I had the great joy of attending Anina Porter Fuller’s artists’ week on Great Spruce Head Island in Fairfield Porter’s summer house. When I returned to Islesboro where I spend my summers, I was bereft because going to the retreat was a one-time deal. So I was complaining to Susan Van Campen and Nikki Schumann at the kitchen table when one of them said, “why don’t you do a retreat here?” And so it began.
My grandparents built Long Ledge in the 1920s as a summer cottage. It is now more of a white elephant despite the fact my mother had about a third of it cut off and dragged into the woods to make a winter house for herself and my father. Long Ledge still sleeps thirteen chaste individuals.
My grandfather was a collector of paintings as was his father, and those collections went to form the Philadelphia Museum of Art. My mother, however, was an accomplished artist as were two of my sisters. In their memory and to acknowledge the extraordinary brilliance of women artists, I decided the Long Ledge Retreat would be for women only, and that they could return as long as they wanted.
A community was formed in this manner, and for me, it is what the house should be—a gathering of dedicated artists given the freedom to spend time “apart.” It has given me the greatest pleasure imaginable to be a part of this gathering.
The setting plays a very large part in our community. Both inside and out, we live a charmed existence. That we participate as a group in this fleeting experience is a blessing beyond measure.
I am always reminded of the childhood game of “let’s pretend,” where time and space are appropriated to play house. Pretend our parents are dead, pretend this is our kitchen, our dining table, our bedroom. Brita’s house is like a giant setting for “let’s pretend.” We are surrounded by treasured objects and furnishings—our props for the week. We set the table with beautiful tablecloths, dishes, candlesticks. Outside, on the porch and in the garden there are comfortable chairs where we sit together to view the dock, the boats in the water, the nearby islands, the ferry, and the Camden Hills.
The rituals that Brita has established add to the feeling that we are playing house. We are told which bedroom will be ours, if it will be single or shared, which bathroom with the deep tub will be ours to enjoy. At the first night’s dinner, we divide ourselves into teams with whom we will set the table and wash the dishes for every fourth meal. We choose a colorful napkin ring used to identify our napkin for the week and our ever-changing place at the table. We take turns ringing the bronze bell on the porch to call artists back home for lunch. Delicious meals are prepared for us all week long. We linger at the table, but then we know that a game of Scrabble or Bananagrams will be set up for whoever wants to play, but our beds also await. We must remember that the last one to bed turns off all but one or two well-placed lights. This is how our imaginary days play out.
We are making art in a house full of art made and collected over time by Brita’s family, her friends, and herself as well as by artists from earlier years of the retreat. Often the subjects reflect the interior of the house: the setting around it, the dock and boats, Brita’s beloved dogs.
The kitchen itself presents an ever-changing still life: fruits and vegetables from our gardens at home, breads of every shape and size, mushrooms gathered, tomatoes and more tomatoes, fruit flies and more fruit flies. The kitchen is also the setting for what feels like breakfast in a dream. We contribute and share special granolas, oatmeal, or omelets, the best coffee ever. We make a beautiful new fruit salad for every breakfast. We pretend that it is fine to partake in last night’s cheesecake or blueberry pie at seven in the morning.
After breakfast and again in the afternoon, we head off to find our chosen spots where we make art in solitude or in the company of another artist. When several of us have located on or near the porch, or have propped up an easel a short distance apart, we are artists together and we each begin and see what happens.
We pretend that every evening’s sunset is endless and not like any other. It casts a spell on us as we all suspend our art making and just sit together until the last colors fade into dusk. Everything about a day and night spent on the island holds a gift for us, a bonding that is real.
ANINA PORTER FULLER
Community at Long Ledge means sharing artistic energy effortlessly as we interact in different ways throughout the days, as we work apart or together. Around the table in the evening, we have happy discussions and discoveries about the colors of the sky at sunset, food recipes, political happenings, places on the island where we paint, influences on our lives, and memories of previous years together.
Long Ledge thoughts about community.
The retreat at Long Ledge has been formative for me, to say the least. I attended that first year of the retreat in 2006 when I was thirty-eight years old. I was soon to close my bookshop and get to work as a full-time painter instead of being a part-time one, around the edges of my working life. I was shy and quiet. To attend Art Week on Great Spruce Head Island, where I met Anina Porter Fuller and Brita Holmquist both for the first time, then to be invited to Brita’s retreat on Islesboro the following year was a huge outward step for me, into a life I hadn’t personally known before then: that of the working artist. I’d always had a small studio and made art on my own, but hadn’t shown a lot of my work, or sold much of anything, or even tried to sell it.
