Perhaps the “Lost and Found” exhibit should be one of the first galleries you step into in the spanking-new Martha’s Vineyard Museum, which sits majestically atop the hill looking out over the Vineyard Haven Harbor and the Lagoon. The new museum is the amazing transformation of the abandoned 1895 U.S. Marine Hospital, which, after closing in 1952, eventually served as a summer camp before being completely abandoned. When the museum bought the dilapidated complex in 2011, it was in complete disrepair. But while it might have posed a herculean task to transform it into a sleek, modern facility, many artists saw its challenges as a unique opportunity.
Manager of exhibitions and programs for the museum, Anna Barber, curated the exhibit.
“The exhibition was inspired by the transformation of the building, and how important it was to document it as it was — even though it was in a state of disrepair,” Barber explained. “This building has a wonderful history, and the remnants of both its life as a hospital and as a camp were still visible as it sat waiting for us to begin the work of turning it into a museum. There were a number of artists who asked permission to come and paint, photograph, and draw the building during this time. Through their work, the building took on a new life, and became an object of beauty, of intrigue, and of memory.”
The artists included in the unique exhibit show the range of how the building was interpreted. Heather Neill offers expansive, finely detailed views of both the interior and exterior of the building. Her first glance at the untamed building was with Denys Wortman, then a board member of the Martha’s Vineyard Museum, which inspired her “Reclamation” series. Two of the pieces are included in “Lost and Found.” Neill writes about the museum, “The building is infused with light by virtue of the many tall windows and the glassed transoms over the doorways that let that light cascade deeply into the space.” You can see the views yourself through the windows that overlook the Lagoon and Vineyard Haven Harbor.
Sybil Teles’ Polaroid series shows small details of crumbling paint, lighting fixtures, wallpaper, a faucet, and more that taken together, create an abstract black-and-white patchwork. Teles says that the old Polaroid’s “instant film in general conjures memories … and [the] feeling as though I had captured time … [The] work aims to capture the life and death of the space. It is a project about my curiosity of mortality and reincarnation. I see it as a visual eulogy. A forensic study. The way a coroner captures the physicality of the body upon death … I began to see the building’s structure as a skeleton, and the peeling paint became blistered skin … Nature was reclaiming what was once hers. The checkerboard floors and decomposing wood started to look like genetic code … I even could see glimpses of the building’s soul through streaks of light from opened doors and clouded windows.”
Bonita LeFlore’s “Before Leaving” conveys memories too, but in a wholly abstract manner. She transforms a partial view of the building into a an abstract but clearly recognizable large painting made from washes of acrylic paint and pastels. “I have always been attracted to architectural subjects … that have been abandoned and left to decay,” LeFlore says. “I call these subjects ‘imperfect places.’ In this painting I am trying to capture the beauty of a place forgotten by time.”
Although Jean Schnell’s subject is the abandoned Marine Hospital, the exquisite natural light plays an equal role. Speaking of her experience working in the abandoned building, Schnell shared, “I tend to use a contemplative approach, settling in and taking my time. I get stopped in my tracks by light and form.” Returning each year from 2014 to 2017, Schnell said she typically started photographing early in the day and caught the changing light as time passed. She adds,
“The first time, I went over all of the inside and the outside, and took what caught my eye, which was pretty much everything,” she adds. “I started on the outside, climbed every rickety fire escape, went on every accessible porch, and went in every room multiple times. In 2015, I focused more on ‘seeing through’ the windows, doorways, and hallways. ‘Pink Stairway II’ was taken in 2015. And I loved that pink stairway. I took [it] any way I could on every visit.” Schnell said that she describes the photographs as “a combo of fine art and documentary work, and out of that the photographs I would peg as more fine art arose.”
Light plays a vital role too in Bob Avakian’s dramatic, moody photograph of the building on the bluff. The bright façade reveals all its beautiful “defects” in exacting detail, while the roiling clouds seem about to dump torrents of rain on the structure.
“Our hope for this exhibition is that when [visitors] view it, it will be a reminder of just how many different chapters this building has gone through,” Barber said. “It is a celebration of this extraordinary building, and while it is now a museum, it holds many memories of the past and all of the people who walked through its halls.”
“Lost and Found” will be on view from March 13 to June 8 at the new Martha’s Vineyard Museum in Vineyard Haven.