The Black artists of Sag Harbor shine in museum show
‘He let us put holes in his walls,” Nanette Carter recalled disbelievingly of the late collector Richard Clarke, who in 1977 invited the abstract artist and some of her cohort to mount a show of their work one day in his vacation home in the Ninevah section of Sag Harbor.
For Carter, the gesture encapsulated the carefree vibe and support she has found on the eastern edge of Sag Harbor, where close-knit communities of Black residents have summered since the early 20th century.
Like a photograph documenting that day taken on Clarke’s deck, “Creative Haven: Black Artists of Sag Harbor,” now on view at the Long Island Museum in Stony Brook, captures the camaraderie and influences shared by these artists.
“This community is part of who I am,” said Michael A. Butler, whose naive or primitive-style narrative paintings feature in the 12-artist exhibition he co-curated with the museum’s co-executive director, Joshua Ruff. Since 1988, Butler, a self-taught painter, has lived in one of nine bungalows his maternal great-uncle bought steps away from the beach in the 1930s, a time when elsewhere in the United States people of color struggled to access leisure destinations.
“Some of the bungalows were already here when my great-uncle purchased them. Others he acquired from the U.S. Coast Guard and had them moved onto the properties,” said Butler. “When I was a child, there were still Army cots and blankets in use.” His father’s family had begun summering in the area in 1922.
Since the early 1800s, the section of Sag Harbor historically known as Eastville has been home to multiethnic populations. The port community welcomed formerly enslaved Blacks and Native Americans as whalers, fishermen and shipbuilders, and permitted the Black residents to build their own church, believed to have been a stop on the Underground Railroad.
A century later, Maude Terry, a Brooklyn schoolteacher, discovered an undeveloped stretch of coastal land while on a fishing excursion in the region. Along with her sister, Amaza Lee Meredith, one of the first female African American architects, she persuaded the owners to partner with her in subdividing and brokering the 20-acre parcel. Offering the lots to friends and family, she helped them obtain mortgages and finance construction in an era when discriminatory policies made it extraordinarily difficult.
Finding role models
Today, Eastville and the so-called SANS community — encompassing the Sag Harbor Hills, Azurest and Ninevah subdivisions — maintain their original, summer-camp-like character. Sand and salt air, more picnic tables than streetlights.
“Growing up, I felt very safe there. We kept our doors unlocked and were always going to parties and entertaining,” said Carter, whose parents purchased a second home in Sag Harbor in 1972 after visiting for six successive summers from Montclair, New Jersey, where her father was the first Black mayor.
“I remember going to the Parrish Art Museum and Guild Hall — all white men, no people of color, period,” she said of the artists she encountered as a young girl at these East End venues. Carter would find her artistic role models, instead, in the homes of her Sag Harbor neighbors. “Frank Wimberley had a son my age who I would often meet at the beach,” she said. “I remember going to his house and seeing all of his father’s pictures on the wall and thinking, ‘Oh my God, who is this artist?’ ”
Carter also recalled seeing Wimberley’s dynamic, layered abstractions early on at a gallery in Bridgehampton. “I fell in love with this man’s work — the palette, the teared edges, the whole flavor. It felt like the pieces were dancing,” she said. “I felt we were kindred spirits.”
A distinct connection can indeed be seen in the Long Island Museum show between Wimberley’s lively, tactile images alternately anchored in nature (“Somehow, Soft Rain,” 1995) and jazz (“Five Spot,” 2002) and the luminous, textured compositions Carter paints on frosted Mylar.
“We might not have spent hours and hours talking, but seeing his work was my education,” said the younger artist, who appears in the Clarke deck photo at the lower left with Wimberley standing second from right in the row behind her.
At Wimberley’s right is Al Loving, represented in “Creative Haven” with two torn-canvas and collaged paper works. “Al introduced me to the whole New York scene,” Carter said of her mentor, who in 1969 became the first Black artist to have a one-person exhibition at the Whitney Museum of American Art in Manhattan. “He and Frank were very giving with their contacts and knowledge.”
Photographer Donnamarie Barnes, sitting cross-legged in the 1970s group snapshot, also felt encouraged and inspired by Wimberley, who had been a close friend of her parents. Although her black-and-white images of beachgoers and coastline appear, at first glance, to share little with Wimberley’s painterly abstractions, Barnes feels a strong affinity. “The way he divides the canvas with color and light. The connection is the place,” she explained, “the beach, where residents have gathered and children have grown up through the decades.”
