Don Stone: Revered Impressionist painter/teacher to display art in N.H. for the first time
By Laura Pope
Thursday, April 11, 2013
Holding court at his Exeter wintertime home for a rare newspaper interview, the internationally known modern Impressionist painter, revered teacher, expert on the Cape Anne School of Painting and a central, enduring figure at the famous art colony at Monhegan Island — describes and jokes about the often circuitous and fortunate path his artist life has taken.
This life brims with accolades — he's referenced in and is the subject of dozens of books and national magazines and won more than 75 major awards; associations — including memberships in the top-drawer National Academy of Design and the American Watercolor Society and exhibitions, including locally, the Peabody Essex Museum, the Museum of Fine Arts and The Copely Society in Boston and is in many private and public collections, including the permanent collection at Dartmouth. His teaching credits include years teaching at two prestigious Boston art colleges as well as four decades teaching at the legendary Maine art colony on Monhegan Island.
For the first time, a selection of his paintings, as well as those of two painters he has mentored — Stan Moeller of York, Maine and Bruce Jones of Exeter — will be on display and for sale (through the summer) for the first time in the Granite State at The Artist Eye Gallery in North Hampton.
My mother referred to me as a water rat,” explains the soft-spoken Stone, the preeminent American Impressionist painter, referencing his carefree days growing up in Gloucester, Mass. The memory brings a smile to the face of the octogenarian who reveled in all the boyhood pleasures of living by the sea in a bustling fishing community.
“It was a great place to grow up. My grandfather would take me to the wharf to pick up fish for supper and the big schooners would come in,” he enthuses. “Eventually my brother and I shared a skiff. My mother called me a water rat because I would swim in the ocean and in the harbor with the slime and the oil. I loved it.”
Many a boy has loved the sea but in Stone's case, that ardor went beyond boats and swims and the wharves; it ignited an unwavering passion for a life of painting, a calling that has carried on and transformed earlier art traditions and passed them on to the next generation of Impressionists to contemplate and make their own.
“When I was very young I would go down to the school administration building with my 11 cents and buy a packet of arithmetic paper; and I would sit and draw and draw and my grandmother would encourage me. I would copy things out of old magazines and then when I was in the 8th grade my teacher came to me and said: 'If we let you go to high school what courses would you like to take?' Not a scholar, the young Don Stone replied: 'I want to be an artist'. She said: 'Do you promise?' and I said: 'I promise.'
“I had four years of fine arts at the Gloucester High School, with no math courses at all, and graduated in 1948.” At the progressive school, Stone became a student of Howard Curtis (1906-1989), a Gloucester native and notable marine artist. “After high school, I worked for a sign company lettering trucks with a distant relative and he told me I was wasting my time and that I ought to go to art school. So I worked in the freezer in Gloucester, in 40 below zero, in 1949, and got enough money to go to art school, the Vesper George School of Art in Boston.”
Days after graduating from college, Stone served in the Navy as a gunnery yeoman on a destroyer, though in reality he used one of the gun shacks as his studio and painted portraits of all the officers. “I had a good racket going,” remarks Stone, with a grin. Out of the service, Stone worked in newspapers, most prominently as a cartoonist for the Boston Post, until it folded, and began teaching at both Vesper George and the New England School of Art. Then a move back home turf — to Rockport, changed everything.
“I met Paul Strisik [1918-1998], who took me to Monhegan Island in 1957. At the time I was a commercial artist and cartoonist. When I met him, he says to me: 'Let's go painting.' I didn't know what he was talking about! I sat on the running board of his car and watched him paint outside and it was like magic. He was my mentor and really changed my whole life.” Self deprecatingly, he adds: “Since then, I've just been faking my way along.”
Strisik and Stone became part of the already established Cape Ann School of Art, the more than century old group that focused on the ample marine landscapes and people of the region, which had already attracted the likes of Fitz Hugh Lane, Marsden Hartley, Childe Hassam, William Morris Hunt and Winslow Homer. Stone socialized with nine or ten artists of his generation working in the Cape Ann School and often painted with them, especially in the late 1960s.
“I was friends with [Aldro T.] Hibbard [1886 — 1972; who studied with Frank Benson and Edmond Tarbell], though he didn't paint outside with anyone, and with Emile Gruppe, John Jacutti and Ken Gore.” Caleb Stone, the artist's son, has followed his father's path — lives in Gloucester, works as an Impressionist painter and teacher, and travels extensively. “He does watercolors, too,” notes Stone.
Initially, Strisik and Stone went out morning, noon and night to paint, plein air, or outside, locally in Gloucester and Rockport, then ventured to Canada and eventually went to Monhegan, the small island, accessible only by boat, 10 miles off of mid-coast Maine, peopled by hardy fishing families and, since the mid-1800s, scores of artists including George Bellows, Rockwell Kent, Edward Hopper and Jamie Wyeth.
