In Maine, an island haven for illustrators is a big draw
PEAKS ISLAND, Maine — They met at Barnstable High School during the Jimmy Carter administration. He was a tall outsider with long hair. She was a Cape Cod cheerleader whose teacher darkly warned her to stay away from him.
“That sort of sealed the deal for us,’’ Scott Nash recalled the other day on a splendid, sun-splashed afternoon here where he and that former cheerleader — Nancy Gibson-Nash — have made a home and have forged something special that is still taking shape on this jewel of an island 3 miles off Portland in Casco Bay.
That hammering you hear in the background is the sound of the latest pieces slipping into place of something called the Illustration Institute, a fledgling and unusual artist organization that is something of a sparkling jewel itself.
“It’s a place to slow down. It’s a place to recharge,’’ said Anita Kunz, a well-known cover artist for The New Yorker and Rolling Stone.“In my career, I’m having to be faster and faster all the time. Other people are now talking about this institute. People really want to be invited because you can do whatever you want to do.’’
And to stand under the trees on Tolman Heights on the north end of this island, which 100 years ago was home to a bohemian enclave, is to feel the force of nature that serves as a sort of salty metronome for a summer artist residency that lives here anew.
The Nashes’ journey to their island home, a place where they have become friendly fixtures among year-round residents who blissfully live a ferry ride away from the mainland, has been a circuitous one that has wound its way from Cape Cod to Watertown, from Boston to Portland.
“I have loved illustration since I can remember,’’ said Scott Nash, who, at 6-foot-5 with a head of unruly gray-flecked hair, is an easy-going and natural story-teller. “Which means I love illustrated books, comic books, animated movies. It’s an underappreciated art. And I have to admit that’s part of the impetus and part of the excitement — being able to introduce the world to these illustrators.’’
Those illustrators hardly need an introduction to the Nashes.
Nancy is a collage mixed-media artist, whose work is now on display at the Brick Store Museum in Kennebunk as part of “The Art of Cute” exhibition that takes a serious look at our love-hate relationship with all things cute.
Scott draws and paints in various mediums. At age 25, he was a partner at Corey McPherson Nash, a now-defunct national branding and design consulting firm, familiar to NPR geeks like me as an underwriter of public radio programming.
He has produced print materials for the Kennedy School of Government. He’s designed logos for Nickelodeon. He created Big Blue Dot, a firm that focused on children’s media. He’s illustrated well-known children’s books such as “Flat Stanley.’’ He founded the illustration major at the Maine College of Art.
And then, in 2016, he was asked to give a presentation at a Peaks Island yacht and tennis club. It would be one of life’s turning points.
“I had been a little reticent about doing it simply because I thought these islanders knew enough about me and that I didn’t need to do another lecture about my books,’’ said Nash, who had moved here with Nancy in 1998.
So instead he delivered a speech called “Changing it up,’’ in which he discussed the ideas rambling around his brain like clothes in a dryer. How about this? A hooked rug company? Or TV puppet show? Or what about an institute to showcase illustration?
When he was done a man walked up that he did not know. His name was John Faison. He owned property on nearby Tolman Heights. He liked the illustration institute idea. A lot.
“I was just very impressed with his mind-blowing ability to incorporate all these ideas at the same time,’’ Faison told me. “And I said, ‘I really would like to talk to you about this property.’ ’’
A seed was germinated. Other benefactors stepped up. An institute was born.
There are two houses, a studio, a barn, and about three acres of land that will blossom again with the energy of a new crop of artists next month, inaugurating a third season that includes the residency named for Faison’s late wife, Marilyn Mazza Faison, a fashion-shoe designer.
“It’s a place where illustration has a chance to gain ground and become a mainstream of real art and not the stepchild of the art world,’’ said Dale Freudenberger, a member of the Illustration Institute’s board of directors. “It’s a place where this great art form has the ability to pull folks together from all over the world.’’
There’s a screened-in porch for drawing. There’s a distinct parlor for writing. There are woods to wander. There are patios for lazy lunches.
“To be able to spend a week on an island is something we all treasure,’’ said Chris Raschka, an award-winning children’s book author and illustrator who lives in New York City. “You get treated to some oysters and corn on the cob. Just to get out of the city a bit it’s great. And it’s kind of a long tradition of artists’ retreat.
“And the seashore has a great appeal. I don’t know why exactly. Maybe it’s the changing light. Or the stillness. It’s a great idea that they have. And it works wonderfully.’’
Brenda Buchanan, a mystery writer, is a former Peaks Island resident who once wrote for the Globe. She’s now a lawyer who has worked for Faison and knows the appeal of what whispers through the trees here.
“This clutch of turn-of-the-century buildings made of stone has been imbued with creativity,’’ she said. “For 100 years, people have been going there as a retreat from life to create. If you want to see other people, you’re welcome to do that. If you just want to walk through the woods for a week and think about your artistic life, you can do that as well.’’
When I sat at the institute the other day with its cofounders, the former classmates at Barnstable High School surveyed the long road that has taken them to these stone cottages on an island they have made their home.
They’ve raised $350,000 of the $500,000 they need to make the institute truly their own.
Their artwork decorates the walls of their home. Their studios are a 20-foot commute away. Some of the world’s greatest illustrators are making plans to come visit.
“We tell them, ‘The time is your own,’ ’’ Nancy said. “They can sit and play music. They can draw. They can read. One person said she had not had the chance to really study some of the things that she was working on so she brought a ton of books. Other people bring a graphic novel they’re working on. It’s free for the artists.’’
Scott Nash is familiar with business plans. Familiar enough to know sometimes you need to follow it reflexively. Sometimes you need to throw it out.
“It’s the same thing with teaching writing,’’ he said. “I was telling my students: ‘You’re writing a novel. Do an outline. And abandon it. Or don’t.’
“We’ve abandoned our narrative outline here. That’s what’s happening. I’ve told the board I’d like to find a way to record these wonderful presentations that we’re doing and make them available in the way that everything else is. Because we want to reach a wider audience.’’
Sounds like a great idea, doesn’t it?
Something to consider after a long walk in the woods. Or a nap on the patio. Or brainstorming with other world-class artists under a canopy of trees shading Maine’s warm summer sun.