VINALHAVEN — John Wulp felt certain he was dying.

“Elaine,” he croaked into the phone, barely audible. “I can’t seem to breathe.”

Elaine Crossman, who runs the New Era Gallery on Vinalhaven island, treated Wulp’s plaintive wail cautiously but without alarm. She’d heard it before.

Wulp, a painter and Tony Award-winning theater director and producer, had been unwell for five years. This crisis was just one more. After two heart attacks, bypass surgery and bouts with pneumonia and bronchitis, Wulp was frail, weak and dizzy.

Last winter, his infirmity rendered him housebound. But that wasn’t all bad. “I could sit there and paint,” said Wulp, who shares his island home with a black lab named Jude.

After receiving treatment for assorted ailments at a mainland hospital, the artist propped himself up in a studio chair and painted. The act of creating energized him. He went wild with his acrylics and watercolors, and found himself feeling better as he accomplished more.

In the summer, Crossman showed 24 new Wulp watercolors in a gallery show and sold all but one.

On New Year’s Day, Wulp, 83, announced he had finished a large acrylic painting that he had been working on for a solid two years.

Crossman described the painting as “a remarkable accomplishment. Many times over the past two years he has despaired of being able to finish it. Through it all, the painting kept pulling him back, challenging him to work harder, to keep at it.”

Its working title is “Spring Pruning,” and it portrays local farmer Ethan Hall at rest while pruning an apple tree in Wulp’s orchard.

It’s a dramatic, attentive portrait of a young man on break. He is seated on a tree stump, wearing overalls and a baseball cap pulled down on his brow. His hands rest on his thighs, with a partially eaten apple in one hand. A handmade ladder stands among the tree’s tangled lower branches, and a pole pruner is propped against a limb.

Hall is part of a group of small organic farmers on the island, and takes care in pruning Wulp’s ancient trees. This image places the subject in context with his immediate world. The painting speaks of optimism and hope, and reflects the idea of regeneration.

“They still bear fruit,” Wulp said of his beloved and oft-painted apple trees. “They’re still alive.”

The gnarly old trees are an apt metaphor for Wulp himself. He’s lived a lot of lives in his 83 years, and stands as a survivor.

He moved to Vinalhaven in 1984 as a famous man, having made his name in theater. He won a Tony in 1978 for his revival of “Dracula,” and won a Drama Desk Award for Outstanding Set Design for the 1979 production of “The Crucifer of Blood.”

Along the way, Wulp learned to paint. Early in his career and again in the 1990s, he spent a great deal of time painting environmental portraits. Among his subjects are the actors Sigourney Weaver, Elzbieta Chezevska and Frank Langella.

In addition to his portraits, Wulp adeptly executes tightly focused landscapes of Vinalhaven and colorful still-lifes and flowers.

He’s pleased with his work lately, and pronounces his skills with the brush better now than they were when he was 75. “The paintings really have been better,” he said.

Wulp’s theater career has received a jolt lately as well. John Shea, an actor friend and New Hampshire native, is artistic director at the Theatre Workshop of Nantucket in Massachusetts, where Wulp used to live.

Shea is in conversation with Wulp about producing several of his shows in the coming seasons, including a revival of “Dracula”; an older show from New York, “The Red Eye of Love”; and “Islands,” which he produced originally on North Haven, across from Vinalhaven.

Wulp taught theater on North Haven for many years, commuting across the channel in all weather and conditions.

He came to Vinalhaven by the force of nature, showing up unceremoniously while lost at sea on a sailboat. He actually landed first at North Haven, and knew instantly that he belonged on the island. He immediately announced his intent to settle there.

But Wulp found the house of his dreams on Vinalhaven, so he came here instead. He bought an 1825 cape, and spent many years restoring it.

Wulp’s home is deep on the island, five miles from Carver’s Harbor. He lives a secluded, quiet life. He works every day, but hardly leaves the house anymore — especially in winter. He plans to resettle temporarily in Nantucket when Shea begins producing his plays, and is looking forward to the change of pace.

He admits to feeling isolated at times.

“It’s very lonely when you find that all your people have dementia or Alzheimer’s. Practically everyone I know has either died or is crazy. You can’t imagine what it’s like,” he laments.

All of which adds to his delight that he finally finished the Ethan Hall portrait while he’s still got his wits about him. Wulp remains sharp. He’s still dutifully dedicated to the New York Times crossword puzzle every Sunday, and gladly engages in heightened banter about art, politics and all manner of current events.

But this painting stumped him, and left him feeling stalled. The finished work represents a quiet triumph.

“It feels good to be done with it,” he said. 

Staff Writer Bob Keyes can be contacted at 791-6457 or:

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Twitter: pphbkeyes