Early on at the retreat, I learned by observation how to take myself and my paintings more seriously (and I was already pretty serious), and how to begin a professional life in that regard. I’m fifty-four now, and have become a full-time painter thanks in part to the year-after-year nature of our annual retreats and the ways in which I got to see other women being artists—and be one, myself.
For me, painting and making art has been mostly solitary. I do share a lot of my work online on social media, to uplift, I hope, and participate in a creative circle with people I don’t know personally—the art world at large. I also show my work in galleries, and have studio visitors from time to time. But most of the time I’m working alone. That’s one reason the Long Ledge retreat has been so invaluable: our group of women. We’ve seen each other’s work over the years, and have an ease with each other after all this time. There’s no competition, we’re just doing our thing, whatever it might be. There’s mutual respect and humor and seriousness about the entire endeavor. We can be ourselves and do what we love to do, without particular judgment.
I am still a quiet person and like to work on my own. My paintings are “The Sarah Show.” They are made by me for me with the help of the landscape and nature, and not in community with or for other people. Presently, however, I am making paintings that are specifically for Ryan, my husband.
I’m more than a little in awe of artists who are natural collaborators and teach or work together in communities or groups. I tend to think of art as being made by individuals, although ideally within a community or within circles of supportive friends. I feel so fortunate to be part of one such circle. Us. Thanks, wonderful women.
Community is vital to me because making art is an arduous pursuit that I can’t do alone.
When I first settled in Portland, a broad art community kept me energized: USM and MECA art teachers, 10×10 artists, Sawyer Street Studios, drawing groups, new creative businesses, and huge cheap studio spaces downtown. Times have changed, but the reach of community is still expansive, supporting risk-taking, entrepreneurship, perseverance, and activism.
The community that converges once a year at Long Ledge on Islesboro has served as my lifeline, incubator, and blast furnace for over a decade. It’s a luxury and a necessity—a week away from the world. Everyone brings news and ideas from their far-flung home communities. There’s a palpable sense of generosity and giving, wondering, concentration, commitment. Though some of us see each other just this once a year, we’ve weathered life changes together and conversations grow more candid and hilarious as connections deepen. This is the atmosphere that sparks movements—or, at least for me, movement towards authenticity in my work.
Being with a group of people with the same affliction—needing to respond to the world by making something, content with hours spent alone, and structuring life around this practice—makes me feel good. It’s as if we have a shared joke. I don’t feel odd or special, or as if I have to explain anything. What Brita has organized is unique among artist residencies, in that we are the same group of people, with a few iterations, depending on who can or can’t come each year. This adds to the comfort level. It also adds to my admiration of everyone, as I see everyone working with fresh, ongoing dedication, because of or in spite of personal and/or world issues. There’s no competition, and there’s no determined end game product—it’s a constant practice. Being part of this group makes me a better artist and a better person.
We also all know how lucky we are to be in the setting that Brita provides: wonders and beauty wrought by nature—yes, landscape, seascape, clouds, atmosphere; at the same time, there are wonders and beauty made by people: house, garden, Italian ceramics, all kinds of animal sculptures, etc. For someone like me who has a solo practice, who doesn’t do joint projects, sharing this space is like a joyful collaboration. I often don’t do my best pieces when I’m at Long Ledge, but that does not matter. The week makes me feel completely taken care of. Oh my gosh! To be cooked for! The elegant dishes! The beauty! The humor! These things buoy me; something relaxes, allowing an openness. Ideas and observations come home with me. The group makes me feel I have supportive sisters all year long, whether I see them or not. These phenomena lead to my best work
I studied painting in a period of political awakening and wondered where my art was going. Then I heard about a group of artists in Italy who were dedicating themselves to public spaces (murals), and I joined them. One member of the group established a center for public art where conversations were often both heated and hopeful. In the huge studio, I worked on a mural dedicated to Italy’s first labor leader. I consider that time spent working in collaboration and examining their ideas and new techniques for painting outside for a larger public completely formative. There, I was among few female artists. I felt included, but still within a male hierarchy.
Since then I have rediscovered landscape painting. I paint en plein air, a practice that has allowed me to follow the fleeting light playing over land and sea or to examine the curious forms that ferns or branches take.
At the Long Ledge retreat, I have felt that same old camaraderie, as we discuss our art and lives, and how we can hope to balance them. One significant difference is that here, I am among women artists whose lives have been shaped by living in Maine where the natural world is ever present and changing, and to know it is to love, care, and share it.
