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Carly Simon’s love affair with peonies

Carly Simon says she is to peonies what Holland is to tulips. There are upwards of 400 peonies on her West Tisbury property now, the collection having started with just a few given to her by Island landscape designer Peggy Schwier.

“Peggy introduced me to peonies a long time ago,” Ms. Simon said. “My mother always loved peonies, and we always had them in New York when I was growing up.” She even records the dates her peonies begin to bloom every year, typically around May 9, although they were a bit late this year, she said.

Last summer Ms. Simon began to photograph her favorite flower, and experimented with cropping and filters.

“I relish them,” she said. “I planted and pruned and picked and posed them, and took the pictures.”

The result is a collection of photographs of her beloved peonies, some that look more like a painting, and some that look more like something that lives underwater. Taking this newfound passion a step further, Ms. Simon and her best friend since high school, artist Ellen Questel, are exhibiting their work together at the Kara Taylor Gallery in Chilmark on Sept. 16 and 17, with an artists’ reception from 4 to 7 pm on Saturday. Besides the prints of peonies, Ms. Simon will also have silk scarves printed with designs from her photographs for sale.

“The scarves have little snatches of my lyrics on them,” she said. “I picked one phrase from different songs … clouds in my coffee, stuff that dreams are made of.”

Ms. Questel, who lives in Vermont, said it was a treat to work with Ms. Simon, collaborating on an artistic project.

“Carly had been taking some beautiful photos of peonies during the summer of 2016,” Ms. Questel wrote in an email to The Times. “She had edited them so that they appeared as lovely semiabstract studies. Carly’s photos were of course the starting point. When she was first taking the photos, she kept texting them to me — I think I got 10 or more in a row! She was obviously having fun, and I was so struck by the beauty of the images. They were painterly and lovely, and the thought of scarves seemed almost obvious.”

They had a mutual friend work with the photo files so that they could be enlarged without losing definition.

“This was tricky, and took quite a bit longer than we thought, but the first experimental piece excited us both,” Ms. Questel wrote.

Photos in the exhibit take an up-close look at the peonies in Ms. Simon’s gardens. – Carly Simon

Ms. Simon said that they’ve always enjoyed the same aesthetic. “Her sense of depth is very natural and very rural, very much the Vineyard,” Ms. Simon said of her friend’s artwork. “We’ve shared our lives together and loves together. Our lives have coincided and merged; she’s the person I lean on. When we were in school, she was a good drawer, and I was a good drawer of certain things. We went to Sarah Lawrence together too … she did some beautiful pastels then. My art was coming out in the decoration of my first apartment. The creative impulse comes out in my visual sense, in the stuff in my house.”

In fact, Ms. Simon said she had hoped to host an exhibition of Ms. Questel’s work in the barn on her property.

“We talked about giving her a show in the barn here, but that was obstructed by my son Ben and his girlfriend Sophie’s exercise equipment,” Ms. Simon said. “The barn was out of the question. When it was clear that I couldn’t give her a show here, I went around to galleries and went to Kara Taylor, the old Stan Murphy gallery, and I asked Kara, and she was so generous and sweet to share the space for the two days.”

This venture into photography is something completely different for Ms. Simon, although her brother Peter has been a photographer for decades. “Peter was so complimentary to me,” Ms. Simon said. “He said I had a vision that was all my own.”

Taking snapshots to capture a moment was her usual relationship with photography: “I’ve always taken snapshots, but they weren’t taken to be beautiful but to capture a moment. This is purely aesthetic. It’s so intoxicating to me. I fell in love with my subject.”

Carly Simon’s peonies in prints and on scarves, and Ellen Questel’s prints and originals on exhibit at the Kara Taylor Gallery, 24 South Rd., Chilmark, Saturday, Sept. 16, and Sunday, Sept. 17. Artists’ reception Saturday, 4 to 7 pm; gallery open 11 am to 5 pm Saturday and Sunday. Call 508-332-8171 or visit karataylorart.com.