It's raining outside, so artist Allen Whiting is doing a quick inventory of the leaks in his West Tisbury barn-turned-studio, making sure that stacks of finished oil paintings are out of the way of the runoff. Repairs can be put off to another day. He and two soaking wet sheep dogs would much rather go to South Beach the moment it clears up and a reporter clears out - both of which appear imminent, as sunlight starts breaking through mid-morning clouds.
Farming, family and painting are three things that Allen Whiting has dedicated himself to for the greater part of his life. But this year - the year he turned 60 - he dedicated himself to something new as well: a book. Allen Whiting: A Painter at Sixty was delivered to stores last week, in time for holiday shopping and in time to meet the deadline Mr. Whiting imposed on himself nearly 10 years ago.
"At that time, 60 was a long way away, so that made a convenient deadline," he says. The milestone birthday would not have been such a big deal in itself, he notes, except "it's funny to have lived longer than you're gonna live."
The book is not epic, but rather a collage of sorts - including 115 color images of his work going back more than 30 years, numerous small notes about the pieces, four essays about him by fellow artists, a foreword and afterward by Mr. Whiting and a poem written to him by his wife Lynne.
For Mr. Whiting, a man who has always walked the line between natural shyness and wanting validation as an artist, the book accomplishes a few things. For one, 60 years of age seemed the right time to "take stock," as he says, and a book forced him do that. He physically found and lined up his artwork and took a hard look at it all.
The book also serves as a calling card to galleries and a vehicle to establish a firmer presence off-Island. Though it's not surprising the born-and-bred Islander has not invested much in the way of self-promotion off-Island, it is perhaps overdue. "I'm gonna get brave and hock it in a couple museums and places," Mr. Whiting says. "A book is now a way, to me, of communicating to a wider audience."
In his comic and self-deprecating way, Mr. Whiting says the other purpose of the book is sheer vainglory. "A book is the closest thing to royalty a painter can get," he says. "You can wait around and hope someone writes a book when you're dead, or you can do it yourself."
As one of the most well-known and in-demand painters on the Vineyard, Mr. Whiting and his art have been put to words many times. He says he has trouble reading things about himself.
"My story has been told over and over again," he says. "It's the paintings that should be important, not whether I made my college baseball team or not." His upbringing, his influences, his pursuit of a professional baseball career, his family life and the family farm - even his rugged good looks - are well documented. And so too is his signature style, though he often finds that awkward to read.
"Art critic is to art what ornithology is to birds, as someone said," he smiles. Even the fact that he is a die-hard plein air painter is eventually irrelevant, he believes. "The bottom line is the painting, not how you got there. Eventually, I'm dead and they're there."
He says he has always been drawn to landscape painting. "It's always comfortable. I always like it. I can always go to it," he says. "I'm a landscape painter. It's all I ever wanted to do."
In his book, Mr. Whiting's friend and fellow Island painter William (Bill) McLane writes: "Allen's imagery is deceptively simple. It is very conducive to attempts by others to duplicate it. Many, many people try to emulate his style - the iconic tree, the field - but they just can't. They lack the years of study and that understanding of what's underneath."
There is no doubt that Mr. Whiting loves the Island and its land and vistas that he paints, and he has had a lifetime to contemplate them. When he began sorting through slides of his paintings to pick out what he wanted in the book, he couldn't remember whom most of them had been sold to, but he remembered painting every single one.
"You see a picture and remember the place and the time in your life," he says. "The joys of it and the shortcomings of it are right there." He started with the paintings hanging in the house and stored in the barn, and from there drew larger circles to the paintings belonging to family, close friends and hanging in Island towns.
"There were some that I always loved and I knew where they were," Mr. Whiting says. That includes The Barn, from 1981, which is on the cover of the book. "The cover is one of my better paintings and it belongs to a great friend," he says. "He decided to drive his junk car for a few more years to buy that painting."
Ultimately, Mr. Whiting collected 150 pieces, which were all re-photographed for the book. He settled on 115. "If I had any surprises, it was that the paintings were a little bit brighter than I thought they were," he says.
He left out many sculptures, drawings and figure studies - work he is less known for. "I realized, at least for this project, I had to make a choice," he says. He decided to focus mainly on landscapes, although the book includes several pieces painted during trips out West and to the Caribbean, in addition to those from the Vineyard.
Mr. Whiting was reluctant to sacrifice painting time - or farming time - to work on the book, but he was pleased to find that book time also meant family time. He collaborated with his wife Lynne and daughter Beatrice, and credits them with ensuring the book was finished on time. "Working with my daughter on this was one of the great pleasures - she knows how to get things done," Mr. Whiting says. "She arrived just at the crucial moment when details had to be taken care of."
In the book foreword, Mr. Whiting writes: "I owe everyone and everything. I've been advantaged at every turn. I have an education; I grew up on a beautiful farm on the Island of Martha's Vineyard; I have a lovely wife, healthy children, and extended family, and loyal patrons. All of these sustain me.
"The paintings should speak for themselves. I am proud of what I see here and hope this compilation will serve as an inspiration for others, as it guides me in plotting my own course for the future."
That course for the future should not come as a surprise to people who know him. "Work harder with more focus is my goal," he says. "And I don't say that lightly."