When first invited to attend the Long Ledge retreat, I was thrilled and terrified. The orienting features of my life have always been family, art, and community, often resulting in cooperative ventures and collaboration, but I didn’t know how I would fit within this group of artists—most of whom, it seemed, were highly skilled plein air painters. I was a late-comer to this intimate island retreat, joining in 2015, and the group already had its own rhythm.
For me, new work comes from ideas, not necessarily the visual world around me. Art making requires vulnerability, curiosity, and being open to failure. Could I expose myself and my work to the scrutiny of others in the tender, exploratory beginnings? And, if not, what was the point?
Now, all of these years later, the answers are still coming. We have shared our vulnerabilities and strengths. I relish the chance to witness the growth and changes of each other’s images and lives from day-to-day during the retreat and year-to-year as friends.
We have each chosen to craft a life centered on our passion, forging our own way. I learn about myself in the process of seeing the choices and possibilities that the other women artists have created. In recent times as the world seems to spin out of control, intimacy and connection have become more essential than ever. Our bond strengthens me as an individual and as an artist. I am very grateful.
The fact is, the Long Ledge retreat is my only art community (plus the occasional Great Spruce Head Island Art Week), so I am incredibly grateful to be a part of it and to Brita for providing it! I see people at an opening or in the store but that hardly qualifies. The only other “community” I really have is that of the staff at the store. I know that others of our group have extensive art communities in their everyday lives, but for me, this is it!
This chance to be with people who, at least mostly, understand each other and speak the same language is so important. It’s also great that we already know the facts about each other so all we have to do is catch up and not go through the whole “where are you from, do you have kids, etc.” thing.
And of course we have the chance to work all day long, day after day, in a beautiful place.
I think a lot of what makes the retreat so special is the house—so wonderfully full of art and creativity and beautiful things (and having Boochie to cook for us); it is as much a special place to go as anything else. I do love working by myself, but also love sharing in this endeavor. I enjoy hearing where people went, what moved them, how they see the same places/views I see, but so differently. Our individuality is reassuring to me. And I love how seriously everyone takes it—we’re there to paint, to explore our worlds—that is also reassuring.
Time has been a valuable aspect of our “Ladies of Long Ledge” art week. Most of us have been together for twelve years. Although there has been a slightly shifting group because some had other obligations that kept them away in any given year, they still remain part of this community. We benefit from the age range of community members (the oldest is eighty-four, youngest is fifty-four) and their different perspectives and life experiences, all to be added to our nightly conversations around the supper table. I recall a question one night Natasha asked us: “how are you like your mother?” Wow, did that ever start deep reflective conversation.
As a sculptor who also draws, I enjoy being with artists who work in different media. The clay community is wonderful (witness Watershed Center for Ceramic Arts), but we are often in our own bubble. Cross-pollination is so important, and can only be achieved in community, in person.
The big house is a perfect setting, harkening back to an era when “ladies” had a different meaning—but maybe not—my grandmother marched for women’s suffrage and was arrested and jailed. Onward, ladies!
Most of us are involved with many different communities–communities within communities. With each that I am involved in, I gain another layer of learning and understanding. Sharing a common place brings out certain aspects of the area to be appreciated, honored and protected.
The retreat on Isleboro is a collection of women who are embedded within their own communities, but gather to share all of their interests with each other for a week. We absorb from one another. There are group discussions, or smaller groups at the breakfast table, or just one on one encounters throughout the day. Each of us does our own thing, but there are influences from each other that, I think, affect us in some way and open our eyes to a new way of seeing. During that week I live to embody art in whatever form that emerges from me, fed by friends/colleagues and surroundings, willing myself to let go of the old and welcome the new. It is a week of mutual respect, camaraderie, and genuine caring for one another that makes the creative process ever more joyful.
To be able to share my beloved family house with twelve people who truly see it and understand and appreciate it, as well as all the things that have accumulated over four generations, is something that thrills me. Each one of these magnificent artists has been so kind and generous to me and to each other that Long Ledge becomes like Brigadoon for a week. An island is a separate space from the “real world,” and the retreat adds a layer of unexplainable joy and safety.
These accomplished artists do not compete, but support each other in every way, from a cup of tea to serious professional advice—and there is no holding back on the humor! I cannot emphasize how greatly I am humbled by this splendid week. All I can say to these artists is: thank you and please come back again!
Image at top: Brita Holmquist, The View, oil on canvas.