Residents of Fishers Island Seek Artists for Neighbors

by Jane Ahrens

Fishers Island needs more full-time residents. Credit Joel Hawksley for The New York Times
Fishers Island needs more full-time residents. Credit Joel Hawksley for The New York Times

Nate Malinowski, one of about 200 year-round residents of Fishers Island, volunteers for the emergency team that shuttles people across Long Island Sound to the nearest hospital. In a recent 24-hour period, Mr. Malinowski said, he had dropped everything three different times: There was the appendix about to burst, followed by an elderly man’s fall, and then a broken clavicle.

Fishers Island, an isolated nine-mile swath of land located off the southeastern coast of Connecticut but officially part of Suffolk County, has a complicated people problem. Inhabited by residents who like their privacy, the island needs more manpower.

“We need young, hardworking people,” Mr. Malinowski said. “There’s a group of 80 people who make this place tick, and it’s getting smaller.”

How can the 200 or so residents — quite content with their way of life — gently introduce their community to those who might appreciate it, and who could help expand it without trampling on the peace and quiet that the locals cherish?

Credit Joel Hawksley for The New York Times
Nate Malinowski developed the Lighthouse Works as a way to attract artists to the serene island. Credit Joel Hawksley for The New York Times

Invite the writers and artists, Mr. Malinowski decided.

In late 2011, he developed the Lighthouse Works with the support of a small group of residents. The six-week residency provides artists, writers and composers with communal housing, meals and studio space. Fellows are also given a $1,500 stipend and a $250 travel allowance.

The organization quickly gained popularity. Last year, 800 applications were submitted for 20 spots.

Lighthouse headquarters is in an old Victorian house, which has a saggy front porch. The home has a view of the water, a foosball table in the parlor, and an open kitchen where Mr. Malinowski and Jacques Louis Vidal, resident director of the program, prepare all the meals.

Late last summer, after spending a day in their studios, a group of Lighthouse fellows gathered around the table in the home to discuss how Fishers Island had made a difference in their work. They all agreed that the 45-minute ferry trip carried them from one world to another.

“I’m bringing white and abstract space into my work that I wouldn’t have made in another place,” said Rose Marcus, an artist based in New York City.

Cara Blue Adams, an author from Brooklyn who just returned to the Northeast after living in the South and the Southwest, found it informative to be an outsider on Fishers Island, where the culture, she said, is so distinct. Ms. Adams is working on a novel about immigrants moving to a city.

Caitlin MacBride, an artist from Brooklyn, in the Lighthouse Works studio space. Credit Joel Hawksley for The New York Times
Caitlin MacBride, an artist from Brooklyn, in the Lighthouse Works studio space. Credit Joel Hawksley for The New York Times

“Coming here let me enter into the emotional space of being a stranger to a place,” she said. “Noticing the gestures, the little wave, all those social codes.”

She was also moved by the wildness of Fishers, which evokes the natural beauty of her childhood in Vermont.

“I had forgotten about Queen Anne’s lace,” she said, “and the smell of honeysuckle. It’s quintessentially New England.”

In general, resident artists have had positive experiences on Fishers Island. But of the 55 fellows that have passed through the program so far, only one has decided to stay. Of course, on an island with so few full-time inhabitants, one person moving here can be a big deal.

“I did the fellowship three years ago and the place stayed with me,” said Mr. Vidal, who relocated from Brooklyn and now lives in the communal house and has his own studio. “New York — the stress of it — felt untenable. This is a calm place.”

Lighthouse sees itself as having a symbiotic relationship with the island. While the artists benefit from the wild beauty, the intense quiet and the unique culture, the community enjoys gallery shows, artist talks and visits to the school, and, in general, more social interactions.

“Being stimulated in your life is so important,” Mr. Malinowski said.

Jacques Louis Vidal, walking with Mr. Malinowski, is the program’s resident director. Credit Joel Hawksley for The New York Times
Jacques Louis Vidal, walking with Mr. Malinowski, is the program’s resident director. Credit Joel Hawksley for The New York Times

A group of five fellows arrived on the island in late October. Their talents vary: a writer, a painter, a photographer, a videographer and a poet.

“I’ll be working on rewriting a novel my grandfather wrote in 1957,” said the poet, Daniel Boehl, who is based in Raleigh, N.C.

All of the residents conclude their time on Fishers with some kind of presentation to the community.

“We enrich the year-round cultural vitality here, which we feel ultimately improves the livability of this place,” Mr. Malinowski said.

But back to the paradox of Fishers: While residents acknowledge the sociocultural need for more interaction, traditionally they have never been interested in increasing tourism or outreach too dramatically, said Pierce Rafferty, director of the Henry L. Ferguson Museum, a historical institution on the island.

“Trying not to have many things that would attract tourists has been the unofficial policy of the island from the 1890s on,” he said.

In 1889, excursion steamers were barred from docking on the island, and policies that limit day-trippers persist today, Mr. Rafferty said. The community center houses the only restaurant that is open to the public, and with the closing of the Pequot Inn in August, there are no hotels or bars open to the public. There is an IGA supermarket — a time-capsule that retains the carpeting of another era — a deli, an ice cream shop and a small gift shop. That is it.

“There’s apprehension here about reaching out,” Mr. Vidal said, “but that’s how this place is changing. It was sustainable and now it’s not. Exclusivity may have kept this place beautiful, but it’s not something that places should be branded on anymore.”

The Fishers population has been overwhelmingly supportive of Lighthouse. Perhaps that is because artists and writers tend to tread softly.

“We are uniquely able to walk this very thin line,” Mr. Malinowski said, “introducing something new and interesting while embracing the culture and history of this place.”

A version of this article appears in print on November 1, 2015, on page LI10 of the New York edition with the headline: Trying to Lure Artists as Neighbors

Link to The New York Times article

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USCG Eagle passing the Race early morning March 18, 2023 on her return from the Chesapeake Bay. Photo Credit Marlin Bloethe

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