A Visit With Johnny Athearn of Music Street

An Island life filled with art and artists.

A visit to John Athearn’s studio in his family homestead on Music Street is like a magical mystery tour of visual history. The walls are filled with paintings and memorabilia of his many artist mentors, beginning with a large self portrait in oil of George Brehm, Johnny’s artist/illustrator grandfather who was a strong early influence. There are old photographs of John’s family and classmates at the West Tisbury school, works done by local artists of note whom Johnny knew, spanning many generations. All of it to illustrate his storytelling, and with Johnny’s own tiny watercolors everywhere — placed triple stacked on the tables, tacked to the wall boards, some framed in small frames. 

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Grandfather George Brehm

I’m lucky enough to have started painting as a kid, because my grandfather, George Brehm [1878-1966; see story page 50] was an artist and a big influence. He specialized in painting children and created quite a few covers for the Saturday Evening Post and illustrations for the original edition of Huckleberry Finn, working from his summer home in Chilmark. He knew I liked drawing, and when we visited on Sunday drives, I’d draw up there at their house. My grandmother saved one of my drawings and marked it, “By Johnny,” with the date; it was a scene I drew of hills, a cow in a pasture, and a train.

Growing up, we lived in this house on Music Street in West Tisbury where I live now. One afternoon my grandfather came in through the backdoor and saw me sitting here at the kitchen table watercoloring — this same kitchen table that I now work on — with typewriter paper all wrinkled up, pools of cheap paints, using cheap brushes. He could be quite dramatic. “No, no, no … come with me, young man.” So I went all by myself with Dad-daddy in his beautiful Packard with big fender headlights and we purred up Middle Road to his studio in Chilmark. No one ever went alone with Dad-daddy in his car … but I went then. He gave me real brushes and real paint, real watercolor paper and instructed my mother to keep me in art supplies every Christmas. So I got going young with good materials.

Thomas Hart Benton and artists

The Brehms came to the Vineyard through my grandfather’s friend, Tom Benton. Benton discovered the Island and then told other artists how nice it was. Originally from New York City and Pelham Manor, the Brehm brothers, George and Worth, came here and bought a big chunk of land with their parents, at first living summers in an old Mayhew farmhouse in Chilmark. Eventually, they formed a sort of seasonal artists’ colony. 

Every summer all the artists of the Field Gallery crew came back to the Island: Tom Maley, Max and Eleanor Kahn (painters who taught in Chicago), Robert Rabinowitz, and Bob Schwartz.

And we kids were always in their studios. Painter Stan Murphy was a huge influence but he was a big ogre; he bellowed at us: “Get out of here.” He didn’t want us making noise outside his studio up on South Road. 

Tom Craven was across the street from us on Music Street, the renowned art critic of the time; his walls were covered with many artists’ work. I was surrounded by artists, and especially every summer. They would all hang out each week at Tom’s house, drink and tell jokes and smoke. My pal John Scannell and I would go visiting; we’d go over and knock on the door, announcing: we’ve come to visit. Tom Craven set us up in his kitchen with coca cola and oreo cookies, and the artists would take turns coming in to talk to us … including Benton. 

They’d ask us, “What art do you like the best on the walls?” I was only a little guy; I always picked a Benton.

Learning color from Willy Huntington

I had the usual art lessons in school. My junior high and high school art teacher was Gene Baer, who was always very supportive of my watercolors. As a young adult I sat with Willy Huntington, one of my biggest influences. I have his self portrait on my studio wall, looking at me, and a print he made of an owl in a forest given to me by his son, Peter. Willy taught us to hunt, a sport we both gave up a bit later in life. One fall Willy was living alone at Quansoo Camp while his wife was teaching up in Plympton, and I went down to help him paint the trim of his house, while we talked about art. What I liked the most about hunting was the beautiful scenery in the morning, and the reflections on the water. While I was going back to college, I took lessons from him in his studio in Plympton. I sat down with him and we went over colors; I have a briefcase of notes on color. That got me working on my palette. 

