The Monhegan Island Art Colony: 1858-2003
by Edward L. Deci
In the years following the First World War, and especially during the Great Depression, there were fewer artists making regular trips to paint the island. Most of the ones who did had their own island homes and were part of the larger island community. From 1920 through the end of the Second World War, two groups had a strong presence on the island. Most prominent were the painters who represent Monhegan's version of regionalism. Primarily landscape/seascape painters, their canvases often picture the island's working people -- fishermen rowing dories in rough seas, hauling nets, lugging their catch, or dragging skiffs along the small beach below the fish houses. These are bold, vigorous works that reflect the hardy self-reliance necessary for this life, which Rockwell Kent captured with the title of his painting Toilers of the Sea. Among the painters of the period, Andrew Winter and Jay Connaway each lived year-round on the island for many years, while Abraham J. Bogdanove and Alfred Fuller spent long seasons there each year. James Fitzgerald, who conveys similar subjects with a more modernist style, was also an island regular after 1925, although he did not make the island his primary home until 1942.
The other prominent artists during this period between the World Wars were a group of Philadelphia women who went to the island to spend their summers painting. Students from the Philadelphia School of Design for Women (now Moore College of Art) and the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, these women were well recognized and exhibited nationally during this period. Stoddard had arrived on the island in 1907, but Constance Cochrane, Isabel Cartwright, Mary Mason, and Mary Butler were among those who arrived between the wars. Stoddard was best known as a portrait painter, who painted many island residents, and the others often painted flower gardens and interiors, although they also did island panoramas and seascapes.
Following the Second World War, the art colony would see another major change. Once again, a group of New York artists, alive with enthusiasm about the new abstraction, would arrive on the island to create a level of excitement not unlike that of the Henri Circle. Something big was happening in American art, and they were a part of it. Many of them had studied with Hans Hofmann and some, such as Michael Loew and John Hultberg, were important members of the New York School of Abstract Expressionism. Several, such as Joseph DeMartini and Zero Mostel, had New York studios around West 28th Street and spent their summers on Monhegan painting. Others such as Reuben Tam, Ted Davis, Alex Minewski, and the McCartins were also central to the Monhegan art community whose members got together often to sketch and talk art. This group, with a core of about two dozen and with others who visited occasionally, dominated the Monhegan art scene for over three decades. A few who were their students and friends, such as Frances Kornbluth, Larry Goldsmith, and Elena Jahn, still paint on Monhegan today.
Recently, changes on Monhegan, like those that have happened all along the Atlantic coast, have affected the nature of the art community. In the past six years, property values on Monhegan have tripled. A few artists, such as Don Stone and Jamie Wyeth, were fortunate enough to acquire houses many years ago. But for other dedicated artists it is extremely difficult to afford housing. The days are gone when young artists, bursting with determination and excitement about what was happening in American art, could go to the island and rent cottages for the season.
However, excited young artists are determined to experience what has inspired many of the giants of American art, and they find ways. Some go to the island and work in the seasonal hotels, which give them housing and food and allow them some time to paint. A few have found ways to stay year-round on the island working at various jobs, much like Rockwell Kent did nearly a century ago and Andrew Winter did half a century ago. Others have arranged to go for two or three weeks each summer to spend eight or ten or twelve hours a day painting, as a kind of working vacation from their lives inshore. These various artists sometimes paint together or sit around in the evening and talk art. Their conversations are every bit as animated and vigorous as conversations have always been among the island's artists.
For the past 15 years there has also been an artist residency program on Monhegan, in which each summer two Maine artists are selected to live on the island for five weeks simply to experience the island, free from their usual responsibilities. It has nourished the work of several artists and some of the former residents return from time to time to paint the island. Joseph Kievitt is among them.
The tradition of making art on Monhegan has been long and rich, and it appears that serious artists will find ways to keep that tradition alive and that the island's motifs will continue to be rendered through the experiences of artists from each new school of American art.
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