FREEPORT — Back in the day, making art on Monhegan was a fairly simple proposition. Artists could rent a cottage for the summer, and many had the means to buy seasonal homes.
But as the island became a destination for the wealthy and well-endowed, the costs associated with island life eclipsed what most artists could afford.
For 25 years, the Monhegan Artists’ Residency has given artists the ability to live and work on the island, which sits about 12 miles off the Maine coast.
This summer, Thos. Moser in Freeport hosts a 25-year retrospective of work by artists who have benefited from the residency program. For five weeks each summer and fall, two Maine artists are given the opportunity to live and work on the island. Recently, the residency also has awarded Maine art teachers a two-week stay.
“Monhegan has been an artist colony for more than 100 years. It’s had this strong tradition, but it’s become financially out of reach for a lot of artists, particularly emerging and mid-career artists,” said Susan Danly, president of the Monhegan Artists’ Residency Corp., based in Lincolnville.
“It’s just such a beautiful place. To spend a week there is a drop in the bucket. This gives them a longer term.”
It also keeps the art tradition alive on the island.
The painter Marguerite Robichaux was a resident in 1990, the second year of the program. She had never been on the island until she was awarded the residency. She lives inland, near the mountains of western Maine. The jurors who selected Robichaux told her they thought her work would benefit from exposure to the Maine coast.
She said the residency changed her life, because it enabled her to spend several weeks doing nothing but art. Residencies were six weeks back then.
“I probably did more work in that six weeks than I did in the previous year and a half,” she said.
She got up most mornings with the sun and worked in her studio. After the last boat departed for the mainland each day, she explored the island when it was least crowded. She set what she called an unrealistic goal of completing one watercolor every day.
Unrealistic though it may have been, she ended up with more than 30 plein air paintings, and later completed several large paintings in her home studio based on work she sketched or painted on a smaller scale on the island.
“The residency allows you the luxury of stepping away from everyday activities and chores, everyday life,” she said. “Back then, there were no cell phones. There was one phone on the island I could use. So I was without distractions from other business. It allows you to explore and experiment.”
Just as important, the residency enabled her to relax. She made friends with people on the island who remain friends today.
So grateful is Robichaux for the experience, she serves on the residency board as a way of giving back.
The exhibition at Thos. Moser is on view through Oct. 14. It features paintings, collages, photography and sculpture.
The curator, Laurie Perzley, said she chose work representative of the island and work inspired by the island. But she was not interested in putting a show together that depicted Monhegan solely for its cliffs, harbor and forests. It’s an eclectic exhibition that may not conjure immediate thoughts of the island, but demonstrates what artists can do when given the opportunity to focus.
“I was not trying to further a theme, and I did not want it to be all Maine landscapes,” she said.
Nearly three dozen artists have work in the show, including many of Maine’s best known: Connie Hayes, Janet Manyan, Michael Vermette, David Little and Sarah Knock.