Artists make up a community at Harthaven


Featherstone Center for the Arts is honoring 11 Harthaven artists at the Francine Kelly Gallery this week through August 8. It is the first full exhibit of Harthaven artists.

This Oak Bluffs community has long bred artists with a strong sense of place. Harthaven initially was mainly a location for family and friends, but something about the Vineyard, the extended family at Harthaven, and the presence of enough artists developed the community into one with the creative juices for making art.

A Featherstone Harthaven house tour inspired Featherstone board member Caryl Dearing to propose an exhibit of Harthaven artists. By combining art with a sense of place, the Harthaven show is unique, and it may lead to other Featherstone exhibits by communities conjoined with art.

New Britain, Conn., Stanley Works president William H. Hart was responsible for creating Harthaven. He landed in Gay Head as a tourist in the late 1840s, then moved to Oak Bluffs in the 1870s as a summer person. By 1911 he bought what was then a swamp and a nearby beach and created a harbor. He also bought the land off Seaview Avenue that makes up Harthaven today. A devoted family man, he built what is now called the White House at the center of the property, and sold lots to family and friends there.

Adjoining the main exhibit is the Memory Room, curated by Sam Low, ethnographic filmmaker and son of artist Sandy Low, along with family members Paul Prizer and Dakkan Abbe. Featherstone staff curated the exhibit in the adjoining room. With photos and texts, the Memory Room lays out the history and evolution of Harthaven and its artists. “Harthaven surely was no Newport,” writes Howard Stanley Hart. “Nor was it Southampton or Bar Harbor, or, closer to home, West Chop … It was not a boastful community, and never aspired to society.”

The show includes only artists who have died. The three best known of the group are Sandy Low, Ed Abbe, and Doug Prizer. Each has found his own way to evoke Harthaven’s sense of place. Low’s Vineyard watercolor landscapes and houses are lively and colorful. “Menemsha Afternoon” captures dinghies and other small boats near the dock, with ripples in the water that, along with the light, enliven the composition. In “Vineyard Homestead,” a field of multicolored grasses fills the foreground below a handsome brown clapboard cape. Barbed wire strands dance across the foreground grasses.

Unlike Low and Abbe, Prizer’s work usually includes people. He has filled his watercolor “Flying Horses” with lively and colorful merry-go-round riders. It’s a busy and vital scene. Also a watercolor, “Oak Bluffs Cottage” depicts a richly pink Campground house with the era’s gingerbread details. Two women stand in front of the building, enjoying its charm.

Bill Abbe worked in a variety of mediums. “Catboat” divides the canvas into two geometric semi-abstractions, dominated by side and stern views of the white boat, accented with primary colors. In an untitled watercolor, boats rock on the water in front of what looks like Menemsha Harbor. Abbe’s wood and linoleum prints offer strong black and white compositions.

The other Harthaven artists who are part of the exhibit are actor James Cagney, Mary Miller Stevens (her property became Featherstone), Mila Cenkl, Grace Vibberts, Virginia Hart Low, Martha (Patty) Pease, Martha Moore McDowell, and Louis Fusari.