Inspiring Isles

Posted March 20, 2009, at 10:56 p.m.

Ashley Bryan introduced George Bunker to the Cranberry Isles. Robert LaHotan and John Heliker shared a home on Great Cranberry Island. Dorothy Eisner, who summered on Great Cranberry, counted Heliker, LaHotan and William Kienbusch among her friends. Gretna Campbell built a home next door to Heliker and LaHotan. Charles Wadsworth built his summer house with help from Bryan, Heliker and LaHotan.

It was a tightknit group of artists who worked and spent summers on the Cranberry Isles, a chain of five islands off Mount Desert Island, the largest and most populated of which is Great Cranberry Island. Yet the artists looked at their vacation refuge in very different ways. Some documented the landscape of the Cranberry Isles in a figurative manner. Others took an abstract or whimsical view. Some chose to document social life on the island, others were more interested in their physical surroundings.

A wide variety of Cranberry Isles-inspired work is now on view at the Portland Museum of Art in its “The Art of the Cranberry Isles,” in the museum’s fourth-floor gallery.

“They’re all exploring modernism in a variety of forms, so to find it in printmaking, painting, even in stained glass is not unusual,” PMA curator Susan Danly said of the many different forms of work in the exhibition. “I think artists in the late 20th century are looking for a variety of forms to explore.”

The Cranberries weren’t known as a major artist colony, Danly said, but she became interested in the artists when she arrived at the museum in 2002. It was around the same time that the PMA received as a gift “Maine Landscape #2 (Cranberry Island Landscape),” a Campbell oil painting from around 1980.

Her interest piqued, Danly began to look through the museum’s collection and saw the huge variety of work done by the group of artists, who were active on the island in the last 40 years of the 20th century. The show came together, however, when Danly was able to borrow or buy work from artists that the PMA didn’t already have.

The museum borrowed, for example, five works by Bryan and four by Wadsworth, both central figures in the Cranberry Isles group.

Then Danly discovered that famed photographer Walker Evans had spent summers on Great Cranberry. His Maine work is largely unknown, Danly said, because he made so few prints, but the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, which owns Evans’ negatives, recently put the images online. The PMA was able to borrow a few photographs from various sources and bought a print of Evans’ 1969 “Jack Heliker’s Wall.”

At the time, everyone seemed to know everyone else. Artists were married or housemates, studied together, traveled together, worked side by side, used each other in their work.

“There are a number of artists still painting out there, but this was really the first wave of artists who established an artistic identity for Cranberry Island,” Danly said. “I wanted to concentrate on them as a group, because they were all friends and worked as a group.”

The result of including all these artists is the variety of their media. There are stained glass, woodcuts, lithographs, oil painting, photographs, pastels, watercolor, collage and a whole other subgroup of printmaking techniques.

It might seem disjointed, but Danly said there are a few key threads that run through the work. First, many of the artists had connections to New York and therefore were influenced by that art world. Second, because they were mostly summer residents — although Bryan still lives on Little Cranberry — they didn’t spend as much time together as year-round artists on an island such as Monhegan, where art sometimes tended to be more homogenous, Danly said.

The third and perhaps most important thread was a common interest in modern subjects and ideas.

“They didn’t go [to the Cranberry Isles] to share specific artistic ideas, but to share their friendship and a love of Cranberry Island,” she said. “Each one of them is free to explore that sense of modernism in their own style.”

Take for example the artists’ varying explorations of island life.

Evans’ Cranberry Isles photographs capture simple but telling details that together make up the lives of the islanders. In “Jack Heliker’s Wall,” a photograph of a shirt, pair of pants, a reminder to pay July rent of $206.59, Evans represents a person without ever showing his face, and also captures the life of a painter who doesn’t need much more than clothes and a roof over his head.

The lives of the islanders — the summer islanders, anyway — come across differently in two 1979 oil paintings by Dorothy Eisner. Her life must have been a bit more social, in the traditional sense. In “Desk II,” Eisner painted an orange desk with a boat schedule, an August calendar, a list of names including Heliker, LaHotan and Kienbusch, and a big black phone prominently displayed — as if she’s about to invite friends or plan her next party.

We get a clue about what that party might have been like in “Croquet and Hats,” with a line of croquet mallets, balls and a straw hat, awaiting the next round of lawn games.

The same dichotomy exists in representations of the Cranberry Isles landscape. Martin Bileck’s etching “Along the Shore: Cranberry Island” from about 1950 is sparse but fine, showing off the craggy shore and gnarled trees. Kienbusch, who was said to be inspired by Maine artist John Marin, is on the other end of the scale in his abstract 1960 casein-on-paper work “The Ocean and the Apple Tree.”

Campbell hovers somewhere between representation and abstraction in the PMA-owned landscape. Her palette of browns and greens represents the ground around what appears to be a small stream or inlet, but her broad brushstrokes speak to the abstract elements of the painting.

The life these artists led must have petered out in the 1980s and 1990s. Of the artists in the exhibition, only Bryan and Emily Nelligan are alive. Still, what a life it must have been — working by day, socializing in the evening, and using those activities as inspiration for their art — and all of it took place in the beautiful setting of the Maine islands.

Danly said she doesn’t think Bryan, a still-active and much-admired artist who in January was named the 2009 Wilder Award winner for his contribution to children’s literature, has seen the exhibit yet. The museum is planning a lecture with Maine arts writer Carl Little, but the talk won’t take place until June 20. It seems appropriate the museum is waiting until summer for the exhibition’s major lecture.

“So many of the Cranberry Isles residents are now only summer residents,” Danly said. “We wanted to plan something at the end of the show when it was more likely they would attend. We’re hoping that [Bryan] can come then.”

“Art of the Cranberry Isles” will be on display until June 28. For more information, go to www.portlandmuseum.org.

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