Ray Ellis and the Derby: A love story

New Book Captures the Artist, the Island and 25 years together.


“An Amazing Story of the Vineyard’s Derby: 25 years of Paintings, History and Fishing” by Ed Jerome and Ray Ellis. Compass Publishing, Savannah. 132 pages, $48. Available at Bunch of Grapes, Vineyard Haven, at Edgartown Books, online, and at Island libraries. A Limited Edition, signed and leather bound, with a Ray Ellis print enclosed, is available through Mr. Jerome for $250; $300 at bookstores.

You probably know a lot about the late Ray Ellis and about the Martha’s Vineyard Striped Bass and Bluefish Derby. At 68 years, the Derby is the Island’s longest running play, but there’s a lot more to be learned about Island fishing history, culture, and about Mr. Ellis, its premier artist. The story is told wonderfully in “An Amazing Story of the Martha’s Vineyard Derby”.

Derby president Ed Jerome and fast friend and internationally-known artist Mr. Ellis, in the final year of his life with a cast of two dozen anglers and wordsmiths, have created the definitive work on Island fishermen and women and about fishing, a primary cultural imperative here.

Never wet a line or staggered to the Derby shed at 9:59 pm to weigh-in before the doors closed? No problem. This book works on a variety of levels and has been crafted lovingly by Mr. Jerome as a showcase of both Mr. Ellis’s considerable artistic talent and his community commitment.

Each of the 25 paintings Mr. Ellis created as a mitzvah to the Derby is reproduced in an 18×24 inch high-quality volume. Sale of the prints of the paintings and the income from their first collaboration, “Fishing The Vineyard,” published in 2000, has produced a staggering $500,000 in scholarships for Island kids since Mr. Ellis put paint to Derby canvas in 1988.

His 26th and final work, an evocative landscape of the Cape Poge Light on Chappaquiddick, is aptly titled “Journey’s End” and is the cover art for the book.

Each of the 25 prints includes a back story by an Island angler about fishing at that spot or an historical footnote, such as the 1998 print “The Harpooner,” accompanied by Arthur Railton’s account of a German submarine’s sinking of the Progress during World War I, leaving Captain Bob Jackson of Edgartown and his crew rowing a dory 50 miles from shore.

Some stories, no matter how often retold, give fishermen a blood rush. Mr. Jerome wrote the story of “Columbus Day Blitz,” a 2000 rendering by Mr. Ellis of a night when huge striped bass ran like bluefish and every cast was a hit. That night has become the ne plus ultra of Island fish tales. Now Mr. Jerome was really there, but, like Carlton Fisk’s 1975 World Series homer, if everyone who believed they were present actually were there, both Fenway Park and Tisbury Great Pond would have sunk below sight.

Other stories remind us of the noble beauty of striped bass, which creates a willingness and respect for them. For example, Derby icon Janet Messineo has a hard and fast rule to release her first bass of the Derby, keepers included. Accompanying “Stripers at Devil’s Bridge (1999),” Cynthia DeFelice writes about the night she caught the largest striper of her life, and then, awed by its power and beauty lying in the shallows, released it.

A look at the contributors to “An Amazing Story …” reminds us that fishing is not a guy thing and its lure cuts across all walks of life. Contributors include a retired ironworker (world striped bass record-holder Charlie Cinto) and Vineyard salts like Everett Poole, Bailey Norton, and Cooper Gilkes, all fishing cheek to jowl with Rhodes scholars (Arthur Gordon) and nationally-known journalists and authors, including Nelson Bryant and Philip Craig.

Contributors include: Spider Andresen, Jeff Dando, Jack Fallon, Chris Kennedy, Mike Laptew, Mark Alan Lovewell, Ms. Messineo, Tom Richardson, Nelson Sigelman, Greg Skomal, Matthew Stackpole, and Bridget Tobin.

Mr. Jerome also sheds light on how the Ellis prints came to be. Turns out that every year in winter, Mr. Ellis and his talented gofer and model, Mr. Jerome, would visit likely fishing sites for the following year’s print. They would gauge tide, time of day, and available light, then skitter across dunes and man-sized boulders to set up the perfect scene, captured first in photography, then in sketch form before Mr. Ellis painted the final scene.

Their willingness to plan resulted in perfect renditions, including “Greeting the Islander (2009),” commemorating the last voyage of the beloved Steamship Authority ferry, which completed 57 years of service in 2007.

“Ray insisted that a recognizable Island landmark be included in every panting so that people who had visited the Island would have a framework to remember their time here,” Mr. Jerome told The Times last week. “One thing that’s special to me is that it’s really a piece of Vineyard history. Twenty-five years of Ray Ellis’s work and its unique place in our history. It was a joy for me to be part of it.” The former Edgartown School principal noted that part of the book’s proceeds will go to the Derby’s scholarship fund.

Edgartown Books will host a book signing event with Mr. Jerome and contributing authors on Friday, July 18, at 5 pm. Edgartown Books is located at 44 Main St. in Edgartown. For more information, call 508-627-8463.