Strollers along Edgartown’s Dock street who would like to pause for awhile and watch the Chappy ferry come and go, can now sit on a brand new bench outside the Old Sculpin Gallery. It was dedicated last Sunday to Fred and Jane Messersmith of DeLand, Fla. and Edgartown for their decades of service to the gallery. And it was dedicated on the opening day of Mr. Messersmith’s retrospective show of watercolors of Edgartown streets and Island shores.
It was in 1964 that the Messersmiths first came to the Vineyard, lured by descriptions of the Island by the late Francis and Vivian Chapin, longtime Edgartown seasonal residents. Francis Chapin, a watercolorist like Fred Messersmith, had been artist in residence at Stetson University in DeLand, where Fred Messersmith was chairman of the art department.
For the Messersmiths, it was love at first sight with the Vineyard. They spent their first Island holiday in a cottage on Sengekontacket Pond and for seven years after that the family of eight – Fred and Jane and their six children — occupied the two top floors of the Mizzentop on North Water street for two summer weeks. (In the present show, there are several representations of the Mizzentop, a captain’s house with a widows’s walk that is now senior citizen apartments.) Later, they stayed with Edgartown friends on Island visits until, in 1987, they built their own house just off the Edgartown-Vineyard Haven Road.
But no matter how short his Island stay might be, there was always time for Fred Messersmith to be out sketching and painting and he quickly became involved with the Old Sculpin. When, finally, he was able to spend whole summers on the Island, he became artist in residence there and from 1984 until 1994 was the Old Sculpin’s director. His wife and son, Jeffery, and daughter, Patricia, worked at the gallery at the same time, with Jane and Patricia teaching children’s art and Jeffery manning the desk. All the while, Fred Messersmith was also teaching watercolor classes.
It was not unusual in those days for Edgartonians to see the tall, lanky, bespectacled Midwesterner who had developed such affection for the New England waterfront, painting on the streets and docks of Edgartown with his students.
Fred Messersmith had grown up in the farm country around Brookfield, Ohio. His father was an auto mechanic and, like all boys, young Fred was enamored of automobiles and interested in spending time with his father in his garage, but his father, Mr. Messersmith recalls, would say to him “Freddie, your mother will have something better for you to do so why don’t you go home.” And his mother, who herself liked to paint, would always have paints and paper on hand for him. So it was natural that when he left home to attend Ohio Wesleyan University, he would major in art. Before that, however, there was a stint as an Air Force pilot in World War II.
Enamored as he was of cars, it was understandable that young Fred would also be enamored of planes — especially after one landed in a hayfield near his home when he was 10 and the pilot agreed to take him for a ride for $2.
“ ‘Let’s go,’ ” he remembers his father saying. So it was that when World War II began, teenage Fred enlisted in the Air Force and trained to be a B-24 pilot.
“I was in flight school in Kansas and I remember telling my superiors that I wanted to go off and bomb Germany. They said with a name like that — Messersmith — you should, for the Messerschmidt was a famous German bomber. But in the end, they didn’t let me go overseas. I stayed in Kansas instead training pilots.”
The war over, Fred Messersmith set off for college. And it was there that he met Jane Paryzek from Shaker Heights. Although she was majoring in science, she was also taking art classes and six-foot-three Fred Messersmith could not help but attract her attention. This June the Messersmiths celebrated their 60th wedding anniversary at Lake Tahoe, Calif.
Back in 1949, college and graduate school over, the young couple moved to West Virginia when Fred was hired as head of the art department at West Virginia Wesleyan College in Buckhannon. Situated as it was in the mountains and in mining country, it was natural that Fred would paint pictures of the coal mines and industrial plants and the mountains that surrounded Buckhannon. But 10 years later, the Messersmiths moved to DeLand on the east coast of Florida. The hilly landscape, the Intercoastal Waterway, the St. John’s River and the marshes were more congenial to what Fred really wanted to paint.
In DeLand, he joined the art faculty at Stetson University, where he would remain for the next 30 years as chairman of the art department. There, in addition to his teaching and administrative duties, he was kept busy painting portraits of the college’s presidents, pictures of its buildings and the Christmas card that the president sent out each year. And when Apollo I was launched in 1969, he was among the artists (longtime Chilmark seasonal resident, the late Thomas Hart Benton was another) asked by NASA to document the launching by painting it. Both a watercolor and a collage he did are in the commemorative book, Eyewitness to Space.
Though many of the pictures in the present Old Sculpin exhibit are representational art, there are also paintings of sea and shore in moonlight that are considerably more abstract. These were painted, not with watercolor and not on ordinary watercolor paper, but with more opaque casein on Japanese rice paper.
It was in the 1950s — the war with Japan over — that Japanese rice paper, after a long absence, became available again in the United States, and Fred Messersmith began using it. Before long, he was known as a specialist in the medium. He liked the absorbency and the fibrous quality the paper gave to his paintings. He found that there was a softness and a luminosity to his casein work on rice paper, he told art writer Edward Feit in 1986 when Feit was preparing an article for American Artist magazine. Fred was also able to use a palette knife to lay the casein thickly on the rice paper surface and he liked the effect it produced, he said. Indeed, he became something of a specialist in producing such paintings.
Although he has painted oils as well as watercolors and caseins, he has always liked the portability of watercolor paints, brushes and paper. Oil paints, of course, require canvasboard or stretched canvas to paint on as well as the bulky tubes of paint themselves. Watercolors, he points out, are easy to use on site.
Both in his teaching years and since, Fred and Jane Messersmith have traveled extensively. When he was at Stetson, Fred would take his students to Italy to paint, and although he rarely had time to complete paintings there himself, there was always enough time to do black and white sketches. He also sketched on trips to Ireland and Germany and to St. Croix in the U.S. Virgin Islands. There, the Messersmiths’ daughter, Patricia Turken (who also taught in the Oak Bluffs School) taught art for a time. She is now the art director at New York city’s Lincoln center for the Performing Arts.
Two other Messersmith children have also worked in the art field — Jeffery, now a social worker in San Francisco, previously taught art, and Harry of DeLand is a sculptor. Another son, Robert, works for AT& T in Gainesville, Fla, and one daughter, Linda, is an Ormond Beach, Fla. guidance counselor while a third daughter, Mary is a veterinarian in Point Reyes, Calif.
The Fred Messersmith retrospective continues at the Old Sculpin through Friday, August 29. All are welcome to a reception Sunday from 6 to 8 p.m. Mr. Messersmith also has shown at the Field and Granary galleries in West Tisbury.