Touring the galleries of Nantucket

Article in The Boston Globe June 22, 2013 Travel Section by By Patricia Harris and David Lyon

NANTUCKET — “Art by a Native” reads the sign at the door of Michetti Art, the gallery that Paul and Mary Michetti opened this spring in one of the former shucking shacks on Old South Wharf. The gallery displays Paul’s artwork and he is indeed a native Nantucketer. He doesn’t have Mary’s pedigree (she can trace her lineage to the first English settlers), but Paul knows the island like the back of his hand. A skilled finish carpenter and self-taught artist, he’s also an avid fisherman and archery hunter. In winter, the couple searches for antlers shed by the island’s small deer. Their finds march along the upper edge of the gallery walls, a perfect complement to Paul’s images of Nantucket wildlife.

It turns out that work by local artists (though not necessarily natives — a distinction that matters on Nantucket) is pretty easy to find. “We have about 125 active artist members and another 70 or so who are inactive,” says painter Robert Frazier, curator of exhibitions at the Artists Association of Nantucket. “When the association started in 1945, the core of artists only lived here in the summer,” he says, “but that has changed toward more artists living here year-round.”

Frazier likens the island to such famous art colonies as Woodstock, N.Y., and Ogunquit, Maine. “Nantucket has been an art colony since the 1920s,” he says, noting that it takes more than “a beautiful, inspiring locale” to create a strong artists’ community. The scene began to coalesce when patrons made affordable studio space available. About the same time, Frank Swift Chase (1886-1958) began to teach landscape-painting classes and drew other artists into his orbit.

The Artists Association’s permanent collection includes about 1,200 works from the early art colony days to the present. An exhibit of selected pieces runs June 28 to July 28 at the Maria Mitchell building at 33 Washington St.. In addition, the association mounts changing exhibitions of members’ work at its Joyce & Seward Johnson Gallery. For the June 29-30 Plein Air Nantucket painting festival, at least 15 artists will set up their easels and paint in a location yet to be revealed. The resulting works will be for sale at the end of the weekend. “I love painting plein air,” says Frazier. “Even when I paint in my studio in winter, I paint in plein air speed — sloppy and Impressionistic.”

The association was founded to nurture local artists but has proven to be an incubator for gallery owners as well. Kathleen Walsh did a stint at the association before opening Old Spouter Gallery 14 years ago. She represents 20 artists, all full- or part-time islanders. Walsh has an eye for contemporary, even abstract, work and a soft spot for folk art wood carvings. She mixes it all up in the airy rooms of the 1756 former Old Spouter Inn, about a mile from the center of Nantucket town. It’s a scene worthy of Architectural Digest and a great spot to mingle on Friday gallery nights. “I serve wine and really good cheese,” says Walsh.

Robert Foster also worked at the association before launching his eponymous gallery, now in its third summer. He represents 22 Nantucket-based artists. Most live on the island full-time and are his friends. “That’s a unique thing about living on an island,” he says. “You can’t have enemies.” Foster has lived on Nantucket for 15 years and has a keen appreciation for its beauty. “It’s one of those unique art hubs,” he says. “I’ve heard artists compare the light here to the south of France, especially the lavender light in summer. Everything is a photo or a painting.”

But winter isolation also has advantages. “That’s when everyone can focus and concentrate on their work,” Foster says. He is mounting 11 exhibitions this summer and stays open extra late on Friday nights. “I serve prosecco and really good chocolates,” he says. “Everybody ends up here for dessert.”

Nantucket may be a little island far out to sea, but its art scene doesn’t exist in a vacuum. Some galleries represent national and international artists. Kathleen Knight, who came to Nantucket in 1979, opened her first gallery in 1985. Her Gallery at Four India displays art from the 19th through 21st centuries with an emphasis on academic painters from Boston, Philadelphia, and New York, as well as painters from the Paris Salon. She represents some living artists, including a handful of locals. “I encourage them to join the bigger world, to grow their careers,” Knight says.

By contrast, Cavalier Gallery brings regional artists to Nantucket to seek inspiration. “We invite artists who we think will have success with Nantucket subjects,” says director Lindsay Ebanks. Cavalier is an offshoot of a Greenwich, Conn., gallery and represents major artists, both living and dead. Inventory on Nantucket is tailored to island interests. “About half is beach scenes and maritime art,” says Ebanks. The gallery represents several local artists, including Robert Stark, who is known for his paintings of boats with red sails, and Stephen Pitliuk, who tells inside jokes with graffiti pieces such as “I Sped on Sconset” or “I Saw an Old House on Nantucket.”

Whatever their budget and sensibilities, most buyers are looking for work that reminds them of this special place, and many find it on Old South Wharf. Peter Van Dingstee studied with a Japanese master and makes fish prints through the traditional art form of gyotaku. The walls of Pete’s Fresh Fish Prints are filled with graceful images of striped bass, fluke, tuna, black sea bass, and other creatures that find their way to Nantucket waters. He often prints for sport fishermen. “It’s flat taxidermy,” he says, “instead of having a big dust collector on the wall that your wife doesn’t like.” Van Dingstee uses only nontoxic inks. “When I’m done printing, I can fillet and dine on the fish.”

Nick Addeo of adjacent Anchored Artists fishes off the wharf at night. He and Meredith Hanson, both recent studio art graduates, opened the gallery this summer. She is a landscape painter; he’s a sculptor who works with wood he finds on the beaches. “This wharf,” says Hanson, “is one of the most romantic places with the white lights at night.”

The wharf is also a place “where artists can get a toe in the door,” says printmaker Eric Holch, dean of the Old South Wharf art scene. “I’ve been on the wharf since 1978,” he says, noting that he opened his first gallery in “the last shucking shack to turn into a retail space.” Holch began making limited edition silkscreen prints in 1976 and is a master of the art form. The clean shapes and clear colors capture the stillness of the wharves at dawn or the adrenaline rush of boats under sail with equal verve.

“Nantucket has unbelievable light, especially in the fall,” Holch says. “The low sun just explodes the sides of buildings. The white is whiter than white.” When Holch left his career in advertising to pursue his art, he worried that he wouldn’t have enough material. Now he laughs. “On Nantucket,” he says, “you never run out of stuff.”