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Thomas Hart Benton

The painting by the seasonal Vineyarder evokes the history of the once-populous Chilmark deaf community.

"The Lord is My Shepherd" by Thomas Hart Benton, hangs at the Whitney Museum in New York, and features Sabrina and George West, members of the Chilmark deaf community. – Photo by Gwyn McAllister; The Whitney Museum of American Art

The much-anticipated opening of the new Whitney Museum of American Art in lower Manhattan has attracted thousands of visitors to a large-scale show featuring many works from the museum’s permanent collection. Among these is a painting by Thomas Hart Benton called The Lord Is My Shepherd. Mr. Benton summered for 50 years on Martha’s Vineyard, and painted many scenes of the Island and the Vineyard community. The Lord Is My Shepherd is one of these. It depicts an elderly deaf couple, George and Sabrina West, who were friends of the painter and members of the Chilmark deaf community.

It seems Thomas Hart Benton chose local subjects for his painting to depict ideals central to the American Regionalism art movement. As noted in the Whitney Museum’s audio guide segment about the painting, “They [the deaf couple] become symbols of the old-fashioned rural values that Benton championed. The man and the woman stand for faith, hard work, temperance and endurance, the qualities that Benton believed were the cornerstones of the American way of life.”

During the 19th and early 20th century, there was a large population of deaf people who flourished on the Vineyard for years. The deaf community was centered in Chilmark, and more specifically Squibnocket. At one point, one in 25 children in Chilmark was born deaf, and one in four in Squibnocket.

The Chilmark deaf community is well known among scholars and institutions dedicated to the deaf, partly because of its role in the development of American Sign Language (ASL). The Chilmark residents developed their own form of sign language, known as Martha’s Vineyard Sign Language (MVSL), which later merged with mainland signs to form ASL.

Early settlers of Martha’s Vineyard carried the recessive gene for deafness with them from the Kentish Weald area in England. The deaf population thrived on the Vineyard into the 20th century, but eventually died out, as younger people started leaving to attend schools for the deaf off-Island, and the gene pool was further diluted by an influx of new families settling on the Island

On Saturday, May 23, writer Jack Schimmelman will present a talk about the Chilmark deaf community at the West Tisbury library. Mr. Schimmelman has done a great deal of research on the topic in the course of writing a folk opera based on Vineyard history.

This will be the third in a series of talks by Mr. Schimmelman, focusing on topics covered in the theater piece that he is developing along with composer Jesse Wiener. The opera, titled 1854, focuses on a number of issues of the time, including slavery and abolitionism, the roles of the Wampanoags, the African-American community, and the deaf inhabitants of Martha’s Vineyard. His previous talks focused on race and racial relations on the Vineyard.

In a phone interview with The Times, Mr. Schimmelman, who has lived on the Island for more than four decades, talked about his interest in the historical deaf community.

“The reason it really captured me was a feeling of the unique nature of the Vineyard community as a whole; the fact that this community was fully accepted as a component of the greater community. They were never looked on as being disabled. They were looked on as individuals. I’ve always felt that way about the Island. This has allowed me even further insight into what makes the community special,” said Mr. Schimmelman.

He continued, “A lot of people voluntarily learned sign language because they were working alongside one another. They were doing business together. They were fully integrated into the community.”

Mr. Schimmelman conducted a great deal of his research on the subject with the help of the staff of the Martha’s Vineyard Museum. He found two interviews by oral historian Linsey Lee with descendants of members of the deaf community to be particularly helpful. He is basing all the characters in his opera on historical Island figures.

Mr. Schimmelman, who currently writes a blog for the Huffington Post, has created a number of multidiscipline pieces throughout a long career in theater in New York City. “I create basically performance pieces for ensemble,” he said. “My influence goes back to the Open Theater.” His folk opera 1854 will incorporate songs, choreography, and design. It is a site-specific piece, written to be performed at Oak Bluff’s Union Chapel. Mr. Schimmelman hopes to produce the piece for the first time this September, if he can raise the necessary funds.

While it is focused on a town meeting in which the issue of abolitionism is debated, a number of elements of the early years of European settlement on Martha’s Vineyard are incorporated into the piece, not the least of which is the presence of the deaf community, which the author sees as representative of the Island’s nature of acceptance and adaptability.

Discussion on the Martha’s Vineyard deaf community with Jack Schimmelman will take place on Saturday, May 23, at 1 pm at the West Tisbury library. Sign language teachers Elyse Bonnell and Lynn Thorp will also participate in the discussion. The event is free and open to the public.


Enid Yandell with the Pan sculpture. Ms. Yandell founded the Branstock School. — Photo courtesy of Martha's Vineyard Museum

Martha’s Vineyard’s history is a rich narrative of people and events. In a regular series, The Times has invited the Martha’s Vineyard Museum to draw on its unique cache of contemporary photos and first-person accounts to describe interesting but often unfamiliar moments in Island history called to mind sometimes, but not always, by current dates or events.

