Artists Association of Nantucket -November/December 2010
65 Years Strong
by: Joshua B. Gray
Since the founding days of the Artists Association of Nantucket, the organization has focused on promoting the arts on the island, but its passion has always been the artists who call these shores home.
Cultivating the artistic seed though mentorship and education has been paramount to the AAN from its earliest days. Sixty-five years into its existence the association believes it has been true to its original mission written those many years ago "to foster the visual arts on Nantucket by promoting, supporting and encouraging the work of Nantucket artists, providing educational programs in the arts, and preserving the legacy of Nantucket artists …"
George Thomas, president emeritus and the longest living member of the AAN, still believes in the organization that has continued to expand its reach over the years.
"It's where I grew up and learned how to be an artist," he said. "The earliest members were people who I admired and they meant a lot to me."
Primarily a watercolorist, Thomas, 76, recalled the influence of Robert Perrin and Pat Gardner, who shared with him their time and craft to help him become a better artist.
"The neat thing is that it was very uncompetitive then when there were only 13 or so artists in 1946 and only a few galleries on-island," he added.
Now representing more than 200 artist members, the times have certainly changed for Nantucket and the AAN, but Thomas believes it has stayed true to its calling.
"I think they really have maintained their mission over the years, though it is much more complex an organization now," he said. "It wasn't so professional or competitive in the beginning, but we have always had really good people leading the organization and that goes for now as well. There has always been a spirit of reaching out to the community and artists, and I have always been very encouraged by it. It has grown with Nantucket in its complexity, but it has its place here and it has meant the world to me."
The Artists Association held its first exhibition in August 1946, when Thomas was a teenager, and the genesis of the organization came out of need – a need for a place where island artists could show their art. The first members were part of the "arts colony" on Old South Wharf, comprised of artists who were both year-round and summer residents and shared a love of Nantucket for its charm and natural beauty.
Robert Frazier, curator of the AAN's Joyce & Seward Johnson Gallery on Washington Street, wrote in "Artists Association of Nantucket: A History" that when researching the origins of Nantucket's arts colony, "all roads lead back to Frank Swift Chase."
Chase, a post-impressionist landscape painter, founded the Woodstock (N.Y.) Artists Association and the Sarasota School of Art in Florida. He began leading teaching trips to Nantucket around 1920 and returned nearly every year until the 1950s to teach and paint, according to Frazier's research.
Chase came to know the island's artists, mentored them and drew many of his students to the island during the summer months to enjoy the same inspiration as their mentor and continue their instruction.
Within this construct is found the origins of the strong teaching tenant of the organization today. Chase's students – among them Elizabeth Saltonstall, Anne Ramsdell Congdon and Ruth Haviland Sutton – became the foundation of the future organization, said Frazier, and they were supported by the stalwart efforts of their husbands and others to promote and preserve Nantucket art. Everett U. Crosby was integral in the acquisition and restoration of the Macy Warehouse on Straight Wharf into the Kenneth Taylor Galleries, which served as a central location in which members could show their work.
According to Frazier's history, this locale served as a center for all the arts on Nantucket for many years and was home to candlelit readings by Thornton Wilder and Tennessee Williams as well as piano recitals by Leonard Shure.
There have been changes over the past few decades, including the loss of the Macy Warehouse, but the organization has thrived. Celebrating her second anniversary as executive director of the Artists Association, Cecil Barron Jensen said she was attracted to the group because of its history.
"I was initially attracted to the association because of its history with the arts community on Nantucket, she said, "along with the vibrancy of the current artists, because we really do have a dynamic group of people who do amazing work in this community."
She is another who believes the spirit of the past has continued into the present.
"Almost more than anything (the AAN) reflects the community on Nantucket and I find that really fascinating," she added. "The roots of the arts colony are here today and that tradition continues."
From the perspective of a nonprofit leader, Jensen said the AAN's education component has been very compelling. From the days of Chase and his classes to the current time when year-round there are a wide variety of classes available from an array of instructors, primarily member artists, there are multiple opportunities for the emerging artist.
"Personally speaking, the mission of this organization is ideal for someone who is interested in nonprofit management because it has an educational component," she said. "There are classes for children and adults, and classes for people who don't even think they are artists, but find themselves becoming one. It is very exciting to be a part of."
Through its long history, even from its very beginning, the Artists Association has believed in the preservation of art. Frazier's history accounted for nearly 30 pieces as of 1949. Today there are more than 900 works of art found in its permanent collection.
With grants from the Community Preservation Committee and others, the AAN has begun to archive its many works into an online database available to the public at http://www.nantucketarts.org and F,razier has been a big part of that. He is another who believes the mission has been maintained, and in a year that is seeing a lot of comparisons to the past, he hopes that tradition will continue.
A member since 1973, the Artists Association of Nantucket has been a big part of his life. Both he and his wife are artist members, his brother is a past president, and he recently shared exhibition space with his daughter and two grandchildren.
As curator of the gallery, it is Frazier's job to put together and hang each exhibition. The gallery currently showcases 13 a season, usually between April and December. With more than 200 members of varying levels of activity, it can be a challenge to make sure everyone gets wall space at times, but Frazier said things usually work out.
With each show catering to an array of different styles and mediums, with some members being seasonal residents (there is a residency requirement of three months a year to be an artist member), a patron is likely to a find a diverse offering when they step into the Johnson Gallery.
"It is a place where emerging artists can show their work next to artists who have been around a long time," said Jensen. "It is attractive on both sides because the artists who have been around a long time, they cherish seeing the work of the new artists, and the newer artists enjoy the opportunity to hang next to the greats."
One of those newer artists has seen an almost meteoric rise since she first took classes more than five years ago. Until that time, Ukrainian native Julija Mostykanova had not even taken one formal art class. She is presently showing her oil paintings in New York, Boston and at South Wharf Gallery on Nantucket.
"The Artists Association has been very important to my career," she said. "It is where I started and it offers such a rare opportunity to people whether they are just looking for a hobby, looking to try something new, or hoping to develop it into something bigger like I did. With no schools here, it is so wonderful what they offer the artist."
Mostykanova is not content to be idle. She continues her artistic education by currently taking pottery classes, and has recently expanded her membership to include jewelry-making and mixed-media in order to fully experience her potential and options as an artist.
Another artist who has been around since the beginning of the association is Reggie Levine. A painter and mixed-media artist who once owned the Main Street Gallery, Levine said the AAN has been a vital part of the Nantucket community.
"As a living organism it has had its ups and downs," he said. "They have certainly lived up to what they wanted to do and needed to accomplish in the community.
I have a very positive feeling about their involvement and what they give back to the community. They are certainly indispensable to the artists and I think their strongest contribution is their teaching."
"Since 1945 the mission has not changed," she said. "It is important to understand that we are a year-round organization and even though the bulk of exhibitions are in the summer, we start each year in April and end in December and classes run year-round. We believe that is a significant way to give back to this special community."
Joshua B. Gray is a staff writer at The Inquirer and Mirror, Nantucket's newspaper since 1821.