Walk into a government building in one of the Northern Neck counties, or even a commercial or professional office in the area, and there’s a good chance you’ll see a framed print by artist Bill Martz, commemorating the history and culture of this unique region.
Martz, who died in October 2015, spent more than three decades transferring the beauty of the Northern Neck and Chesapeake Bay region to canvas, possessing a unique perspective and sensitivity that, combined with his talent, set his work apart.
The final exhibit of Martz’s work, held November 12, 2016 in Heathsville, drew 120 admirers. In its review of the show, the Northumberland Echo wrote that Martz’s “popularity in the Northern Neck is unprecedented.” After viewing the final collection of Martz’s work, Susan Lake, former Director of Collections at the Hirshhorn Museum in Washington, DC, praised the quality of his paintings, saying they captured the rural lifestyle of the Chesapeake Bay area, adding that Martz’s love of the region is “confidently memorialized in his closely observed scenes of the area’s fishermen, natural light, fowl and fauna.”
In May of this year, the James Monroe Sons of the American Revolution chapter posthumously honored the artist with an award for his work preserving the heritage of Virginia’s Chesapeake region. The group’s Walter Gaulding noted Martz always “traversed the woods, marshes, and home sites of the Northern Neck,” seeking to gain the “feel” of the places he would later paint.
“I look for the things that are disappearing – the watermen, the boats – before they do totally disappear,” Martz said in a 2007 interview with WCVE-FM, the public radio station in Richmond. “I’m always looking for art, if it’s in the form of landscapes, waterscapes, including the wildlife that is here.”
Martz grew up in Maryland and showed artistic ability as a child. At age 17 he enlisted in the U.S. Navy, where he mixed working on propulsion systems with the design and creation of flags and banners for the fleet.
Martz and his wife Theresa moved to Northumberland County in 1978 with only $80 and a determination to carve out a place in the art world. It wasn’t easy, and the couple struggled financially to make ends meet. Success didn’t come overnight, but through Theresa Martz’s unrelenting and creative marketing efforts and her husband’s ability and commitment, Bill Martz garnered a following throughout the Chesapeake region and beyond. Whit Smith Jr., of Kilmarnock, says his love of the Chesapeake was what initially drew him to Martz. It was as though Martz could make tangible what Smith felt, but couldn’t quite articulate. He bought prints at first, and after a 2002 show, began buying Martz’s original paintings.
“Bill captured the simple essence of what we see and feel living here in the Northern Neck and to which we can easily relate to in some measure,” Smith said. “Many of his painting are void of humans, and it’s almost as if Bill has intentionally set up a scene for us to step into and create our own experience and wonderment.”
Charlotte Hundley, of Heathsville, is a long-time Bill Martz patron, buying many original paintings over the years. She and her late husband Jim felt a special kinship with Martz and an appreciation for what he was able to contribute to the understanding of the local culture.
“He was very interested in the history of the Northern Neck, the water, the fishermen and the farmers, and I think you see that understanding of this area in his art,” she said. “Jim and I are Northern Neck natives and wanted to see it preserved, and I think Bill contributed greatly to that.”
Hundley also remembers the personal qualities that endeared the artist to both her and her husband. She had a large rose garden and, though painting roses was not his specialty, Martz surprised the couple on their return from a trip with a magnificent still life of one of her flower arrangements. Doc Dugan, who met Martz in 1995, soon after purchasing The Left Bank Gallery in Hague, also appreciated Martz’s personal qualities, saying it was surprising to find someone so talented also so humble. As a fellow artist, he also admired Martz’s process and work ethic. Martz was famous for the time he spent in the countryside, sitting, watching and waiting. He might make some quick sketches, jot down notes or snap a few photographs. Mostly, though, he would just sit and absorb his surroundings.
“Bill would spend hours and days on location, studying his subjects, as he transferred their images and, I will say ‘soul’ to his canvas,” Dugan said. “I believe that this closeness to his subject matter is a primary reason why Bill’s art is so appreciated.”
Theresa Martz says her husband’s ability was the result of more than just talent. She said he was constantly working to learn and improve. In 1986 Bill Martz was one of 86 artists in the U.S. to be chosen to take the master class of internationally known Canadian artist, Robert Bateman.
“The night that class ended we went out to dinner and Bill couldn’t stop talking,” she said. “At that time we had been married 22 years, and I had never seen Bill that excited or seen him talk that much!”
Martz began to focus more on major works – more complex, more time consuming, and more interesting. The result included Tenants, portraying wild turkeys at the old Mt. Zion tenant house, which is now gone.
“To get the design just right took over a week, and then after painting on it for a couple of months, he realized he didn’t have the lightening just right,” Theresa Martz said. “He had to put it aside for several months to let his brain figure out what to do. And it did.”
Other major works include Breakwall Ambush, which features the delicate detail of tiny minnows beneath the water, just before a heron strikes. Pickers, Martz last major work, depicts Mexican migrant workers at Westmoreland Berry Farm. Long time patrons Sherman Mills and his wife came to visit Bill as he lay dying and bought the painting on the spot, declaring “it belongs in a museum.”
Bill Martz probably knew his art would live long after him, which may have been why he was willing to rise at dawn on countless chilly winter mornings and walk through the woods and marshes to capture the region’s beauty. Smith believes Martz’s legacy lies in what he meant to the preservation of the Northern Neck – its environment, history and culture. Dugan says Martz will simply be remembered as The Artist of the Northern Neck.
“Other noteworthy artists have painted images of the Northern Neck, but none have been able to capture the pure, moving reality of the images Bill recorded in his work,” Dugan said.
Theresa Martz is justifiably proud of what her husband produced and of her role in bringing it to an appreciative public. In the end, though, there is the sad realization that Bill Martz left us much too soon.
“In spite of all Bill accomplished in 37 years, he died saying that his best work was still ahead of him,” Theresa Martz said.