At the open air market in Oak Bluffs last Sunday, Billy O’Callaghan sat in a lawn chair at the back of his tent crafting a small gray whale out of clay. A woman moseyed into his tent and examined the small clay figurines and the charming driftwood furniture. “These are fantastic,” she exclaimed. “Just beautiful.” The artist, an Irishman with graying hair and kind blue eyes, nodded in appreciation. A construction worker by trade, Mr. O’Callaghan has lived on the Island for 26 years. “It’s one of those places that’s just easy to live,” Mr. O’Callaghan said.
Except in the winter. “When I first came here, I wondered, Oh my God, these winters! What am I going to do with myself?” So he started experimenting with clay. After a freezing mid-winter day spent working on a roof, he found refuge inside, making small magical objects. So when he found out about the Martha’s Vineyard Community Supported Arts project, he started dreaming of spending hours in the warmth of his studio during the winter months.
The program, founded by Arthur Hardy-Doubleday, is a shareholding system gaining momentum nationally in which community members will pay artists in advance for their work. Shareholders pay $500 each in January, and five artists will use that money, estimated to total $4,000 each, to fund their latest creative endeavors. In the spring, sponsors will collect art from each of the five artists.
All five artists live and work on the Island full time. In addition to Mr. O’Callaghan, the artists include typesetter and poet Emma Young, singer-songwriter Anthony Esposito, puppeteer Robin Tuck and plein-air oil painter Susan Johnson. Judges made an effort to cover multiple media in their selection of the finalists.
For artists who work several jobs to support themselves, the summer is a busy time when they are hard-pressed to find time to create their art. Mr. Hardy-Doubleday’s program will enable them to take advantage of the off-season to pursue their art.
After hearing about Cambridge Adult Education’s Community Supported Arts program, Mr. Hardy-Doubleday thought that the program would work well on the Island, a haven for artists and art patrons. He chose five judges, friends of his, whom he knew had expertise in art or business. “I have always been a fan of the arts,” he said, though he’s never pursued art seriously himself.
Mr. Hardy-Doubleday grew up in Oak Bluffs and makes his living as a lawyer in Cambridge and on the Island. He wants his initiative to inspire artists to experiment with new media, by providing them with a much-needed financial safety net and an incentive to stay on-Island over the winter.
“I think it’s especially relevant to a seasonal community like Martha’s Vineyard,” said Taylor Toole, filmmaker and CSA judge. “While this is a wonderful place for artists in the summertime, it’s a long, cold winter. We’re trying to provide some support so that people can focus on the work, take time from supplementing income, and focus on creating in the off months.”
Mr. Hardy-Doubleday has worked tirelessly to make the program successful, Mr. Toole said. “It’s such a great thing Arthur’s doing,” he said. “A lot of times you want to support other people, but often get so focused on what you’re doing,” but Mr. Hardy-Doubleday is different, he said.
“He is an angel,” said Kathleen Cowley, another judge. “He spends his time thinking about how to improve others’ lives. Arthur is brilliant and fabulous.”
Ms. Tuck said she’s grateful to live in a place where people care so much about art. “It’s a warm feeling to have a community support you,” she said.
The challenge now is to appeal to prospective shareholders. Mr. Hardy-Doubleday’s goal is to reach 50 buyers. As of now, he says, he has one shareholder in the fold at the beginning stages of the project. “Now we have to sell it to the community,” he said. “It’s asking someone to pay for something they won’t get until later in the year,” he said. In effect, the community will come together to commission several pieces of art. Many have experience with this type of advance-pay system. Islanders who subscribe to community- supported agriculture (CSA) programs pay a fee at the beginning of the growing season, and reap the benefits later in the year. The community-supported art program follows that model.
He, like his artists, approaches the program with a sense of cautious optimism. “There is a risk that no one will underwrite it,” he said. “What we need are more people to buy into the model. I’d like to see this be my first and last year [running the program]. I would like to see it continue in perpetuity, so that Martha’s Vineyard becomes a place where [artists] can launch their career.”
Ms. Johnson, the plein-air painter, has completed one painting per day since February as part of her art coursework. She says the CSA affirms artists’ importance in a community. “It stresses how critical it is that somebody does that for a community,” she said. Ms. Johnson works at Morning Glory Farm in the mornings and paints every evening for two to six hours. She will give each shareholder a painting at the end of the season.
Anthony Esposito, one of the artists selected, said he, too, has found it’s hard to make a living from creative work. “Artists end up doing some other job to pay their way,” he said. Mr. Esposito works as a videographer on the Island, as well as in audio production. “I was extremely excited because of the opportunity that it affords me . . . to record in the dead of winter,” he said. Mr. Esposito is currently working on his first CD and plans to record three more for the CSA. He plays guitar, drums and bass.
“I’m honored to have been selected, because the other artists that were chosen are extremely talented,” Mr. Esposito said.
Mr. Toole said the initiative encourages artists to believe in themselves as artists. “It’s hard to always be asking people to support this idea when it’s just an idea . . . When someone says I trust you, I believe in you, that’s a really powerful thing. I feel like that’s what Arthur is doing by selecting these artists. He’s saying we believe in you; you’ve shown us that you have a lot to offer.”
Visit mvcsa.org for more information, or catch Mr. Hardy-Doubleday and the artists at the Oak Bluffs open air market on Sunday mornings.