Watercolor miniatures

Starting young doing watercolors helped me a whole lot. Then my adult years of drinking got in the way, and I didn’t paint for 20 years. Finally, I got diabetes and quit drinking and retired from teaching kindergarten after 24 years. I started doing little paintings since I didn’t have much money then and couldn’t afford to make mistakes on big paper. Watercolor paper and equipment are expensive and can be a big expensive mess.  I’m very comfortable with the small works. When I try to paint something big it sort of falls apart on me. It’s quite amazing that I achieve what I achieve on the small paper. I want to find someone who makes dollhouses or has a dollhouse collection. I’m thinking that any one of my little watercolors could represent an Allen Whiting-size painting over a dollhouse couch. 

It makes me happy to know that my tiny watercolors have travelled the world and live in far places, once visitors to the Island take them home to where they live — Montana, Sweden, England, France. Instead of psychedelic posters popular in my time, some college kids have little Johnny Athearn watercolors sitting on their desks. I’ve been told that one can keep a tiny painting in one’s wallet and pull it out, when on an airplane, or when scared, and get peaceful as the scene reminds one of the Vineyard.

The Vineyard landscape as inspiration

I go for drives every day. I’ve always loved to go for scenic drives, and now I can justify it as its part of my artwork. I just go, absorbing the landscape — I don’t worry about particular areas. Let it come on in here … I don’t use a camera, or a sketchbook. It’s the memory and the materials. I only paint the Vineyard landscape and I always find new places to explore. There’s a new trail on Indian Hill, near Cedar Tree Neck, with a parking lot for two cars. It’s a beautiful walk there now and you can go for miles. 

Back in the studio, I cut the watercolor paper to size, put the pieces on my board. I wait for inspiration to hit. If it doesn’t I just start by putting down blue for the sky at the top, then add another color; I may change the blue to a tinge of red, till I get a sky that’s interesting. The paint does it all for you — you just let it go. With watercolor, it just does its own thing if you let it — that’s letting the paint do the work, little layers of different colors, seeing what it looks like. I’m mixing my colors as I go, right on the paper. And when you do it my style, there’s no such thing as a mistake — though there is disaster and failure. But I don’t throw those out, I keep a box of re-dos.

Sometimes I draw first. If someone asks me to make a Christmas card of a specific thing, I might make a first sketch. I’ve made two Christmas cards for Morning Glory Farm: one was a scene of a family getting ready for Christmas with the tree; another was with Santa Claus on vacation. (One of the last things my grandfather did professionally was create the Santa Claus used in many store windows in the late 50s.)

It’s fictional Island folk art; that’s what’s fun about it. What’s a folk artist? Someone who works the way they want with no rules.

A house of portraits 

Here in my house on Music Street I have art by them all: there’s Dad-daddy (George Brehm); his brother, Worth, who also did illustrations; painter Stan Murphy; and a self-portrait by Willy Huntington. That‘s my mother posing, painted by my grandfather; there’s a photo of Denys Wortman and Tom Benton drawing each other. Denys lived on Hines Point; he was a cartoonist and a good friend of Tom Craven. As a young kid, I did meet Benton, but I wanted to know him a lot more. I ran into his wife Rita getting some vegetables from Stan Murphy’s garden when I was caretaking for Stan and Polly while they were in Nova Scotia, and told her I really wanted to visit with Tom. I said, “I’m George Brehm’s grandson (he was a friend).” “Oh yes, give us a call before we leave for the winter.” But I didn’t call, and they both died that year.

Ancient Teddy bears

This little Teddy bear belonged to my great great grandfather and great grandfather. The big bears were my father’s and his siblings; they all shared them. That was mine and that was mine.These were in the closet at the farmhouse where my father grew up; I got curious and went upstairs. I opened up a closet and it was full of old toys and puzzles, and these two guys were sitting there looking at me. They came home with me and they’ve been mine ever since. No, I’ve never painted them.


Lynn Christoffers has exhibited her photography, video and mixed media installations since 1988, both in New York City and on Martha’s Vineyard. Her photographs and interviews appear regularly in MV Times publications, and in three book publications, including Cats of Martha’s Vineyard: 101 Island Tales.

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