A gritty, hard-working island attracts unconventional artists by allowing them to focus on what matters most.
By Edgar Allen Beem
Photographed by Erin Little
[V]inalhaven, a thorny, rocky island 15 miles out to sea, is one of Maine’s last working-class islands. While there is a large and distinctive summer community, the island is bigger and bolder than its visitors, who seem to get swallowed up by the wild interior and shattered shoreline as soon as they leave the ferry at Carvers Harbor. Its remoteness and hardworking community have tended to attract maverick artists, from the wanderer Marsden Hartley, who spent the summer of 1937 there, to the fugitive Robert Indiana, who has lived on Vinalhaven year-round since 1978. Today, some of the most inspired art on the island is being created by a group of imaginative, independent, and free-spirited women. Vinalhaven is not their subject, but it is their muse.
Drawing Energy from the Island’s Stage
“I feel like I’m in a Fellini movie when I’m on Vinalhaven,” says Marguerite White. “There is a sense of drama. The harbor is like a stage, and players enter and exit. Vinalhaven isn’t really all that remote, but it’s so theatrical.”
That drama had a profound impact on White in 1988, when the artist, then a newly minted graduate of Rhode Island School of Design, visited the island for the first time. “Until I came to Vinalhaven and started painting,” she says, “I never had a language of my own.”
White lives in Boston, teaches drawing at the College of the Holy Cross, and works part-time as a house painter. Her Maine base is Rockland, where she lives in an Airstream travel trailer and works in a metal boxcar that is filled with the silhouettes and cutouts of paper figures that populate her shadow plays and light shows.
Passenger, her installation for the 2013 Portland Museum of Art Biennial, combined the shadows of thistles, a bird, and a streetlamp with recordings of insects and the voices of the departed. It was animated by an old-fashioned turntable as a beam of light swept across the scene like a passing car. The overall effect was one of lyric sadness, the passage of time, and the transient nature of life.
White visits Vinalhaven frequently, staying at Calderwood Neck in the whimsical work-in-progress of a house that belongs to her “most influential artist friend,” Diana Cherbuliez. It was Cherbuliez who, 12 years ago, encouraged White to veer away from traditional painting and to create art that was “an immediate response to something real.” Soon White was drawing the Vinalhaven ferry repeatedly and obsessively. While images from the waterfront continue to appear in her work, these days White’s art is more likely to be influenced by Vinalhaven’s energy than by appearance.
Wandering Paths Real and Imagined
Alison Hildreth lives in Falmouth and maintains a studio in Portland, but when she really wants to think and work, she comes to Vinalhaven, where she tends to a 35-acre family compound on Smith Cove that includes cabins, cottages, barns, and studios. “I have a lot of alone time,” says Hildreth, who has been coming to the island since 1967. “I have the luxury of taking long walks. One thing leads to another. You have the freedom to travel in your mind.”
A painter, printmaker, and installation artist, Hildreth especially loves Vinalhaven’s rawness. “There’s not a straight line or flat surface out here,” she observes. “It’s a coarse, thick, hard, lonely place. And it remains adamantly a working island. Clammers at work at dawn at low tide have little regard for summer cottagers who are still abed.”
And that is as it should be, she believes. Vinalhaven is a place where your social status is determined not by how much you own but by how many ancestors you have in the ground. “This place is full of stories,” Hildreth says. “The old people are remembered and talked about. There is a sense of community because people have to depend on one another.”
Most of Hildreth’s ideas come not from observation but from books, particularly philosophical fiction by writers such as W.G. Sebald, Albert Camus, Orhan Pamuk, and José Saramago. Polish poet Zbigniew Herbert inspired perhaps her finest work, “The Feathered Hand,” an installation of prints, drawings, and hanging glass and paper puppets now hanging permanently at the Portland Public Library.
In recent years, her two-dimensional art has read like maps, charts, diagrams, and plot plans of imaginary journeys and imagined places. These are the places her mind travels as she wanders the rugged Vinalhaven landscape of blackberry brambles, pitch pine woods, bogs, and ledges. “The island is not a source of material or imagery, it is a place to work,” she says. “The physical space determines the psychic space.”
Finding Freedom in Isolation
Diana Cherbuliez is in many ways the true art spirit of Vinalhaven. She first came to the island with her family in 1967 as a 2-year-old and has lived there year-round since 1993. A striking figure with her wild nest of blond curls, she supports herself as a carpenter in order to have the freedom to make art.
“The thing about being out here is the beautiful resourcefulness of being isolated,” says Cherbuliez, who lives far from town on the back side of the island. “The island requires independence and interdependence. There is a huge respect for labor and craft.”
Cherbuliez pointedly does not create beautiful objects for the luxury market that is the distribution system for most art. Among her memorable, serio-comic creations, many inspired by myths and fairy tales, are a proffered apple fashioned from wooden matches and beeswax, a garland of cigarette butts, a Tower of Babel made out of New York Times crossword puzzles, a funerary flag stitched together from her old party dresses, and a glass-encased Snow White–Sleeping Beauty figure modeled from a year’s worth of dust from beneath her bed.
For the 2012 Maine Women Pioneers exhibition at the University of New England, Cherbuliez created a piece that distills the essence of her art practice, which is to challenge conventional wisdom. Entitled “Let Myself Down,” the work consists of an 8-foot rope braided from her own hair and draped over a hand-carved apple-wood bracket. Subverting the tale of Rapunzel, “Let Myself Down” asks why a fair maiden would need a prince to rescue her from a tower if she could simply let herself down by her own hair.
Cherbuliez often spends months on her elaborate, eccentric constructions. “I’m indulging in my ability to spend my time the way I want,” she says. “Time is the most valuable thing we have, the most valuable thing I can give anyone.”
Tapping a Wellspring of Creativity
Kitty Wales’ observations of the animal world have taken her to Scotland’s Isle of Rùm to study wild goats, to the Pyrenees in search of bearded vultures, and to the Caribbean to swim among reef sharks, but Vinalhaven is where she goes to create most of her animistic sculptures and animatronic animals. “The island is just so conducive to the creative spirit,” says Wales, who teaches sculpture at Boston University.
Wales recalls the exhilarating freedom of childhood summers spent playing in the island’s thick woods and abandoned granite quarries in the 1960s. “It was an awe-inspiring playground,” she says, “an otherworldly landscape of broken geometry and ordered chaos.”
Today, Wales works in a sunny studio above the family’s woodsy cottage on Seal Cove. Her kinetic sculptures of animals, birds, and human figures often have the playful look of mechanical toys or, in the words of Maine Sunday Telegram art critic Daniel Kany, “mad-genius automatons.” Last summer’s installation in the barn next to Vinalhaven’s New Era Gallery included a mechanical woman fashioned from an antique washing machine, feral goats made from rusted exhaust pipes and shredded tires, and the life-size figure of a Dutch Renaissance woman made of scrap wood and trailing a train of wooden chairs, most of which were found at the Vinalhaven dump.
Wales’s focus on animal life reflects her concern about global habitat displacement and the divorce between humans and other living beings. “Humanity has made a lot of mistakes,” she says. “I vote for the animals.”
Whenever she is on the island, Wales swims in Seal Cove every day no matter the weather, reads copiously, and visits with her artist friends, chief among them Elaine Crossman, who owns New Era Gallery, and Alison Hildreth. “We talk about the creative process and read books together,” says Wales. “We’re kindred spirits.”