Gift prompts show
The idea to reunite the works of some of these intergenerational artists, said Ruff, was prompted by the donation to the museum in 2019 of Claude Lawrence’s 2013 canvas “Travelers.” The freewheeling, rhythmic composition by the peripatetic painter and jazz musician, who notably spent two extended stays in Sag Harbor, was given to the Stony Brook institution by E.T. Williams Jr. and his wife, Auldlyn.
“When I accepted it, I remember being struck by all the works on their walls by artists who shared a connection to the same community,” he said. Over the years, the African American art collectors also acquired several adjacent Sag Harbor properties, including the modest home that E.T. Williams Sr. had bought in 1933 and the couple’s own cottage, where, under the shade of a tree in their backyard, the Black poet Langston Hughes once wrote verse.
“There is so much good work, all different styles and mediums. Michael and I thought carefully about what and who to include,” said Ruff of the museum’s exhibition. “The hardest part was limiting the selection to 12 artists. We worked on it for more than a year.”
The timing was perfect, allowing the show to open at the museum concurrently with “Romare Bearden: Artist as Activist and Visionary.” Bearden is best known for his collages, powerful pastiches of his own memories and African American culture and history that explore and expose universal themes.
“It made sense to have them side-by-side,” Ruff added. “Bearden had championed Black artists in the 1960s and ’70s as part of the Spiral collective. He knew and followed Frank Wimberley and Al Loving. Like them, he helped open the door to successive generations of Black artists.”
Growing up and living in Sag Harbor, Butler experienced such feelings of community and shared inspiration firsthand. “I remember making a reproduction in my high school art class of a ceramic fish I saw hanging on the wall in Frank Wimberley’s home,” he recalled. “My sister and his son used to date.”
Butler noted that the subjects of his own art have morphed through the years, from mythological, dream and religious themes to illustrating, as he described it, “what is relevant — the untold stories here.”
Featured in the Long Island Museum exhibition is his imagined depiction of long-ago Eastville residents. A fashionably dressed Mary Parker pushes a baby carriage down a dirt path past her neighbor’s charming cottage in one painting, while another, “Henry Green, a Green Hand,” shows a man finding his sea legs on the deck of a 19th century whaling ship.
Other characters Butler conjured up from local history are on view in “East End Elements,” at the Geri Bauer Gallery at the Hampton Library in Bridgehampton through March 22. “I want to bring them to life,” he said, “to broadcast their narratives to a larger population.”
Butler’s goal is one shared with the Long Island Museum.
Said Ruff: “Many museums around the country, like ours, have realized the need to address the inequities in their collections, to collect and advocate for communities that have not had their histories explored and stories told. It is hugely important and long overdue.”
That is not to say that the Eastville Artists have not promoted themselves. The show in collector Richard Clarke’s home was one of several that followed a benefit exhibition for the Bridgehampton Child Care and Recreation Center organized by the Sag Harbor Black artists association in 1976. Rosalind Letcher, whose work is included in “Creative Haven,” was president of the group in its founding days.
According to the wall text, it had been suggested to Letcher early on that no one would be interested in her “heavily self-referential” paintings of “upper-middle-class Black life” in the beachfront community. When visitors to the exhibition come face-to-face with a self-portrait of the artist walking on the sand in a stylish blue-and-white cover-up and statement earrings and necklace, they will no doubt be grateful that Letcher disregarded such unsound advice.
While Letcher’s paintings reflect the closeness of her community, they also exemplify the stylistic differences among the artists’ work. “There is a strong sense of fellowship,” confirmed Butler, “but we all have our own ideas.”
Nonetheless, Sag Harbor has given and continues to give all the artists the space — physically and emotionally — to foster their creativity. “It has been,” said Carter, “my spiritual haven.”
SEE THE SHOW
"Creative Haven: Black Artists of Sag Harbor” features the works of Donnamarie Barnes, Nancy Brandon, Michael A. Butler, Nanette Carter, Harlan Jackson, Claude Lawrence, Rosalind Letcher, Al Loving, Morgan Monceaux, Joan B. Ruffins, Reynold Ruffins and Frank Wimberley. The exhibit is on display through Aug. 27 in the Costigan Gallery, The Long Island Museum, 1200 Rte. 25A, Stony Brook, longislandmuseum.org.
CORRECTION: An earlier version of this story misstated whom Romare Bearden knew and followed. According the Joshua Ruff, Bearden knew and followed Frank Wimberley and Al Loving.