Rebirth at the Artists Association -June 2017
by: Dean Geddes
photography by: Nicole Harnishfeger
The Artists Association of Nantucket is in the midst of a renaissance. In July 2015 the nonprofit arts organization opened its new Visual Arts Center on Amelia Drive and was able to nearly double the number of classes it offered to the community. What followed was a surge in participation, from 670 students in 2014-15 to 1,237 students last year, massive growth in the span of just a year for an organization that has been enriching the arts on the island for over 70 years.
But the Artists Association is about more than just teaching art. Since its founding in 1945, it’s had three missions: to give Nantucket artists an opportunity to show and sell their work, to bring skilled teachers to the island to teach artists and to build a permanent collection to preserve the history of Nantucket art. Those ideals still shape the way the organization is run some 70 years later.
With the Cecelia Joyce & Seward Johnson Gallery at 19 Washington St., the AAN has a space dedicated to showcasing the work of its members, and gives artist-members a 65 percent commission for any work they sell.
“There are a lot of emerging artists and we spend a lot of time welcoming people into the artists’ community, but then they get here and they stay with us. People are loyal to the organization,” executive director Cecil Jensen said.
Julija Mostykanova Feeney is an artist who used the AAN as a springboard to greater artistic heights. Feeney moved from Lithuania to Nantucket 16 years ago, and at the time, art was simply a hobby. But after taking classes at the Artists Association and harnessing her talents, she eventually began showing her oil paintings at various galleries across the island.
“She joined the community and has now become a full-time professional artist who is highly collectible,” Jensen said. “So you have a young person like Julija who has launched a career, to seniors and adults who just want to make art a bigger part of their lives.”
There are also members like AAN board president Don Van Dyke, who has been an avid art collector his entire life, but decided in his retirement that he would like to learn to paint. Now he not only collects art, but produces it as well.
“He has become really prolific now. His end goal isn’t really to make a living, but he’s dead serious about painting,” Jensen said.
In 2012 the Artists Association made a concerted effort to bring younger members into the organization and also reach out to artists who work in different mediums other than painting.
One of the most successful programs that accomplished both was “Cellography,” a cellphone photography exhibit that anyone is welcome to enter, runs through early June this year.
“It was kind of fascinating. We hang it oldschool with clothespins on a line like you used to do in a darkroom when you were developing and drying film,” gallery manager Peter Greenhalgh said. “Some of the images you would never know were taken with a cellphone. They’re gorgeous professional photographs.”
“Cellography” is part a larger open-artist show that allows any artist, regardless of their affiliation with the Artists Association, to display and sell their work at the gallery.
The Artists Association has roughly 250 artistmembers, and hosts 14 gallery exhibits a year. Most are themed, and for each exhibition, artists can display two pieces of work. Not everyone does. Jensen estimates about 160 AAN members show in the gallery each year and a smaller number show at every exhibit.
Membership is simple. Anyone who spends at least three months a year on Nantucket is welcome to join the Artists Association as an individual member, regardless of artistic skill, for a minimum donation of $75 a year. Artist members must be approved by a review committee,
after submitting work that meets “a level of skill, vision and presentation representative of a professional artist.”
In the early 1970s the AAN teaching program was growing and the organization purchased a 3,000-square-foot building on Gardner Perry Lane as a dedicated teaching space. The property hosted a ceramics program and had a large studio that could be converted into separate classrooms. But after 40 years, the building was bursting at the seams. As part of an internal audit in 2012, the Artists Association determined it was underserving adult artists in the community.
“We had a really robust ceramics program and robust children’s program but we really wanted to do a better job serving adult artists,” Jensen said.
In December 2013 the Artists Association purchased the 9,000-square-foot property on Amelia Drive. Before moving into the new digs, while renovations were underway, the AAN rented classroom space at the Nantucket New School in the summer of 2014 and the results were staggering. With just one extra classroom the arts organization was able to increase its tuition revenue by 40 percent.
“After that we knew we’d be able to do this move successfully and thankfully it was true,” Jensen said.
In June 2015, the Artists Association opened its Visual Arts Center on Amelia Drive. Three times the size of its previous location, it has dedicated space for adult classes and enough room to run two children’s classes and two ceramics classes simultaneously. That certainly came in handy this April during the public schools’ spring break.
“We had two age groups for two-dimensional (art) and two age groups for ceramics, with morning and afternoon options for parents and we can service different ages in different mediums,” Jensen said.
“In the single studio in the past, we had to just offer what we could. We had two printing presses but they were hardly used because the space was the same studio space for two-dimensional teaching, and taken up with kids’ programs and painting classes. Now that we have a room dedicated to printmaking, we’ve built up the print program and we just couldn’t have done that over there.”
Like galleries across the island, Artists Association members and leaders have noticed a shift to more abstract and nonrepresentational work in recent years.
“I think the atmosphere is freeing artists up to try new things they might have been interested in, but might have felt a little constrained by the marketplace,” AAN curator Bobby Frazier said.
In late April the Artists Association hosted an “Outside the Box” exhibition, challenging its artists to explore different mediums and styles.
“Some people think, oh well, you just have pretty rose-covered cottages and sailboats on the harbor. But look at that, that’s a totally different twist than what you would have had 20 years ago,” Greenhalgh said recently, pointing to a Marija Yanka painting depicting a more abstract and dreamy vision of boats resting on the water.
“We don’t have as many people coming in looking for the old, iconic, Nantucket pretty parts.”
But that’s not to say that classic, plein-air painting, which is a staple of Nantucket art, is going anywhere. There are still numerous paintings of cobblestoned streets, beach sunsets and windmills in both the gallery on Washington Street and in the AAN’s permanent collection.
“Oil painting and printing are still the primary medium we see in the gallery. People just really love to paint here,” Jensen said. “That’s keeping with our roots. The people who formed the association were wonderful painters.”
The permanent collection consists of more than 1,500 pieces of Nantucket art, spanning from 1920 to the present. From sculptures to ceramics to sketches and historic artifacts, the collection is the closest thing the island has to a public museum of contemporary Nantucket art. The collection, which is in storage, can by viewed online at http://www.nantucketarts.org/.
Each year the Artists Association also hosts a themed exhibition of works from the permanent collection. This year it centers on Tony Sarg, a puppeteer and illustrator sometimes referred to as “America’s Puppet Master” during his heyday in the 1920s and 1930s. He was also the mastermind behind the giant helium-filled balloons that have become synonymous with the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade in New York City. In the summer of 1937 he famously installed a giant inflatable sea monster on the beach in Nantucket as a humorous response to rumors of suspicious giant footprints showing up on the island.
“Wizard of the Whimsical: Tony Sarg’s Fantastic Art” runs from June 23 through Sept. 1 at the Visual Arts Center at 24 Amelia Drive.
Dean Geddes is a staff writer at The Inquirer and Mirror, Nantucket’s newspaper since 1821.