At one point, Stone and his wife, Sarah, lived year round on the island for several years, a daunting challenge given the isolation, severe weather and need to provision wisely. They still return each fair weather season to the house and studio, purchased in 1980, formerly owned by notable marine and landscape painter Jay Hall Conaway (1893-1970), so Don can paint and they may greet the many visitors flocking to his studio.
Inside the Stone home
A glimpse inside Stone's Exeter home studio instantly reveals his masterful artistry in landscapes, figures, light, moving air, and the great outdoors, from marine landscapes, such as “Gull Rock” that is painted from a bird's eye perspective, to a windswept, light-infused painting of his wife, Sarah, on a hill, entitled, “Springtime on the Island” to the warm summer tones in “Amber,” featuring a girl in a blue dress picking lilies in a meadow.
While the thought of fisherman and their families slapped next to artists and their families on tiny Monhegan Island might seem a case of 'strange bedfellows,' Stone sums it up best. The artist considers the fisherman to be as important and as brave as the American cowboy, on canvas, and states emphatically his passion for the former. “I've gone out fishing many times and have a special affinity for the lone dory fisherman.” The marine landscape, alone, or filled with figures, has always demanded a connection between artist and those who depend on the sea.
Like Winslow Homer, Stone made a name for himself early in his career as a watercolor artist. “I made my reputation in the National Academy as a watercolorist and then was doing large egg tempera paintings and bringing in big money. I had a waiting list for them. Then all of a sudden, I ended it. When you do egg tempera paintings everyone thinks: Andrew Wyeth, who I loved and knew very well and Jamie is a very good friend of ours. I didn't want to be considered a Wyeth imitator; I don't want to be an imitator of anyone. So 20 years ago, I turned to oil paintings. You gotta change over time, you can't stand still.”
As he influences younger painters, Stone was also influenced by his peers and those artists from an earlier generation such as Spanish Impressionist painter, Jaoquin Sorroya (1863-1923), and the artist who influenced Sorroya — Swedish portrait and landscape painter Anders Zorn (1860-1920).
“Sorolla was painting in that mud, that dark soup that they all painted out of and Zorn said to him: paint in your own backyard in sunlight, and that changed Sorolla's life. I think Sorolla was as good as John Singer Sargent, one of my other favorites. Sorolla is so special to us that when we found about a show of his work in Madrid, a show of 102 paintings that had never been in this group before, we went, and we also managed to see his home, filled with his paintings.
“They're all good painters that s why I don't have a favorite. I mean Homer kills me. I just love him but I also love Zorn and Sorroya and Sargent and Valasquez and Rembrandt.”
The Next Generation
Among Stone's many students, two — Stan Moeller of York, Maine and Bruce Jones of Exeter, have developed and matured as painters in their own right, and proudly share exhibit space at The Artist Eye in North Hampton.
“Many times while I am painting, whether out on location or in my studio, the wise words of Don Stone come to mind,” says Moeller. “I met Don on his beloved Monhegan Island about 15 years ago, introduced by a mutual friend who was also a painter/musician. Painting during the day and playing music with Don (also a musician) and friends in the evening became a summer ritual, it was a way of life, of loving life as an artist. I was lucky enough to take Don's final Monhegan workshop (about that time) and over the years I have learned much more from Don than all my years studying art in college.
“He has many phrases (Don-isms) that stick in my head: 'value does the work, color gets the credit'; 'always keep your eye on the point of interest, even when you are not painting the point of interest' and many many more. He told me about must-read books, such as John F. Carlson's “Guide to Landscape Painting” and “Landscape Painting” by Birge Harrison. Painting alongside Don en plein air in various New England locations over the years, information would just come out in normal conversation: he is a great teacher and a good friend and I love his stories. I owe much of my success to what I have learned from Don Stone, not only the art, but mentoring on the business end of the art world.”
Sculptor-painter, Bruce Jones, who maintains a studio and gallery in Exeter, recalls: “Years ago, when I got out of art school I started a business and didn't paint for a while,” recalls Jones. “So I joined some local art groups and one day as I'm driving down the street, I see these fellows painting by the side of the street and I stopped to see if they wanted to join the art group or be part of the show. They directed me to 'the master' downstream and there was Don. I had no idea who he was. He was doing this wonderful little painting. He's very kind and said 'I don't really do that' when I asked him about our group and show, but he did invite me to his studio. That was more than 15 years ago.”
About the author: Laura Pope is a career newspaper and magazine journalist specializing in the arts, travel and history. She has traveled to Monhegan Island on several occasions to visit resident artists in their studios and to take in the exhibits at the Monhegan Museum.