Chioke R. Morais, Untitled, mixed media, 3 x 5′ (Chioke is author Mathea Morais’ husband)
No matter how romantic your notions are about living the life of an artist, it won’t be long before the reality of that life smacks you across the face. When you think about it, there is no other profession that warns you ahead of time that you are on the path to starvation — no “starving CEO,” or “starving doctor,” no “starving plumber.”
For those of us who knew the inevitable outcome and still decided to pursue a career as an artist — be it a painter, a photographer, a poet, a dancer, an actor — there is a reason we continue on long after the not-me-I’ll-be-famous-before-I’m-thirty wears off.
Why? It’s usually because we just can’t help it. We have to write, to paint, to create beauty, to express outwardly what we cannot keep inside one minute longer.
I once heard a (published, famous) writer say that if you can go three months without thinking about writing, you’re in the clear — go on, do something else with your life, and be happy about it. However, if you’ve tried and you can’t, well, you’re stuck and there’s not much you can do. Artists realize sooner or later that you cannot be an artist because you want to get rich and famous — it may, and I mean may, happen — but that’s not why we do it for long. We are artists simply because we really have no other choice.
Because of this, artists also soon realize that sacrifice, often of the very art we need to create, has to happen. In order to make enough to support ourselves while we finish that novel or that series of photographs, or get that perfect acting part, we take a job as a cook, a substitute, a temp. Those artists who come to Martha’s Vineyard are no exception.
A few years ago, in the flagship issue of this magazine, I wrote about why and how artists create a place for themselves on the Island. The article began with my personal experience of coming here with my husband, who had already made a name for himself as a painter in Chicago and was close to doing so in New York, to raise our family in my mother’s home, living rent-free. Gone would be the days of painting during days off, writing at night after teaching all day. I hear you out there chuckling; I chuckle myself at the memory. We learned quickly that rent-free did not mean sacrifice-free, that we’d still have to have at least one job apiece just to feed our family and fill our gas tanks on Martha’s Vineyard. We’ve been weighing our options ever since.
Illustrator and painter Kenneth Vincent says he’s lived the ebb and flow of what it means to have a viable arts career on the Island for years — watching his art-generated income fluctuate from $40,000 in 2007 to $9,000 when the market crashed in 2008. “There is a psychological toll, because you never know what the year is going to bring,” said Vincent, whose wife no longer counts on his salary from painting. “She would rather be at home with the kids, but she can’t be,” he said. “Not with $4.50 a gallon for gas and $7 for orange juice.” From Vincent’s perspective, that is a sacrifice they wouldn’t have to make if they lived somewhere else.
Part of his desire to stay comes from Vincent’s identity as a tenth generation Vineyarder and the expectations that come with that. “If I didn’t feel tied here by my family, by my history, I’d probably be more successful financially. I would have gone the way of Max Decker [another West Tisbury artist of Vincent’s generation who has enjoyed considerable success as a painter in Brooklyn] and those who have left and become very successful off-Island. But last week I went with my son to the Mill Pond and he caught his first fish. I need to stay here because of things like that.”
Vincent also appreciates the relationships that are fostered within the arts community on the Island, specifically his relationship with the Granary Gallery in West Tisbury, where he’s been represented for ten years. “Not a lot of people off-Island have that kind of relationship with a gallery. Chris Morse [owner of the Granary] has hung in with me when times have been tough, and he’s hung in with a lot of his artists because of great relationships.”
Painter Nina Gomez Gordon came straight from college to the Island in 1994. Gordon points out that the affluent summer crowd has had an effect on the Island art scene. “The kind of summer artist who tends to come now is already someone fairly established, with a good sales track record, looking to cash in on the summer season here when life and sales are slow in the city. I don’t think many people come purely to stretch their artistic wings and find new inspiration; artists are invited by galleries to create local scenes, competing with the local artists who live and breathe this Island year round.” For Gordon, this means she often has to paint with “the thought of selling to the hedge-fund manager and executives” in the back of her mind.
For many years, Gordon made ends meet by working a day job during the off-season and painting plein air landscapes all summer. However, over the past two years, she found remunerative work during the winter was challenging, so she explored other subjects in the studio during the winter, while working as a house painter during the summer. She says it has been “a hard adjustment, but a positive one.”
So is it worth it? Gordon, like Vincent, points to the payoff of the beauty and serenity of the Island and what it has meant to raise her children here — something that is bringing her to a new crossroads, as her children make their way to college. “We love that the Island is safe for our children, but it’s also safe in that it almost gives us an excuse to say, ‘Oh, well, I’m not as big an artist as I had planned because I live on Martha’s Vineyard.’ With my kids at college next year, I could move anywhere — which is exciting, but also frightening. I no longer can use that excuse.”
It is no surprise that the Island has attracted generations of artists of the caliber of Thomas Hart Benton, Jackson Pollock, Dorothy West, William Styron, and the list goes on. The views, the air, the community, give artists everything they need, but as more people decide to summer on Martha’s Vineyard and the struggle to find adequate and affordable housing gets harder, the question becomes whether we are still a place that can nourish its artists.
Ann Smith, executive director of Featherstone Center for the Arts in Oak Bluffs, believes that what’s happening on the Island now is bordering on an artistic renaissance. “Can we sustain what was happening here in the fifties and sixties? No, but can we sustain Martha’s Vineyard as being a place for the arts? Yes.”
