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Art and Artists of New England Islands | Drawn to Islands

Finkelstein sounds an all-too-familiar refrain when he says, “Someone scraping by as a young artist couldn’t afford to settle there, although, fortunately, artists can now come and at least visit through the Heliker-LaHotan Foundation.”

Island properties, once financially accessible owing to their remoteness, have become so expensive that struggling artists are often priced out of the market. As a result, several New England islands now have artist residency programs. Painters John Heliker and Robert LaHotan bequeathed their Great Cranberry Island cottage so that mid-career artists could spend three to four weeks at a time working on the island they loved.

On Monhegan, Carina House offers five-week residencies to emerging Maine artists. On Maine’s Great Spruce Head Island, where painter Fairfield Porter and photographer Eliot Porter once summered and worked, their niece Anina Porter Fuller now makes this private family island available to a dozen artists each summer during Art Week. And on Nantucket, the Nantucket Island School of Design & the Arts (NISDA) makes its 10 Harbor Cottages available to artists of all kinds year-round at affordable rates. “NISDA offers the opportunity to experience historic Nantucket,” notes director Kathy Kelm, an island resident for 40 years, “and a place for artists to enjoy the island’s beauty and isolation for creative purposes.”

Artists looking for a more affordable island alternative might want to consider Rhode Island’s Block Island. It may lack the deep art history of some of the other islands, but painter Jessie Edwards, who represents some 35 Block Island artists in her gallery above the post office, says that the island has a lot to offer an artist. “Block Island still feels untouched,” she observes. “It still has its natural beauty and charm.”

The first artists on New England’s islands were essentially visual explorers. Then came the artist visitors, summer colonists, and settlers. But while the best island artists were all once “from away,” some of the best and best-known island artists are now homegrown.

Martha’s Vineyard native Allen Whiting is the island’s favorite son when it comes to art. His grandfather was a New York artist who married an island woman, so Whiting likes to say that he has “200 years’ worth of relatives next door” in the local cemetery.

Whiting operates the family farm and renders gentle island landscapes in the popular, brushy style of painterly realism. He sells his work through the Davis House Gallery at his home in West Tisbury. “I don’t think any place makes a painter,” Whiting says, but he does liken his good fortune in being born on Martha’s Vineyard to winning the lottery repeatedly. “Three-quarters of my success is due to growing up and painting in a resort that has been growing my whole life.”

Eric Hopkins grew up on North Haven Island in Penobscot Bay. His soaring, simplified aerial visions of the islands and the bay have become icons of contemporary Maine art. For many years he maintained a gallery next to the island ferry dock, but it’s now located on the mainland in downtown Rockland.

Over the past three years, Hopkins has been spending much of his time on Mount Desert, connected to artists such as Thomas Cole and Frederic Church through the sense of awe that island landscapes can inspire–a sense of living on the very edge of the land, sea, and sky. “Growing up, I was totally surrounded by and submersed in wonder,” Hopkins explains, effectively summing up the magical attraction of island life–not just for artists but for all of us. “There’s a sense of place … Sometimes I didn’t even know where I was, but I knew [that] if I walked in a straight line, I’d come to the shore and find my way. Islands are finite places. The Earth is just an island in space.”

Please Note: This information was accurate at the time of publication. When planning a trip, please confirm details by directly contacting any company or establishment you intend to visit.

Edgar Allen Beem


Edgar Allen Beem


Take a look at art in New England with Edgar Allen Beem. He’s been art critic for the Portland Independent, art critic and feature writer for Maine Times, and now is a freelance writer for Yankee, Down East, Boston Globe Magazine, The Forecaster, and Photo District News. He’s the author of Maine Art Now (1990) and Maine: The Spirit of America (2000). In 1988, he won the Manufacturers Hanover Art/World Award for Distinguished Newspaper Art Criticism for his coverage of the 1987 auction sale of Vincent Van Gogh’s Irises. Ed says, “My credo as an arts writer has long been: ‘The work of art is the search for meaning.’ I believe art is not only a form of personal expression but also a form of inquiry, every bit as much a quest for truth as scientific research.” Ed Beem’s newest book, Backyard Maine: Local Essays, has just been published by Tilbury House, Publishers, of Gardiner, Maine. It’s not about the meaning of art; it’s about the meaning of family, community, and life in general. Edgar Beem is currently at work on a new book about contemporary art in Maine to be published in the fall of 2012.

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