The Old Sculpin Gallery Turns 65

Melinda Fager, Rosalie Ripoldi Shane and Sharon McCann Daly and, inset, Meg Mercier (with Fager), are some of the driving forces behind the Old Sculpin's 65th anniversary celebration. —Lexi Pline

Honoring the past, and embracing the future.


The history of the Old Sculpin Gallery really comprises two histories: of the landmark structure itself, and that of the art gallery it became in 1954 when it was purchased by the Martha’s Vineyard Art Association. 


The artist/owners were always committed to the preservation of the building, viewing it as their responsibility to protect the iconic structure, a recognizable presence that sits across from Memorial Wharf on Edgartown Harbor. It was originally a grain warehouse, a whale oil factory, a sail loft, then the boat-building workshop of Manuel Swartz Roberts, the “Old Sculpin” himself, nicknamed for a worthless, unprepossessing fish. 


Ruth Appeldoorn Mead painted with a group of friends, often out front of Roberts’ shop. A friendship developed between the boatbuilder and the artists, and he offered it for sale to them when he began contemplating his retirement. He lowered the price to $6,000. The Art Association raised $1,500 toward the purchase and the remaining amount by a combination of private donations, along with the showing of a motion picture, Conquest of Everest, and an auction with thirty donated canvases and Julius Delbos as the auctioneer. “It is ironical the artists should acquire the shop as their new home as it has been painted by many of them on canvas, in oils and watercolors and black and white for many years, even before there was an organization of artists,”  a story in the Nov. 11, 1954 edition of the New Bedford Standard Times stated.


Meg Mercier and Melinda Fager, co-presidents of the Old Sculpin Gallery/MV Art Association.

The same newspaper story went on to explain that the organization did not plan extensive alterations to the building, which, it stated, “has held so much charm for the Summer guest.” Over the years the building has been maintained to keep the character of the old structure, with wide, paint-spattered floorboards from years of painting boat hulls (not art-making), and walls of dark, unprimed, aged wood that was covered with painted pegboard for displaying art. It was constructed to withstand hard labor and hard weather. The building was sold to the Martha’s Vineyard Preservation Trust in 2005.


The Old Sculpin Gallery officially opened for the summer of 1955. The board of directors included Mrs. Sumner A. Mead, president; Mr. Henry B. Hough, vice president; Mrs. Caroline E. G. Tuthill, treasurer; Mrs. Gilberta Goodwin, secretary; also Miss Amy Ferris, Mrs. I. R. Edmunds, Mrs. Theron Catlin, and Mrs. Ruth W. Vietor. Their mission statement described the gallery’s goals for the benefit of the Island community, “to increase facilities of art education, create interest in the arts, make an art center for the whole Island, establish a permanent collection, and preserve an old landmark.”


Mrs. Vietor’s paintings — cityscapes and landscapes of New York City and Martha’s Vineyard — were hung for the opening exhibition in the new gallery. In the July 5, 1955 Vineyard Gazette, Henry Beetle Hough wrote, “Ruth Vietor’s paintings are the work of a serious artist and offer an overall unity in point of view and in the use of a strong but not forced technique which she has applied with a good deal of individuality. She has not chosen to present abstractions as such, though she has avoided the literal, and the result enables the onlooker to engage in a free play of fancy between the indicated representation and the pattern, surface, and interplay of light and movement the artist has evoked through her technique. In this, the use of blocks, squares, and rectangles is prominent, yet without rigidity or sacrifice of a sense of freedom.”


The gallery began opening evenings in July 1960 with a gala to celebrate the complete redecoration and rearrangement of the gallery space by Mr. and Mrs. Francis Chapin. Through the 1960s and 1970s, the Board held all manner of fundraisers that were popular and much-anticipated. There were lecture series held at the Old Whaling Church that would fill the available seats. Notable were an interview with Thomas Hart Benton and a slide show by Alfred Eisenstadt. There were painting demonstrations by artists, musical evenings with Gale and Mildred Huntington, authors like Vance Packard reading and discussing their books. In 1968, Adelyn Breeskin, author, art historian, and Curator of Modern Art at the Smithsonian, gave a talk with slides, “Art in Our Time.”


Manuel Swartz Roberts, who sold the Old Sculpin building to the MV Art Association. —Lexi Pline, Courtesy of Old Sculpin

The Old Sculpin’s exhibitions over the years have run an interesting gamut of styles and subjects. Among the early artist members were Vaclav Vytlacil, Virginia Berresford, Adele Lemm, and Lois Mailou Jones, their work tending more toward abstraction. Julius Delbos, Ruth Mead, Lillian Cotton, Ellison Hoover, and Lester Peterson worked in a more representational style. Francis Chapin, Marion Freeman Wakeman, Mary Drake Coles, Max Kahn, Eleanor Coen, and Frank Wright were somewhere in the middle. 