Smith cites as evidence the new Martha’s Vineyard Film Center, the reinvention of the Martha’s Vineyard Museum, the art collection of the Martha’s Vineyard Hospital, and the Pathways Projects Institute — a series of well-attended winter events, all dedicated to the arts, at the Chilmark Tavern. “It’s because of places and opportunities like Pathways that more people are discovering their creative spirit, and that can only lead to an enriched artist community here,” said Smith.
And while some feel nostalgic for the good- old days when rents were cheap, Vincent has a different memory, one of widespread and extreme poverty that was a year-round reality on the Island prior to the early 1990s. Vincent comes from an Island family that goes back 400 years. One which originally owned forty-five acres of land in West Tisbury, where Vincent now lives with his wife and two sons on the last remaining four acres — the rest has been sold off over time due to a variety of circumstances that have forced the family to make hard choices.
Jesse Hayes, of Hayes Design Studios, is a recent transplant to Martha’s Vineyard. Prior to moving to the Island, Hayes worked for companies like Boston University and Target Corporation. Moving here was a choice he made with his family’s best interests in mind. With only four years under his belt, he still remembers hour-long commutes past miles of strip malls. “I think living on the Island, we lose perspective on what living in the city or the suburbs is really like. I remind myself if I hit a little traffic at Five Corners, I’m all right. I get to sit here and look at the big, beautiful ocean.”
Hayes says that because we feel isolated here, we become more connected as a community, and that, for Hayes, is worth a whole lot of sacrifice. While we may feel isolated, may even be physically isolated, he believes this is a false sense of isolation. “We are not nearly as isolated as some of the other working class towns of Massachusetts, who don’t get a massive shot of money and culture ever, who would do almost anything for that — even if it is for only two months of the year.”
Artists could choose to not be limited to that two months of the year, according to Hayes. Yes, he has made a significant mark on the Island with his graphic designs for local businesses and events with simple, straightforward graphics that speak to the Island’s nostalgia, but he also continues to work with clients from all over the world. “We live in a day and age when your client base, your audience, does not need to be in driving distance.”
For Smith, this is a major shift in options for artists on Martha’s Vineyard. “We no longer have to depend only on what people can spend on-Island in the summer. These are artists who are making their living here year-round, raising their families here, spending their money here, and the majority of that money is coming from off-Island.”
Gordon has also seen an increase in people ordering what she calls, “a piece of the Island” for Christmas presents and anniversaries. “It’s not enough that I can give up my day job,” Gordan says. But it is definitely increasing the number of paintings she sells.
So just what do you have to sacrifice to be an artist and live on Martha’s Vineyard? And maybe, more importantly, is what we get back worth the sacrifice?
While I have not yet decided to self-publish my novel as an e-book, and continue to try to publish in the conventional way, I too can add up the columns of sacrifice and gains and feel grateful. I can have conversations with people like Gordon and Smith, work alongside Ken Vincent as a teacher at the Martha’s Vineyard Public Charter School, have playdates with Hayes and his kids — and then write about it. My husband can escape to his studio in the woods to paint for a few hours after cooking dinner for his family, and can find new avenues of creativity in curing local meats and making works of art through building furniture.
Smith believes we have to take a positive approach and continue to find ways to build together. “Things are going to look different, artists are going to leave and writers are going to leave, but other artists will come and film centers are going to be built. We have to make a constant effort to define our community, our value, always holding what we want to hold dear.”
An Artist Who Left
Susan Metzger moved to Martha’s Vineyard in 1972. She lived and painted here for over thirty years. She had and raised her children here, and twelve years ago, she left.
She left for personal reasons. As someone who loves empty, open spaces (as is evident in her paintings) she found it hard to evolve in the same direction as the Island. “I felt like every summer, there were too many cars and people for that precious little Island, and I acutely felt that discomfort,” she said.
For Metzger, making sacrifices is just part of being an artist, no matter where you live, but the sacrifice of living in a place where she felt excluded was not one she felt willing to make. “I was uncomfortable with the really strong class distinction,” she said of the changing summer population. “When I moved to the Island there was Jungle Beach — no Lucy Vincent. And you didn’t need a key, or a pass. Slowly, I began to feel, from a geographical standpoint, that I didn’t belong.”
Metzger no longer paints images of the Vineyard, though the Field Gallery continues to represent her work. Her need for solitude and beauty took her to Maine, and she said it is “every bit as beautiful, much more wild, and more authentic.” Even though she can’t honestly say that she misses the Island, she said in the beginning it was hard to leave. “I was on the Vineyard a few years ago, walking a path, looking down, and I saw that soil texture of the huckleberry root system, that sandy soil, and I thought, that is home.”
While most of Metzger’s reasons for leaving were personal and not professional, she has found that her wider audience does not put the restrictions on her art the way her Island audience does. “Most of what I’m painting now is a metaphor for human anxiety about the environment,” she said. Her recent paintings, based on the 2010 BP oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico, have done very well off-Island, but she feels they would not work for summer buyers who don’t necessarily want paintings that “bring reality into it.” Professionally, Metzger feels something that she didn’t feel when living here. “Now, I can paint whatever I want.”