The Fox Islands come alive in the summer. Thirteen miles off the coast in Penobscot Bay, the population explodes on North Haven and Vinalhaven; roads become congested, harbor activity increases, community organizations become more active, and as a caterpillar emerges from its cocoon as a beautiful butterfly, the artists emerge from their studios with a winter’s worth of work to show.
Vinalhaven painter Michelle O’Keefe says that summer is “definitely the time when everything is happening. There is a dramatic change in color in the environment and in the job the fishermen are doing. Color moves off the shore and into the water,” she said, referring to the gear of Vinalhaven’s many lobstermen.
O’Keefe describes herself as an “artist for the working man.” She tries to “capture the solidness of the people” of Vinalhaven in her work. “That’s important to me,” she said. “Life is so ephemeral here. I cringe when I see changes and limitations put on the fishing industry. Vinalhaven has a big workforce. It is not just a tourist mecca and the evidence is the pot buoys in the water, the traps, the boats in and out of the harbor.”
For North Haven artist Herbert Parsons, summer is a time when he “gets a lot of feedback” from those who see his work. “It makes you feel good about yourself,” he said. Although “it does give you a spark and you can’t capitalize on it,” he said, referring to the fact that he spends his summers running his gallery and shop, Calderwood Hall. In the summer, he says, “I don’t do any [art] because I’m in the shop.”
Fall and winter are Parsons’ most productive times as an artist, but when he does find time to sneak away from the gallery in the summer, he takes off on his 30-foot lobster boat, BRIMSTONE, where he keeps his paints. Working outside, Parsons often finds he can finish a painting in a day, although he sometimes paints panoramic pictures that take a bit longer. He is perhaps best known for his landscape paintings. “Here you can’t miss what the sky and water are doing,” he said. “In the city (where Parsons grew up) you can miss it.” Many of Parsons’ paintings are dark and gray. “I love gray,” he said. “I love muted colors. I don’t see them as drab. I love when the sky gets dark, it brings out the colors in the grass and trees, they are not competing with the sky. I don’t see the world in bright blue skies.”
Landscape painter Eric Hopkins, of North Haven, agrees with Parsons that in the summer there is less chance to get anything done. Despite that, summer is “where most of my paintings are. There is generally a ‘summer sense,’ summer life and light,” he said. Hopkins describes his work as portraying “the bigger picture of the world, the interrelationship between primary, elemental things” as well as the spiritual element of it. “A lot of [my art] has to do with edges,” he said, “the edges of the islands, tide zones, metaphorical edges, where things start and stop.” In addition, “my work reflects a quote by Albert Einstein that said ‘look deep deep into nature, then you will understand things better,'” he said. In contrast to Parsons, Hopkins largely uses bright blues and greens in his work.
Vinalhaven artist Elaine Crossman’s work is “pretty involved in the natural world.” Like Hopkins, her paintings “usually involve water,” although unlike him she is “a little intimidated by oceans. Nature is made of elements. I like its reflective, unconscious qualities,” she said. She feels that “creative people have a role to play in bringing the feminine back into our consciousness.” Like Hopkins, Crossman feels that “nature always provides understanding.”
The art communities on North Haven and Vinalhaven have seen many changes over the past several years, from growth in the sheer number of artists working on the islands, to the media with which they work, to the opportunities they have to show their work. O’Keefe has seen a definite increase in the number of artists working on that island. As a member of the board of the Fog Gallery on Vinalhaven in 1997, O’Keefe recalls conducting a survey which found there were approximately 250 artists working on Vinal-haven, “and that was back then,” she said. However, not all those who described themselves as a “Vinal-haven artist” live on the island year-round. “[Vinalhaven has] become overrun with artists and people who come to look at art,” she said.
Similarly, Hopkins observes that on North Haven “the summer community has definitely grown. Therefore there are more artists involved [in the summer art scene] as well as more art-lookers. It is amazing for such a small community how much art is around. A lot of it has to do with the [Fox Islands] Thorofare. A lot of people come through, there is more traffic than the old days.”
Crossman sees change in the Vinalhaven art community, “the way everything changes – there are changes with the infusion of new, younger artists and new media,” she said. Parsons sees the same kind of change on the north island. “In the last 10-15 years, the younger artists especially are getting away from the typical Maine scenes. They have broadened how they look at the world,” and the media they use, he said. Hopkins agrees. The only artist interviewed who is native to his island, Hopkins grew up on North Haven in the 1950s and 60s, and describes the island at that time as a “conservative, summery place. There was not much room for different varieties of art, just the traditional.” Now, he says, with a “new crop” of artists there is more of a “mixed bag.” He believes art on North Haven has “gotten broader.”