By Joan Baum
Light By the Water: Coastal Landscapes of the Sag Harbor Area by Plein Air Peconic, opening Memorial Day weekend at The Sag Harbor Whaling Museum, is inaugural in more ways than one. The exhibit marks the first time Plein Air Peconic is collaborating with The Whaling Museum in addition to The Peconic Land Trust. It is also the first time the twelve artists who constitute the six-year-old Peconic Plein Air group — nine painters, three photographic artists — are depicting a particular preservation area – Sag Harbor.
And the exhibit also marks the start of what the board of The Whaling Museum hopes will be a “revitalization” effort for this historic building, turning it into a cultural center in the village by way of timely and relevant music and art, says Casey Chalem Anderson, curator of Light By the Water. She notes that Whaling Museum Board Vice President Barbara Pintauro Lobosco is passionate about this broader cultural and environmental initiative and looks forward to putting on more events that call attention to preserving local natural resources.
“It’s not just whaling and history,” says Anderson. And it’s not all aesthetic concern. Preservation affects the local economy.
A beautiful and eclectic example of what the AIA Architectural Guide calls “Long Island’s finest example of high style Greek Revival architecture,” the Whaling Museum building reportedly contains the largest collection of whaling equipment in the state, and over the years has been providing information for visitors and schoolchildren about when Sag Harbor was a major whaling town in the 18th and early 19th century. But it’s time to add to that heritage and enhance it, Anderson says, and she’s hoping that the Plein Air Peconic exhibition will do just that. Certainly the artists involved in the show are excited about being at the museum, with their larger works hanging in the high-ceiling front parlor and smaller pieces in the corridor off the main hall. Each artist is showing three to five works.
Every year, Plein Air Peconic partners with a different organization or venue but Light By the Water is a “special show,” notes Anderson, focusing on the bays and ponds and beaches around Sag Harbor at a time when “new homes and commercial buildings” threaten to contaminate or destroy the East End landscape.
Such is the dedication of the participating artists in Light By the Water, a few of whom live and work in the village, that they acknowledge – with humor – some of the difficulties they faced; indeed, as one painter advised, as her work was being hung, “don’t touch, it’s still wet.”
Another allowed as to how she was still adjusting composition and color.
En plein air does not necessarily mean being outside in the natural light to do it all. It never did, even as the genre gained in popularity in the 1870s, when paint in tubes made it easier to transport materials to a site. Finishing up in a studio, working from a photo, a sketch or small study is not uncommon. True enough for Susan D’Alessio, whose contributions include the tranquil “Sunday Sail” — three people easing along Noyac Creek near Clam Island, with Morton Refuge in the background — a sunny scene set against a ridge of Hopper-like trees. She also submitted a night painting of The Whaling Museum itself — done en plein air “before it got totally dark.”
Anderson’s oil on wood-panel “North Haven and Rain Cloud” is meant to signify the triumph of sun over darkness (“a metaphor” for her, over the last few months), and is paired with “The Volger Estate” (off Noyac Road), whose cheerful “ball of clouds” confirms the metaphor. Both paintings reflect her desire to capture both pond and bay in the same painting.
Yes, the light out here is “amazing,” says Anita Kusick, the newest member of Plein Air Peconic. Every day, every hour, the light changes the color of the water. And the wind, when it’s not blowing up? Maybe around sunset, if Aubrey Grainger’s big-sky over Mill Creek can serve. And when is the water not in flux, creating different land patterns, depending on time of day and season, observes Joanne Rosko, who said she was particularly challenged by the ever-changing curved beach around Tramaridge.
Boats on the bay is a popular subject in the show. With few exceptions they are shown moored, masts prominent as organizing vertical lines, as in Ellen Dawn Skretch’s striking, smoothly painted sunset in the harbor. Gordon Matheson, who works in acrylic (using “more layers than most oil paintings”) talks about always loving to depict the strolling path on Circle Beach because it presents both bay and pond, and a lone large tree he’s been doing for years.
Rarely are the pictures in the show moody — though Kathryn Szoka’s atmospheric, monochromatic-like images with their slightly “vintage” look (Otter Pond, Tramaridge, Long Beach) and Ellen Watson’s colorful, sharply focused mid-horizon lines will give viewers a chance to appreciate the various media embraced by this group of representational artists. It’s always nice, says Anderson, when viewers identify places from the photos and paintings and leave better educated, if not moved, about the goals in common between art and conservation.
Light By the Water runs through July 9. A portion of the proceeds will be donated to the Peconic Land Trust and to The Sag Harbor Whaling Museum. Participating Plein Air Peconic artists include Casey Chalem Anderson, Susan D’Alessio, Aubrey Grainger, Gail Kern, Anita Kusick, Michele Margit, Gordon Matheson, Joanne Rosko, Eileen Dawn Skretch, Tom Steele, Kathryn Szoka, Ellen Watson. The Whaling Museum is at 200 Main Street, Sag Harbor. An Artists’ Reception will be held on Saturday, May 26, 5-8 p.m. and a Coffee With . . . on Sunday July 1, 11 a.m. – 1 p.m.