When many people think of Maine’s island artist communities, Monhegan Island is likely to be the first to come to mind. That island’s dramatic landscape has played host to artists such as Rockwell Kent and Jamie Wyeth.
But people may not know about the artist communities on Great Cranberry Island and Islesford, which also claim distinguished artists, such as illustrator and author Ashley Bryan and photographer Walker Evans.
An exhibit opening February 21 at the Portland Museum of Art celebrates the artists of the Cranberry Islands who began living and working on the islands in the 1950s, and, in so doing, celebrating the communities and landscapes that inspired the artists who worked and lived there.
“When I first came to Portland about six years ago, I knew a lot about Monhegan but not a lot about the other islands,” said Susan Danly, the exhibit’s curator and the curator of graphics, photography and contemporary art at the Portland Museum of Art.
When the museum acquired a work by one of the artists who worked on the Cranberry Isles, she became curious about the group of the mostly New York-based artists who went to the islands to work there more than 50 years ago. Her curiosity resulted in “Art of the Cranberry Isles,” which will be on exhibit at the museum through June 28.
“Art of the Cranberry Isles” consists of about 25 works of art, mostly taken from the museum’s permanent collection, including drawings, prints, photographs and paintings by Bryan, Dorothy Eisner, Robert LaHotan, John Heliker, Evans, George Bunker, Gretna Campbell, Louis Finkelstein, William Kienbusch, Carl Nelson, Charles Wadsworth, Emily Nelligan and Marvin Bileck.
The group of artists working on the Cranberry Islands throughout the 1950s, ’60s and ’70s was a “particularly important group,” said Danly, “because they had such a sustained connection to modernist painting.” Danly also notes that unlike Monhegan’s artists over the years, the artists working on the Cranberry Islands were so close-knit that even though each artist had his or her own style, their work built upon each other’s.
The artists who came to the islands beginning in the 1950s found out about the islands through word of mouth. They told their artist friends, and soon, a small group of city artists were thriving in the remoteness of island living.
That remoteness-and the natural beauty of the islands-was an attraction to those artists, said Danly, as it is to artists going to the islands today. “They [the islands] offer an artist a sense of isolation-something artists crave,” said Danly. “They want to be alone with their work.”
“The first thing that the two artists (John Heliker and Robert LaHotan) always talked about was how very quiet it was, how easy to work uninterrupted,” remarked Patricia Bailey, president of the Heliker-LaHotan Foundation.
Even though the majority of the artists who went to the Cranberry Islands in the 1950s are now dead (only Emily Nelligan and Ashley Bryan, both in their 80s, still live and work on the islands), their artistic legacy carries on there.
The Heliker-LaHotan Foundation works to honor the memory of its founders by offering established artists the opportunity to experience the joy of working without distractions. After the deaths of Heliker and LaHotan, the foundation began a residency program that allows artists to live and work on the Great Cranberry Island property of the two artists. Like Heliker and LaHotan, the artists in the residency program relish the opportunity to focus totally on creating their art, says Bailey.
Art on the islands isn’t just a part of the lives of artists visiting the islands. It is a vital part of the islands’ way of life, says Bill McGuinness, an Islesford Island artist and the executive director of the Neighborhood House, a position funded by the Island Institute, which publishes Working Waterfront.
When Heliker and LaHotan first arrived on Great Cranberry, the island was a place populated mainly by farmers, fishermen and boat builders. Many of the islands’ year-round residents still work in those industries today but not on the same scale as 50 or so years ago.
Today, the islands’ year-round residents, fishermen and boat builders, for instance, also write, make music, create pottery or paint. “In order to fish,” McGuinness said, “you have to be sensitive to the rhythms of nature and that’s essential to making art.”
“Art is much more a part of the island (Islesford) then in any place we’ve ever lived,” said McGuinness, who, with his wife, came to the island from New York City.
“Any isolated community develops traditions or shared sensitivities that make it possible to stay together as a community,” McGuinness said. “I think on these Maine islands an appreciation for arts is one of those things.”
On the Heliker-LaHotan property, Heliker used to work in a huge boat shed. Even years after the boat shed collapsed in a winter storm, something of that space was reflected in Heliker’s art, said Patricia Bailey. “The experience of working in that kind of space-like a cathedral-remained in his memory.”
Today’s artists, McGuinness says, like those who first went to the island in the 1950s, create art that is informed by the experience of living on the islands. “The character of the place,” he said, “informs the art of the place.”