Two years ago, Emmy awardwinning filmmakers David and Barbarella Fokos (Salt & Sugar Productions) produced a documentary on Vineyard artist Heather Neill. The Fokoses have longstanding family ties to the Island, and they expressed interest in doing a future film on another Vineyard artist.
Chris Morse, co-owner of Granary Gallery in West Tisbury, said to them, “If you want to do another Island artist with deep Island roots, talk to Allen Whiting.” The Fokos took Morse up on his recommendation, and over the past year they recorded 22 hours of audio footage alone; on March 18, the film will be presented to the public by the Martha’s Vineyard Film Festival.
We were fortunate to get a sneak preview of the film, “A Painter Who Farms”; the Whitings will just have to bide their time until it’s shown to the public. “You better believe,” said Ms. Fokos, “that the whole time the film is being shown, I’ll just be looking at the Whitings, to see their reaction.”
I think that not only will Allen and Lynne like the film, but so will anyone else who has an interest in art and a love of the Island.
In the film, Chris Morse said that where Allen fits into the Vineyard’s art history is that he would arguably be the Vineyard’s most important landscape painter. And one reason for that is that Whiting is of the land; he traces his family roots back about 11 or 12 generations on the Island, and many of those ancestors were farmers.
Today, Whiting says, he is part of the 1 percent. Not the plutocratic 1 percent, but rather the 1 percent of the people who were raised on farms in New England who are still farmers. Whiting is lucky; there’s not much money to be squeezed out of farming, but his success as a painter has enabled him to maintain an agrarian lifestyle that has been in his family for hundreds of years. It also gives Whiting a perspective on painting landscapes that doesn’t come out of a textbook.
“It strikes me that the land, the stone walls, the grass stretching off into the distance, over the rolling hills,” said Bow Van Riper, research librarian at the Martha’s Vineyard Museum, “the fact that the grass looks different in April than it does in June than it does in September, means something to a farmer or somebody from many generations of farmers that it wouldn’t necessarily mean to someone who’s only viewing it through the eyes of an artist who saw it only as texture and colors and contours. It strikes me as perhaps the significance of Allen as part of Vineyard culture is that he brings both an artist’s eye and the farmer’s eye to his work, and thus sees and shows the people like us who get to look at his paintings of the Vineyard a lens that we wouldn’t otherwise, being neither painters or farmers, ever see it through.”
While Whiting can appreciate that there may indeed be something in his DNA that adds to his perspective, he tends not to dwell on it. “Understand that I’m not a deep thinker,” he said, “I’m a blue collar kind of guy. I just like what I see, and I try to paint it. It’s about that simple.”
One of Whiting’s mentors growing up was Vineyard artist Stanley Murphy. “Stan Murphy said he looked around at fishermen and carpenters and said, ‘If I don’t work as hard as they do, I’ll fail,’” said Whiting. Throughout his career he’s tried to keep up that work ethic, and if anything, it gets stronger with age. “I have to say that after I turned 70, I feel this real fire in my stomach, I’ve been waiting my whole life for — that and I want to get out of the house and get out here and paint, and I feel good about that … it’s liberating.”
When asked about how it was to work with Whiting during the filming, Ms. Fokos said, “Allen is super easygoing, it’s like talking to a friend, there are no airs. What I loved about him is that he is not that guarded … I love that because neither am I. He reads a lot and is constantly quoting other artists — he can really turn a phrase. But he doesn’t talk with artist jargon — in artist soundbites.”
Chris Morse said, “He’s just Allen … he doesn’t fit into the role of an ‘artist’ or ‘painter.’ He’s a thoughtful person … a person you want to know.”
Chris Murphy, son of Stanley Murphy and Whiting’s oldest friend, says in the film, “What are three words that describe Allen? ‘Kind’ is one of them. And you know what? I think I’ll use that two more times, and leave it there.”
Murphy talked about how he, like Whiting’s father before him, was someone you could depend on. “If you need to move a refrigerator, let’s say, I’d call him … you can trust him on the other end of something heavy.”
I visited with Whiting last week in his studio in back of his home in West Tisbury. Even his studio has roots set deeply in the Island’s past. For many years it was attached to the back of the old West Tisbury Grange Hall. Wandering through the studio — well, let’s just call it what it is: more like a rambling shack — there were paintings in various stages of finish everywhere you turned. I also detected a faint whiff of something in the air. “Oh, yeah,” said Whiting, “a couple of skunks were making love under the floorboards.” No pretense or artifice here; as Whiting said, he’s a blue-collar painter.
From the studio you can look out and see the West Tisbury cemetery across the street, another way in which Whiting and his past are intertwined. “A lot of your ancestors buried out there?” I asked. Whiting allowed as how that was true.
“Do they ever come over to this side of the road?” I asked.
Whiting said that they cruise around sometimes. When he and Lynne first moved into their house, there was all kinds of noise up in the attic. “Lynne saw something one time,” Whiting said, “but they were friendly, they were glad we were here, and were gone in a couple of years.”
I asked Whiting how he felt about having a film made about him. “I’m very flattered,” he said; “everyone wants to be acknowledged.” In the film he talked about how we all look for recognition. “We all want to make a picture of the horse we drew and go up to our mother’s knee and say ‘Isn’t this good?’”
Whiting claims he had fun during the process of making the film, but now, as the time draws near to the showing, he’s getting a little nervous, especially since he has yet to see it. “I just tell myself, it’s not my portrait — it’s theirs.”
Toward the end of the film, Allen and Lynne are seated on a couch, and in a tender moment he reads from a book of poetry written by his grandmother, Emma Mayhew Whiting. The poem is about the family’s ancestral land on Black Point, a location where Whiting estimates he’s done about 200 to 300 paintings.
“I’m a terrible romantic, and my family must bear with me because they all know this poem,” said Whiting, “and they like it, but I’m going to read it because it sums up how I feel about living here and working here, especially painting by the ocean.”
Oh who am I lord, who am I
That I should have the sea and sky
That I should own this spit of land,
Before ordained to understand
The lowly language of the earth
In primal tasks to find one’s work,
Ahh bursting is my thankful heart
My fate is not the crowded mart
For thou in kindness destined me
To love my meadow by the sea.