Back in the ‘60s, Martha’s Vineyard was a “where the heck is that?” kind of place. When the 70s, 80s, 90s rolled in, so did a number of celebrities, painting the Island with all that summer tabloid gloss. But what about the year-round population? Who are we? What are we like? What do we do?
Well, after reading therapist and theater producer Jane Dreeben’s handsome coffee-table-sized book, “The Urge to Create: 50 Vineyard Portraits” ($29.95 at local bookstores), it becomes clear that we’re all refugees from convention, whether or not we were born here or fled the strip malls and subdivisions and conformity of the mainland to “live life more deliberately” as dear Thoreau put it. And whatever artistic grail we’re in passionate pursuit of, that doesn’t mean we don’t also do whatever it takes to pay the bills (art being notorious for small remuneration).
That applies to poet and novelist Jennifer Tseng, who worked at the West Tisbury library for years as she labored at home on her haunting novel “Mayumi And The Sea of Happiness” (finalist for the 2016 Pen Award for debut fiction). There are brilliant musicians like Johnny Hoy who rocks our local venues with his songs, but who also works at stone masonry. Julie Vanderhoop created Orange Peel Bakery in Aquinnah the way Michelangelo sculpted David. Eben Armer’s stone works double as sculpture, while the charming and empathic Laurel Redington, disc jockey on WMVY, makes her air time magical for all of us.
And so it goes. We’re all wildly creative. Talk to any year-round Vineyarder with a so-called normal job, and chances are he or she also knits, taxidermies striped bass, writes poetry, or makes jewelry out of discarded liquor nips.
One of the trends in “The Urge to Create” is that most of the artists have enjoyed creativity running through their families like Grandma’s recipe for moonshine. Take Ann Smith, executive director of Featherstone Center for the Arts, who opens her bio (faithfully recorded, transcribed, and edited by Ms. Dreeben): “My mom so influenced our love of the arts. Wherever we traveled to, and we traveled constantly, the first place we ever went to was an art museum.”
Interior designer Mary Fuller Rentschler says her mother was an artist and “she’d be painting with a drop cloth down on the oriental rug in front of the fireplace when we’d get home from school.” Harpist Annie Finnerty Howell says, “I grew up with my father playing harmonica and my mother singing in the church choir.” In the three seasons set apart from the blather of summer, Islanders make a lifestyle that’s pensive and private, and because we’re all somehow shipwrecked on this magical isle like Prospero and Miranda, we find love and support from our off-season assortment of kindred spirits.
It’s always been a bit of a mystery as to why artistic circles flourish. What created Elizabethan playwrights and poets, and Florentine painters of the 15th century? Ancient Etruscan ceramicists? The Bloomsbury Circle? Sartre and de Beauvoir’s cafe society with its existential twist? It seems to have something to do with sanctuary, which the Island certainly provides. Artist Janice Frame says, “A lot of people come here and they don’t get her (the Island). They think she’s a place to summer and do all the kitschy things. That’s so far from who she is. I vowed I would live here someday. I said, ‘This is home for me.’”
Another aspect disclosed in Ms. Dreeben’s portraits is that so many of her creative folks turn around and teach. They teach in that way that’s divinely maternal, as if their students’ artistic outcomes matter as much as their own. Actor, director, and filmmaker Brian Ditchfield says joyfully: “I grew up doing plays [at the Playhouse], teaching camp there, and part of me felt very at home there. I also worked for Children’s Theater, and felt incredibly comfortable doing that. If you said to me the day I graduated that fifteen years later you’re still going to be with Brooke [his stunningly talented actress wife], you’re going to have these awesome children, you’re going to be managing director of the Film Festival and Brooke is going to be the theater teacher at MVRHS, I would have said, ‘I’ll take it absolutely!’”.
The 50 bios are outrageously varied, from chef Gina Stanley’s Irish Catholic childhood in Queens, to wampum artist Berta Giles Welch’s parentage from a Taxco, Mexico, father and a tribal mother born and raised in Gay Head, to handcrafted shoe designer Sawyer Klebs, who hiked for months at a time to figure out what footwear worked best for long tough climbs.
For all of the portraits, photographers were commissioned from Ms. Dreeben’s stock of local professionals, and she also scoured the high school art departments for suggestions for young up-and-comers in the field such as Silas Berlin, Amber Bettencourt, Eli Dagostino, and Willoe Maynard.
Do you see how cool we are? We just have to stay grounded as the Other Vineyard; the glitterati and the trophy house partiers drive up prices without particularly meaning to. At heart, they must be kind people. But let’s be honest, we feel as if we’re clinging to the margins. As artists, we’re big fish in an expensive pond. But let us carry on because we’re all in this together, and we just can’t stop the music, and the weaving, and the poetry, and those cute little painted scallop shells the kids sell in the summertime.