Enid Yandell at the Branstock School.
Enid Yandell at the Branstock School.

It is difficult to identify any particular style or quality that encompasses the artistic heritage of Martha’s Vineyard. The Island has played host to many well-known individuals. Though much has been said about Thomas Hart Benton and the artists of the Barn House collective in Chilmark, less has been said about the Branstock School, an institution founded and run by the early 20th century sculptor Enid Yandell. Co-existing for a brief time at the turn of the century, they reflect the growing tensions between traditional and modern art playing out in Europe and all over America.

Plaster relief of Enid Yandell, found in the Edgartown School.
Plaster relief of Enid Yandell, found in the Edgartown School.

Miss Yandell, a sculptor originally from Kentucky, established the Branstock School in 1908. Well-known during her lifetime, she was celebrated both for her talent and for succeeding in a profession overwhelmingly dominated by men. She studied at the Cincinnati Art Academy, and in 1893 designed sculptures for the World’s Columbian Exhibition in Chicago before traveling to Europe where she studied briefly with Auguste Rodin at his Paris studio.  According to Desire Caldwell, an expert on Enid Yandell at the Rhode Island School of Design, her style, like that of many of her contemporaries, reflects a mix of classicism, romanticism, and eclectic symbolism, which one can clearly observe in many of her works, including a monumental statue of Athena that was never cast and a plaster relief recently discovered in the Edgartown School.

Yandell’s sculpture drew inspiration from a variety of sources and seems to be interested in celebrating a national identity. Like many artists, she adopted a style that borrowed heavily from neo-classicism, emphasizing ideal proportions and symbols of Ancient Greece and Rome. In this, she was following a long American tradition.  For America’s founding fathers, Ancient Greek and Roman associations were important in helping to shape a nation founded on rational ideals and principles. They, like artists, believed that the purpose of art was to serve as a tool to elevate and transport its audience away from the menial drudgery of the everyday world. As time wore on, however, artists like Miss Yandell and her contemporaries produced fewer public monuments in favor of private commissions intended for wealthy collectors. In this context Yandell’s decorative and increasingly cryptic art came to be seen as more of status symbol for collectors eager to flaunt their European connections.

Branstock School Brochure.
Branstock School Brochure.

In 1908 she founded the Branstock School at the corner of Davis Lane and School Street in Edgartown. While it began as a sculpture school, in 1909 it expanded to encompass a number of artistic and decorative fields, from painting and drawing to ceramic decoration. Albert Sterner, a New York artist, taught portrait painting while other classes were offered in china decoration, wood block printing, leather tooling, and metal work. Classes were structured affairs and students were required to make a commitment of three months, but enjoyed comfortable accommodations and beautiful surroundings. A small, but elegant tea room attached to the Arts and Crafts Cottage welcomed artists, visitors and collectors who wanted to get away from the hustle and bustle of the city in the summer without missing out on its civilized amenities. The school, when it opened, set the tone for Edgartown’s growing artistic community.

In response, by the 1920s there was a growing movement that felt the need to create an artistic style that would better represent the American experience. Some, like Thomas Hart Benton, felt that art was most powerful when it reflected the struggles and triumphs of real people in real life. Though the distinctive style he developed is most commonly associated with the mid-west and Missouri, his summers on Martha’s Vineyard had a strong influence on his work. Like Yandell, Benton received a formal art education and studied extensively in Europe. In 1921, staying on the Vineyard with friends, Benton was inspired by the farmers and fishermen of Chilmark and saw an opportunity to celebrate the nation’s rustic heritage and visceral human experiences. This was a point of view that Benton shared with many. During his summer retreats, he was often a guest at the Chilmark seasonal community known as Barn House, which was founded in 1918 and continues to this day.

Thomas Hart Benton, in the door of his Chilmark studio.
Thomas Hart Benton, in the door of his Chilmark studio.

Coexisting for a just about a decade, Yandell and Benton seem to characterize the regional differences that can still be felt on the Island today. At the turn of the century here on the Island, just as in Europe and all over America artists struggled to redefine their purpose in an increasingly modern world. Though Martha’s Vineyard has long had a mystique as a place out of time and separate from the concerns of the outside world, in this case, the Vineyard was at the forefront of the artistic avant-garde.

Visit www.mvmuseum.org for more information about upcoming programming and exhibits. The Martha’s Vineyard Museum is open year-round. Off-season hours are Monday-Saturday 10 am to 4 pm. Admission is free to members; admission for non-members is $6 for adults, $5 for seniors, $4 for children 6 to 15, and free for children under the age of 6.