I thought Tim and Eileen Maley would know, but Eileen only said, “Sometime in the ‘80s.” That is the closest timeframe that anyone seems to remember about the formation of what has been an iconic gathering of artists on the Island these many years. Everyone agrees that Tom and Helen Maley turned their living room into an artist’s studio once a week for years of winters, giving artists a place to draw from a live model. They graciously provided coffee or tea during breaks and never seemed bothered having their furniture moved around to accommodate a model’s pose or one of the attending artists wanting to set up in a better spot.
Following Tom’s death, and then Helen’s, the artists met in what Ruth Kirchmeier called, “a moveable feast” of members’ living rooms, before eventually relocating to Featherstone Center for the Arts in 2004 until everything came to a stop during COVID. When the artists were ready to start meeting again in 2022, the name was changed to Open Studio Life Drawing, and everyone agreed that they would continue as a permanent part of Featherstone. Now the group is preparing to reconvene beginning in March.
In the day, the Maleys’ living room was the place for artists to meet one another. When Ruth Kirchmeier moved to West Tisbury in the 1980s, she recalls meeting ”The first friends I made on the Island. They became lifelong friends.” She called it “a vital presence in the lives of people to whom art is important.”
Liz Taft, new to the Island in 1998 “not knowing a soul,” arrived at the Maley’s for the same reason. “That’s how I met everyone. It was so important to know there was a group of artists and that it was an open group. It was open to everyone, which was so great.”
Paul Karasik drew with the group during summer visits and became a regular after he moved here year-round in 1989. He remembers setting up on Bill and Ann Fielder’s lawn, the group’s summer venue. Linc Hanson was in charge of lining up the models. Marsha Winsryg recalled, “If a model failed to show up, Bill was known to pose with a hoe, shovel, or rake.” Ruth Kirchmeier mentioned that drawing the nude figure in a landscape setting was something she and the others relished — an unusual and unexpected juxtaposition of visual elements.
Besides drawings of nude models, Paul drew the other artists. As a cartoonist, he felt that he needed to work on clothed figures, to study how fabric draped and moved. He has a collection of drawings “of group regulars Eleanor Rodegast, Bill Fielder, Linc Hanson, Tom Maley, Ruth Kirchmeier, and my favorite model, Natalie Huntington.”
Marsha Winsryg, Paul Karasik, Bill Fielder, Lincoln Hanson, Hela Buchthal, Eleanor Rodegast, Natalie Huntington, Zada Clarke, Beth Summers, Cathy Thompson, Linda Zeigler, and Tom, of course, were among the earliest participants, the core group. Allen Whiting attended on and off. Steve Lohman was another occasional member. Beth Summers brought me in 1985 or ‘86; I liked the concept, but not the short poses. There were others who drifted in and out. All were welcome.
Marsha Winsryg described the drawing group as “extraordinary, mostly because Tom had a quietly wicked sense of humor and a lot of patience with the occasional complaints.”
As artists got to know one another, smaller groups splintered off. Liz Taft invited several artists to meet once a month to look at our work and give critiques. There was none of that at Maley’s by agreement of the artists. For a while, we also drew every Wednesday morning in Liz’s, Lyn Hinds’, or my studio, or in Eleanor Rodegast’s living room that was filled with lovely antiques for props, hiring a model, or drawing each other. Although the passing of several of our members, and then COVID, made our meetings less frequent, those were vital art-making years for all of us, and our affection for one another and our work remains strong.
After leaving the Maleys’, Tom Carberry started another drawing group that met in the second floor studio of the firehouse in Oak Bluffs. Chip Coblyn drew with this new group, faces and full-length figures in graphite or charcoal. He returned to the original group when they moved to Featherstone in 2004.
The impetus for moving to Featherstone came from Anne Gallagher, a regular at the Maleys’ and a member of Featherstone’s board. It has operated there ever since in a small outbuilding called The Pebble, except for a break during COVID. Anne was a force of nature, remembered fondly for her energy and her determination to keep the drawing group together. Liz Taft recalls, “That was before the construction. We were Anne’s chicadees. She made us cookies every week.”
Posie Haeger is Featherstone’s director of programming and communications. She is committed to the inclusion of the drawing group within Featherstone’s purview and will serve as organizer/facilitator of all the business details: hiring and paying models, collecting the $25 per session fee, making sure it all runs smoothly. “I think that it is important to offer life drawing, and to me, it seems fundamental to programming at an art center,” Posie says.
The group will meet in the new drawing studio in the main building on Tuesdays from 9:30 am to noon beginning on March 7. Artists are required to pre-register online at featherstoneart.org/drawing to a limit of 12 artists per session. All artists must wear masks so that the model doesn’t have to. Models will assume two or three short poses for one, five, and ten minutes each, and continue with a longer pose after a break. There will be no instruction or critiques, but a volunteer class monitor will be present.
I can see in my mind drawings by many of the artists. They are pinned to so many studio walls, a living art history of the Island from the late 20th century until now. Everyone has drawings of Dana Nunes, a frequent and most elegant model. Nina and Herman Schneider’s granddaughter, Daisy Colchie, was another memorable one. Eleanor Rodegast painted the most exquisite small watercolors of the models, though most of the artists stuck to the traditional pencils, charcoal, oil or Conte crayon sticks. Leslie Baker’s drawings were always perfectly laid in; it was an education watching her exacting methods for getting proportions and angles right. I realize from the stories gathered while writing this article that Bill Fielder was the naked gentleman standing upright, holding a rake or hoe, some unexpected pairing that always reminded me of a parody of “American Gothic.” It was one of several small drawings pinned tight together on Ruth Kirchmeier’s wall next to portraits of Paul Karasik and so many others.
I hope Featherstone will consider an exhibition of these drawings. For me, it would be visiting old friends. For so many others interested in the art life of the Vineyard, it would be an introduction. Drawings are, I believe, the most personal of all art.
There are so many new artists drawing weekly now as part of the current group. Old and new will carry on in the original spirit that Tom Maley personified. All will be welcome, students and professionals, anyone 18 years old or older, year-rounders or visitors. There are so many new artists now, a wonderful thing. Liz Taft summed it up, noting, “Such a long history. It would be a tragedy for it not to survive.”