Art and Artists of New England Islands | Drawn to Islands
Benton, a hard-drinking Midwesterner, is still remembered on the Vineyard for bringing another hard-drinking Midwesterner to the island: Jackson “Jack the Dripper” Pollock, perhaps America’s greatest Abstract Expressionist painter. Pollock was a guest of the Bentons for several summers on Martha’s Vineyard. Arriving unannounced one summer, so the story goes, he proceeded to purchase a bottle of gin, rent a bicycle, and set out to pedal the almost 20 miles from Oak Bluffs to Chilmark. As the notorious Pollock became more and more intoxicated, he began chasing local girls on his bike, inevitably crashing and spending the night in the island jail. In his autobiography, Benton pronounced the episode “so hilarious that it was impossible to take his case seriously.”
Another ASL teacher, landscape artist Frank Swift Chase, came ashore on Nantucket in 1920, the same year Benton landed on Martha’s Vineyard. While more widely known artists such as Eastman Johnson, George Inness, and William Trost Richards had painted on the island earlier, Chase, by virtue of operating a painting summer school on the island until 1945, became known as the “dean of Nantucket art.” Chase’s students included Anne Ramsdell Congdon, Emily Leamon Hoffmeier, Harriet Lord, Elizabeth Saltonstall, Ruth Haviland Sutton, and Isabelle Hollister Tuttle, all mainstays of the Artists Association of Nantucket in the mid-20th century.
Cooper Union, another New York art school, was the tie that bound several of the artists drawn to the Cranberry Isles–lovely, low islands forming the southerly view from the mountains of Mount Desert and Acadia National Park. Cooper Union alums Ashley Bryan, Marvin Bileck, Emily Nelligan, Louis Finkelstein, and Gretna Campbell formed the nucleus of the little Cranberry art colony, along with painters Dorothy Eisner, John Heliker, William Kienbusch, Robert LaHotan, and Carl Nelson, several of whom also had ASL connections.
“Great Cranberry Island had a lively community of artists from the 1950s through the 1970s,” notes Henry Finkelstein, son of Louis Finkelstein and Gretna Campbell, “but the idea of it being an ‘artists’ colony’ doesn’t sound right to me. Artists were simply a fixture of the place, as were fishermen and some summer families going back 50 years by then.”
Many of the Cranberry artists were Expressionists, translating island imagery into personal abstract idioms, as does Henry Finkelstein today. Finkelstein claims Cranberry as a birthright, as do painter David Little and poet/art critic Carl Little, who inherited their uncle William Kienbusch’s island home.
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.”