When you look at an artwork by Washington Ledesma, it looks right back at you. The Uruguayan-born, Martha’s Vineyard-based painter and ceramist has made eyes a central focus of his work.

Step into his Oak Bluffs studio and you’re immediately struck by the profusion of gazes, both human and creaturely, from nearly every surface. Wide eyes — sometimes more than two per face — stare forth from portraits; vases and urns are covered with them, recalling the many-eyed Argus of Greek mythology.

“The eyes [are] what connect us, human to human,” said Mr. Ledesma, who turned 80 on Nov. 9.

Other hallmarks of his distinctive work include brilliant colors, scaling patterns and whimsical animals and birds, on their own or in fantastical flocks. Along with extra eyes, Mr. Ledesma provides an extra breast to some of his female figures — and sometimes eyes on the breasts, for good measure.

Animals are a familiar theme - along with eyes. — Ray Ewing

He is also fond of biblical scenes, including a lush Garden of Eden and an exuberant Noah’s Ark.

As seen in his studio or at the collaborative Night Heron Gallery in Vineyard Haven, where he is a longtime member, Mr. Ledesma’s work radiates joyful innocence and never-ending imagination — yet it’s never truly childlike, always revealing the skill behind the vision.

A new exhibition of paintings from the 1970s, showing through December at Pathways Arts in Chilmark, offers a rare glimpse of work from his early days in the United States. There’s even one canvas from Uruguay, where he began his career as an engraver and painter before taking up ceramics. His given name of Washington was a popular choice for parents in Uruguay eight decades ago, Mr. Ledesma told the Gazette during a visit to his studio last week.

“For America saving the world and Europe and all that story, it was really common to have the name Washington,” Mr. Ledesma said, noting — as a father himself — that naming babies can be a daunting task.

Other Uruguayan parents seem to have favored British military leaders. His schoolmates included a Wellington and a Nelson, Mr. Ledesma recalled.

Mr. Ledesma began his career as an engraver and painter before turning to ceramics. — Ray Ewing

“Now they don’t use those names any more,” said Mr. Ledesma, who later saw Uruguay joining a regional move toward right-wing authoritarianism that led him to leave the country in 1973, after a U.S.-backed coup installed an oppressive dictatorship. Already an established artist by then, Mr. Ledesma had been part of a cultural scene that included both left-wing and right-wing members, he said.

“I was friends with everybody,” he recalled. And that was a problem under the dictatorship, which was controlled by the military and grew infamous for torturing, imprisoning and “disappearing” Uruguayans suspected of left-wing tendencies. The fear of damage to his hands from torture led Mr. Ledesma to leave Uruguay for the U.S., despite what he knew about American backing for the coup.

“I came to America knowing what America was doing,” he said.

But first, he had to obtain a visa from the U.S. Embassy in Montevideo — an intimidating challenge.

“It was like a fortress,” recalled Mr. Ledesma, then a bushy-haired, mustached 33-year-old with “artist” written all over him. When he was called into the embassy office, he said, the official behind the desk told him “We know about you.”

Art work can be viewed at his home studio in Oak Bluffs. — Ray Ewing

Fortunately, what they knew about was his reputation as an artist. The embassy provided the visa, assuring him he’d do well in his new country, Mr. Ledesma said. After establishing his art career in New York city and later Pennsylvania, Mr. Ledesma came to the Vineyard through his relationship with Alida O’Loughlin, whom he met at an art show in the Boston area. At the time, Ms. O’Loughlin was heading the Cambridge Center for Adult Education and just finishing her home on the Vineyard when she and Mr. Ledesma became involved. The couple now live full-time on Murrant avenue in Oak Bluffs, with Mr. Ledesma’s studio and kilns located in their own building behind the house.

The paintings at Pathways Arts chiefly date from Mr. Ledesma’s early New York years. They include a set of portraits that bring to mind the dictatorship he’d recently escaped, including a hulking man with a sinister, human-faced lapdog and a naked woman accompanied by a horned pink demon, a sad-eyed baby and rearing dog.

To mount the show as a birthday surprise for Mr. Ledesma, Ms. O’Loughlin worked with Pathways to sneak the canvases out of his studio basement, where they had long lain behind other stored artworks and materials.

“It was an art heist,” said Pathways co-director Keren Tonneson, who also arranged for the sole canvas from Uruguay to be stretched on a frame for the first time since it was painted. To hide their traces, Ms. O’Loughlin said, the crew then “re-cluttered” the basement.

The operation was a success. Mr. Ledesma said he was thoroughly surprised at the Pathways party in his honor on Nov. 6.

“It was a well-kept secret,” he said.

The Pathways show is open Friday through Sunday from 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. at 9 State Road in Chilmark. Mr. Ledesma’s studio at 5 Murrant avenue in Oak Bluffs is open to the public most Thursdays from 4 p.m. to 6 p.m. Night Heron Gallery, where he shows work along with nine other member artists, is currently open daily from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m.