Chessboard Art

by admin on October 23, 2017

Last weekend Santa Cruz had an annual event called the Open Studios Art Tour, a chance for local artists to promote their work. It’s highly competitive (Santa Cruz has a lot of artists!) but this year one of my neighbors, Martha McNulty was selected to exhibit her work.

I knew that she was an art teacher in high school and I would see canvases whenever I visited her place (usually because my dog, Daisy, would run inside her house and I would have to go and fetch her). But I never actually had the chance to study her work, beyond whatever canvas she happened to be working on at the moment. That is, of course, the whole point of Open Studios — to get beyond, “Oh, I hear you’re an artist.”

I discovered the most amazing thing! She has many abstract paintings that are based on a rectangular grid — including some that are 8-by-8. Yes, completely unintentionally, she has been making artistic chessboards!

I’ll show you three pictures (made from water soluble and tinted graphite on paper) from a series that she calls “Arrangements.” I see them as a visual representation of the process of chess imagination. I think they would make a wonderful triptych.

martha 1

In Arrangements 1, the horizontal, vertical and diagonal lines dominate and the squares are all identifiable, although there are some interesting clusters of squares at e4-f4-e5-f5 and d7-e7-d8-e8 that form units in the chess player’s imagination. The color palette is rather muted. The player seems to have a rather defensive mindset, as he has “X”s on a number of squares where his king is likely to be — d1, e1, f1, g1, d2, f2, g2, f3. These are “no-go” squares in his mind: the opponent must not be allowed to move there. The only “no-go” square on his opponent’s side is g8, where the king is likely to be.

martha 2

In Arrangements 2, a more whimsical spirit has taken over the board. Perhaps the chess player has nodded off and it now dreaming. Many of the squares have disappeared altogether. His kingside has turned into a massive planet, and a giant question mark shows his confusion about what is happening on the queenside. The opponent’s side of the board looks leafy and inviting; all except the massive obelisk on the c- and d-files, which looks like a prison cell. The squares are now elongated, but nevertheless the board remains 8-by-8.

martha 3

In Arrangements 3, the player’s imagination has run rampant. I doubt that this is the same player we saw in Arrangements 1; this player’s imagination has much more vibrant colors. The board has become overgrown with flowers and branches, suggesting that the entire board is organically related. The board itself has expanded to a  9-by-10 grid. For this player, the game overflows the constraints of the chessboard and it has become the player’s life or her “happy place.”

These are only my impressions, of course; what do you see?

Anyway, I thought it was a wonderful coincidence that my neighbor has been painting chessboards! Feel free to see more of her work at her website,


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{ 1 comment… read it below or add one }

Larry Smith October 24, 2017 at 5:50 am

Quite lovely! It must be the chess player in me (that which remains; I lost dreadfully last night) that prefers the orderliness of the first painting.

So now that dog has brought you together, why don’t the two of you collaborate? You could select one of your favorite positions, and she could artistically render it in such a way that chess fans would possibly identify the position/game, while non-chess players wouldn’t catch on. It would be “our” (the collective “we/out”) little joke.

I’m thinking something like that Nimzovich-Hakansson (sp?) game, where the BQ is tucked away on a8 and Nimzovich mates via Qxd7+ Nxd7; Ne6#. Lots of pieces remaining on the board on that one…


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