
Pomponio is most inspired by faces that tell the story of a life being lived fully. That sort of life, she feels, is more possible in Provincetown than anywhere else. Her paintings celebrate “the freedom we have here to be who we are,” she says. Her show, “Free to Be,” is on view at the Provincetown Commons through Sunday, Oct. 17.
Though Pomponio, 68, has known loss, she exudes joy as she sits in the Commons studio that she shares with three other artists. “We can’t change tragedy and trauma, but we can use it to connect,” she says. “When you have lived as much life as I have, there is an unspoken connectedness with people you meet who have stories.”
Born and raised in Milford, a “very, very Italian town” west of Boston, Pomponio first excelled in art in second grade. “I had an art teacher called Sister Veronica,” she says. “I loved her classes. I think I was in love with her,” she adds with a laugh.
Encouraged by her teacher, Pomponio entered an art competition and won first prize — a place in a summer school art program 20 miles away in Worcester. “My mother wouldn’t let me go,” says Pomponio. “I drew and drew, but eventually it petered out.”
At 15, Pomponio left home to join a group of college students who were traveling the country protesting the Vietnam war. “I couldn’t wait to see the world and what was happening out there,” she says.
Her life took an unexpected turn. Pomponio became pregnant at 15 and gave birth to a daughter, Marci, who died four years later in a car accident involving a drunk driver. Today, Marci’s tiny ballet slippers hang in Pomponio’s studio, right next to her Miss Piggy clock. “She is alive in me and in my work,” Pomponio says. “Her death changed the trajectory of my life and made my living much more profound.”
Pomponio spent years working in the travel industry and then running her own pet grooming business in Boston. Her life shifted for a second time in her early 40s with a breast cancer diagnosis.
“I desperately wanted to paint,” Pomponio says. “After my diagnosis, I was up until three o’clock in the morning painting. I wasn’t really worried about what the cancer meant as much as what it meant to be alive.”
Pomponio’s first body of work was a series of paintings of her daughter from old photographs — small vignettes of her short life. She survived the cancer treatment and began to take art classes in Provincetown, where she spent summers with her future wife, the late social activist Kip Tiernan. She studied at the Provincetown Art Association and Museum with Lillian Orlowsky and Jim Peters.
In 2004, Pomponio enrolled at the Mass. College of Art and Design, graduating in 2007 with a B.F.A. in painting and art history. “I was so grateful to be there,” she says. During her years in college, Pomponio began to paint “bigger and bigger stories.”
A wall in Pomponio’s studio is covered with charcoal drawings of the same older woman from many angles. After taking photographs of her subject, she says, “I like to draw with charcoal and rub in. I’m feeling and rubbing in and finding the person underneath.” Pomponio doesn’t ask her subjects to tell her their story, though she may know some details.
She paints portraits in oil and includes nontraditional collage elements: a folded umbrella in one painting, a bookshelf made of brown paper Stop & Shop bags in another. These elements express something of the exterior world, in addition to internal states of being.
Alongside the paintings in her show is a small installation of decorated eggshells. “I was celebrating life’s strength in the portraits, and I wanted to do something to show its fragility,” she says. “I couldn’t help but be aware of the suffering outside of Provincetown’s freedom. Every time a young person of color was murdered, I felt the emotional loss as a mother.”
Pomponio wanted to express these feelings without dominating the conversation. She was inspired after reading The Cross and the Lynching Tree by theologian James Cone, which links the horror of lynchings with the crucifixion.
Using pastels, she drew the Madonna as depicted by Leonardo da Vinci — the face of a mother who had also lost a child. She worked as she had with charcoal on paper — rubbing color into each eggshell, finding the face and what lies underneath.
“Working on the lightweight eggshells also helped me to connect emotionally with the idea of lightness and, in doing so, helped me to express the fullness of the human experience,” she says. “You have to have the good memories. You have to have things that make you smile.”
The event: “Free to Be,” a show of works by Donna Pomponio
The time: Through Oct. 17; Reception Saturday, Oct. 9 from 5 to 7 p.m.
The place: The Commons, 46 Bradford St., Provincetown
The cost: Free