Longtime local artist William Blakesley died on Sept. 17. He was a contradiction until the end. A person who was afraid of water but lived on an Island. A man whose business was his art but who didn’t like to sell his paintings, especially to family and friends. He was a book collector and seller, an Ohio State football fan, an artist who quietly drew many others to Martha’s Vineyard after he and his family were drawn here by the potter June Taylor in the mid 1950s. For the last 30 years the artwork in his studio windows at the breezeway entrance to the Camp Ground in Oak Bluffs has been a focal point for anyone passing by.
Despite the fact that he didn’t like the water, many of his sketches, watercolors and oils captured the myriad of body types on display at the beach. His works have long depicted a cast of Vineyard characters, many now long gone. There are also iconic prints such as Blueberry Pickers and the silk-screened Martha’s Vineyard map created with artist Tom Crane. His preferred subjects were almost always people, engaged in activity, and always drawn from life. Bill Blakesley, as he was mostly known, was born on June 21, 1921, the eldest of eight children born to William Henry Blakesley Sr. of Milton, England and Catherine Zoog of Columbus, Ohio. He graduated from Ohio State University with a master’s degree in fine arts after serving in Europe in the U.S. Army during World War II. He was awarded the purple heart and the bronze star during the war. He taught art at the University of Florida and with Roy Lichtenstein at Ohio State. He was chairman of the art department at Muskingum College in New Concord, Ohio where he taught for 26 years, retiring in 1975. His six decades on the island are interwoven with the history of the vibrant artist community including his 12 years as owner, along with his first wife Virginia, of The Blakesley Gallery at the top of Circuit avenue. The Junior Art Show that now takes place at the Tabernacle started along the picket fence that was across from Union Chapel. Their art openings were always well-attended, a celebration of an international arts community drawn to the Vineyard by summer.
Starting in the summer of 1955, and for 13 subsequent summers, the Blakesleys were houseparents at the then “new” Lillian Manter American Youth Hostel in West Tisbury, introduced through their Ohio State connection with potters June Taylor and Tom Thatcher. They later invited fellow Muskingum College of Ohio faculty member Herb Wass and his family to join them as assistant houseparents, just a few of many to be introduced to the Island through Bill’s friendship, summer gallery needs or artist workshops. In all cases, lasting friendships were created and the Island population was increased.
During sabbatical years the Blakesleys stayed year-round in a house they built off Dan’l’s Way in West Tisbury with their children attending local schools.
Until his last years Bill, who always signed his work with an easily recognizable Wm Blakesley signature, made sketches and honed his works virtually every day of his adult life. He always carried a sketch pad, although often being forced to phone afterwards to see if he had left it behind. The sketchbook accompanied him everywhere, including his service in World War II, weddings, the Ritz Cafe, the Flying Horses, Menemsha sunsets, Annual Trespass Day, Ocean Park band concerts, the near-successful walk around the Island in the late 1960s, restaurant dinners and on various trips to Europe.
In the late 1970s he remarried and moved to Lebanon, N.H., where he set up his studio and residence in a converted Christian Science Church. He continued to maintain his summer studio in the historic Alley’s Grocery Store. The building is part of the Martha’s Vineyard Camp Meeting Association. Blakesley and his second wife M. Elizabeth Cornell converted the back of the studio into living quarters and became full-time Vineyarders in the late 1980s. A handwritten sign on the studio declaimed, “Studio open by appointment, or by chance.”
Once a tall man, Bill became stooped over the years from bending over his worktable as he returned to add color and detail to thousands of sketches, as well as finalize his work with matting and framing. A television in the corner was on for the sole purpose of Red Sox games. The walls and floor surfaces were covered in art or else stacked with books. Art that is not hanging in museums or private homes filled the studio in the 140-plus year-old building. Bill had long ago realized that he would not be able to complete all of his work. “You’re going to find out there’s not enough time,” he warned. He wanted his legacy to be his work.
During many of the Oak Bluffs years Bill and his wife Liz Cornell, known as Mrs. Cornell to her decades of Oak Bluffs grade school students, bicycled most mornings over to Edgartown and back. Later he was a breakfast regular at Linda Jean’s.
His work is included in collections of the Toledo Museum of Fine Arts and the Columbus Gallery of Fine Art, both in Ohio. He received prizes awarded by the Ohio Print Makers, Boston Printmakers and the Ohio Watercolor Society. Awards include the Roulet Medal, The Erdis Robinson Prize in oil and both portrait and graphics prizes at the Columbus Art League shows.
A constant in Bill’s life besides his art, family and friends was his love of food and eating out. In the gallery days he would celebrate the sale of a painting by taking all of the staff to Munroe’s for dinner. Every year on his birthday, the first day of summer and longest day of the year, he would host a restaurant dinner, carefully planning his guest list in advance. His favorite places changed somewhat over the years, once again forming a historical portrait of the Island . . . Louise Tate King’s restaurant, Irene’s in Oak Bluffs, The Home Port. In recent years friends gathered almost daily in the residence behind the studio for the cocktail hour, which closed with the six o’ clock bells from nearby Trinity Church and Bill’s question, “Where are we going to go eat tonight?”
Before he turned 90 in 2011 he had been making especially elaborate plans for his birthday and had asked his longtime friend Herbert Wass, also of the Camp Ground, to deliver a eulogy, with the only request that it not commence with the words “Dearly beloved.” Due to medical circumstances that birthday dinner didn’t happen. Perhaps due to a sense of mortality that wasn’t otherwise expressed, Mr. Blakesley didn’t plan a dinner for his 91st birthday, although he entertained friends for cocktails the evening before he entered the Martha’s Vineyard Hospital for a very short stay before his death on Sept. 17.
His love of the Vineyard and its inhabitants will survive in his many, many works, from illustrations for the book Jumprope Rhymes for Vineyard Kids written by wife Elizabeth Cornell to thousands of paintings and sketches.
Unfortunately with his death comes an end to many unwritten tales of Martha’s Vineyard life from 1955 to 2012. Gone are the days when the station wagon known as the Dreamboat would drive off the Islander for the summer with its Ohio plates. It was a time when a college professor could purchase land in West Tisbury, gallery helpers could be paid in Hilliard’s chocolate pops and a waitress often had the sense to choose the sketch when offered that in place of a cash tip. Soft spoken, with a wry sense of humor, shortly before his death Mr. Blakesley teased his granddaughter Katherine about the financial uncertainty in her chosen career as an artist in the family tradition.
William H. Blakesley is survived by his beloved wife of 35 years M. Elizabeth Cornell of Oak Bluffs; his first wife Virginia L. Blakesley and son William B. Blakesley of West Tisbury; his daughter Barbara A. Blakesley of Boise, Idaho, his grandchildren Alexander J. Blakesley of Edmonds, Wash., and Katherine A. Grey of Boise, Idaho, and his siblings Pat, Dick, Nancy, Virginia and Jim of Ohio and Texas.
A memorial will be scheduled in the Tabernacle on his birthday, June 21, 2013. Donations may be made in his name to Doctors Without Borders USA, P.O. Box 5030, Hagerstown, MD 21741-5030.