Martha Ferguson’s art illuminates St. Augustine

Work to be featured Aug. 4-5


For artist Martha Ferguson, painting a street scene is really about painting the effects of light.

“I’ve always loved the old Impressionist painters — Monet, Van Gogh — and the way they painted,” she said. “The subject matter is kind of enhanced by the light. I’m just always drawn to that. Not so much the building, but the way the light hits the building, the way the shadows create shapes.”

Ferguson’s work has an emotional impact. Where the sunlight falls, and where it doesn’t, sparks a sense of nostalgia, a strong feeling of comforting familiarity — even if the setting depicted is one the viewer has not previously visited.

And perhaps this is due to how our memories preserve not necessarily the intricate details of a place so much as the feelings we derive from it, something which is strongly influenced by the quality of the light.

In fact, Ferguson has a preference for morning scenes or those occurring at what she calls the “magic hour,” just before the sun sets. The lighting is dramatic, the colors more saturated.

“I’ll be driving home, and I’ll see the way the sky is,” she said. “I’ll try to keep that in my memory and go home and sketch, try to get that feel.”

Anyone who has visited the galleries in the Nation’s Oldest City has probably seen Ferguson’s work, which has been exhibited in several of them, as well as at the Lightner Museum. Ferguson has won numerous awards, including being named to the National Oil and Acrylic Painters’ Society’s prestigious “Best of America” for 2021, and her art can be found in private collections throughout the United States, Canada and the United Kingdom.

In fact, Ferguson’s paintings will be featured Aug. 4-5 at the Grand Bohemian Gallery, 49 King St., St. Augustine, where she has exhibited for the past two years.

“I’ll have most of my new work, probably about 15, 20 pieces,” Ferguson said. “And I’m going to demonstrate one of my local street scenes in the lobby.”

The Road to St. Augustine

Ferguson has enjoyed painting since she was in the junior high. Encouraged by a teacher, she resolved to study commercial art in college. So, at 18, she left her hometown of Charleston, West Virginia, and came to Northeast Florida to enroll in Flagler College.

“I fell in love with St. Augustine the minute we crossed the Bridge of Lions from the beach side,” she recalled.

Whenever she had time, she would wander the historic quarter, and that’s how she discovered one of the city’s legendary artists, Emmett Fritz.

“I used to walk down St. George Street where he had a little studio,” she said, “and I would talk to him and watch him paint. I think that’s what made me kind of fall in love with painting.”

Ferguson graduated with a Bachelor of Fine Arts degree in 1982, married and moved to Ocean Grove, New Jersey, where she worked and raised her children. Once they were older, she was able to spend more time on her painting.

But she never forgot the First Coast and, in the early 2000s, returned to St. Johns County.

Location, location, location

Though she has done watercolor, Ferguson primarily uses oils.

“I’ll do a lot of acrylic underwash and paint oil over it,” she said.

In fact she will frequently block out elements in the painting using acrylics before applying oil.

“A lot of that underpainting will come through in the oil,” she said. “It’s cool when it works.”

She sometimes does small plein air pieces, though most of her larger work, while giving the appearance of plein air, are actually done in her studio.

She said she enjoys the interaction with like-minded artists at plein air events, though she admits that this style of painting does pose its challenges.

“It’s a little bit of a struggle at first, because you’ve got to learn the elements and how to paint quickly,” she said. “But they’re my favorite paintings — and they might be my worst paintings! You just see things differently when you’re on location. It just has a different feel to it.”

Sometimes, Ferguson will paint the same scene over and over, because it’s always changing.

“I used to wonder why Monet always painted the haystacks,” she said. “Why do you paint the same thing? But now I get it, because it’s always different.”

Today, Ferguson not only paints but also offers classes in both oil and watercolor painting. She said she’s very grateful to have her work shown in the Grand Bohemian, as well as other places.

And she appreciates the welcoming atmosphere St. Augustine affords artists.

“I feel like there are so many people who have supported me and other artists,” she said. “It’s a nice community that we’re in. We have that support, and there are a lot of opportunities here.”