Work by several of these artists forms the core of the Art Association’s permanent collection that numbers over one hundred paintings. Hayley Lever, James Cagney (the movie actor), and Adolf Dehn are other notable names. There is always one exhibition every season that features paintings from the permanent collection.


Many of the Island’s well-regarded contemporary artists got their start at the Old Sculpin, either by taking classes, or showing their work at the beginning of their careers. Alison Shaw was one. She studied figure drawing and still life painting with Ruth Mead when she was a young teenager. The first work she exhibited at age 12 or 13 was a pen and ink drawing and she purchased her first piece of art, a woodcut, “Edgartown Harbor,” by William Abbe at about that time. She worked at the gallery throughout her teenage years, behind the desk with the two Ruths — Mead and Galley,  was an usher at the Old Whaling Church lectures, and began her photography career with encouragement from Ruth Mead and Henry Beetle Hough. Mrs. Mead admitted Alison as the first and only photographer allowed to exhibit in the gallery. Mr Hough gave Alison her first job as a Gazette photographer. Shaw continues to be a great supporter and advocate for the Art Association and the gallery.


Mary Cole painted this scene of MV Art Assoc. founder Ruth Mead, standing, teaching a class.

Besides Mrs. Mead, Vaclav Vytlacil, Fred Messersmith, Joseph Hazen, and Ned Reade were some of the teachers. The art studios were upstairs and a variety of classes were offered. Figure drawing, portrait painting, printmaking, classes in watercolor, oil, and acrylic painting; eventually, photography was added. Summer art classes continue to be an important part of the gallery’s program.


As a young girl, Blue Cullen was enlisted as a model for some of the art classes. Mrs. Mead, a neighbor of the Robert and Ella Cullen family, would pick her up and drive her to the gallery to sit for her figure drawing and painting classes.


John Athearn remembers working there in the 1970s and early 1980s. He said, “Working there was really a pleasure, like being in a museum. Then there was the view, the people, and the old building.”


“Empty Harbor, VH” by Ned Reade

Currently, painter Meg Mercier and photographer Melinda Fager are co-presidents of the Art Association. Both women were invited to join by then-president Rosalie Ripaldi Shane, painter, teacher, and historian of the Association and the Old Sculpin Gallery. Mercier commented that “there seems to be an art spirit in the building,” as she reminisced about painting outside all day, then going upstairs in the gallery building to draw at night, all without ever getting into a car. Fager had taken a photography workshop with Alison Shaw, which she described as the inspiration for her book, “Living Off the Sea on Chappaquiddick.” There is a deep respect for the continuum of history within the organization.


“Chappy Ferry IX 2011” by Alison Shaw

Fager and Mercier have brought an enthusiasm and energy to the position, full of ideas they share back and forth, sometimes completing one another’s sentences. Both see the Art Association as an opportunity for artists to meet and to grow. In that spirit, they have worked to encourage new opportunities for artists to exhibit, shows for members and non-members (although they are also adamant about wanting more Island artists to apply for membership,) more numerous and diverse classes, more outreach to the community. The Association has received a grant from Rockland Trust to initiate classes for 11- to 16-year-olds. There are shows for new members, scholarships and an annual exhibition for art students from the Regional High School, and AIRE MV, a show of the summer’s paintings by a group of plein air painters. In 2018, Kara Taylor was invited to curate “She,” featuring work by and about women, interpretations of how women are seen and represented by the participating Island artists.


Beside the weekly shows for members, the 2019 exhibition schedule includes a special 65th anniversary show and the release of a limited edition print of “The Clam Digger” by founder Ruth Appeldoorn Mead. It will open July 28 and run through August 3. 


Another first for the organization is “Canvas and Chords: A Celebration of Art and Music,” a collaboration with the Island’s radio station WMVY. It will be held on August 3 and is a highlight of the Old Sculpin Gallery’s 65th year celebration.


True to their mission, the gallery has opened every Memorial Day weekend and has remained open through Columbus Day, as it continues to do to this day.


 I would like to dedicate this article to Janis Langley, artist and board member who was my first interview for this article. Sadly, Janis died before it was completed, but her stories and recommendations of where to go next set me on an enjoyable quest. – H.H.


Hermine Hull writes frequently about art and galleries for MV Arts & Ideas. She lives in West Tisbury and writes the town column for the MVTimes. 

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