Southampton Artists Association Goes Back to the Gallery

Katherine Milliken's watercolor "Coming Home, Towd Point."

By Michelle Trauring

When Paul Dempsey considers the phrase “art for art’s sake,” he doesn’t divorce paintings, drawings, photography and the like from political, educational, moral or practical function — as the idiom would suggest.

He simply doesn’t get opening or closing receptions along with it, which in recent years have become one of the most highly-anticipated parts of every annual show hosted by the Southampton Artists Association (SAA).

Sadly for Dempsey, that was the case for the Labor Day exhibition, which opened without fanfare on Wednesday at the Levitas Center for the Arts at the Southampton Cultural Center. But at least he, and 20 visitors at a time, can visit the wide range of art in person.

“No bells and whistles, you’re just gonna be in the room with the work and that’s it,” the vice president of the organization said. “You have to see it in the natural light, as opposed to a perfect image with a generic background on a webpage.”

Paul Dempsey’s photograph “Still” is of a North Fork barn that has since been demolished.

Over the last six months, the COVID-19 pandemic pressed pause on all in-person art viewings, urging groups like SAA to move their exhibitions online, as they did for the first time ever during “Endless Summer 2020,” the annual Memorial Day show.

“I came up with that,” Dempsey said. “I noticed what other groups were doing, they were starting to go virtual. We actually beat a lot of them to the punch because it was early in the pandemic, so to speak. We got one of our biggest participations for that, 60 artists. You let people know, it’s all they can really do to see art right now. Well, up until now.”

The group’s Labor Day show marks a return to live exhibition, showcasing oils, acrylics, mixed media, sculpture and photography by about 40 local artists. It will remain on view through Sunday, September 13.

“Everybody’s excited — but it’s tempered excitement,” Dempsey said with a laugh. “We still can’t have a reception and we will be limiting capacity. We’re crossing our fingers that we have a good turnout.”

The fine art photographer, who is a computer programmer and webmaster by trade, describes himself as a “digital manipulator,” capturing ordinary details from daily life and transforming them into images with contrasting shapes and effects. His two pieces in the show are photos printed on canvas, giving them an unexpected feel from afar.

“A bright nature shot, the changing color and the sky, the reflections on canvas, they look like paintings a lot of the time,” he said.

One image in particular, titled “Still,” captures a barn on the North Fork that called out to Dempsey, one that has since been torn down and now lives on only in memory — and on canvas.

“Photographers see a lot of stuff when they’re looking around, it seems. Stuff catches their eye,” he said. “And what caught my eye about this is every time I drove by, nothing had ever changed, regarding the barn, or the trucks next to it. I said, ‘I have to get a shot of this,’ and I did, and it was just a perfect day.

“And a couple of months later, I drove by and it was gone,” he continued. “They just knocked it down. I’m so glad I stopped that day. There was a pond in front of it and the water was at the right height. It just made for the perfect reflection.”

The Southampton Artists Association’s annual Labor Day Art Exhibit will remain on view through Sunday, September 13, at the Southampton Cultural Center, 25 Pond Lane, Southampton. Gallery hours are Sunday through Thursday, from noon to 4 p.m., and Friday and Saturday, from noon to 6 p.m. Admission is free. Social distancing and masks are required. For more information, visit