Summers at Long Ledge
by Kathrin Seitz | Photography Trent Bell
Generations of artistry on Islesboro
The first time I met Brita Holmquist, she was standing in the middle of her living room. As I approached her, I could see that the walls were covered in porcini-colored horsehair plaster. Brita talked animatedly about her art and her life and her home. She still wore her painting clothes, a blue Obama T-shirt and blue jeans, because we—a group of about 60 people on a Center for Maine Contemporary Art tour of three houses in Islesboro—had arrived early. Unfazed, Brita went on to mention all the artists in her family. “We are the female Wyeths,” she said. “I am a painter, and,” she said pointing to the bright green pointillist painting over her head, “So was my mother.” Two of her sisters, Evelina and Angel, are also artists. Angel is a sculptor, and Evelina is a painter. Another sister, Lilias, is a master gardener who makes costumes for the Belfast Maskers, and Elizabeth is a poet. As for her brothers, Harry is a novelist, Anders is a flag maker, and Frederik is a master welder.
The house—or Long Ledge, as it is officially known—is painted a stunning Islesboro blue. A Colonial Revival built in the 1920s, it seems to have been planted in its setting, comfortably holding fast to the shale. Its large chimneys define the roofline, inviting you to come in, sit by the fire, and dream. And inside the doors, you are met with a riot of color, whether it is the green of the hallway or of the enormous heads of lettuce sitting next to bright red tomatoes and peppers on the zinc table in a white kitchen. The eye is drawn to a line of multicolored teapots on one shelf. A series of scissors dangles from the shelf, beckoning you to run out to the garden and cut some frisée or watercress for a salad. What the visitor encounters is one arresting tableau after another. Down a long hallway standing in a window is a wooden cormorant surrounded by two enormous armchairs. Above the cormorant hangs a Moroccan lantern, and below sits a seagull, ready and alert. The scene is lit by the soft light of a late afternoon in August. In the living room, lions prowl in The Mask, a painting in the pointillist style that features a multitude of greens. We could be in the world of Rousseau or Gauguin. Even an African scene seems curiously at home in this Maine house.
In the dining room, we find gorgeous, deep yellow French wallpaper that was uncovered by Brita and her husband and then repainted by some of the women who attend an artists’ retreat at Long Ledge every summer. Brita tells the story. “We believe the architect chose the paper because so many colors original to the house are keyed to it. Then my grandmother arrived for the summer, did not like what she saw, and said to her husband, ‘Oh Bill, let’s paint it white.’ And then my mother, Ibbie Holmquist, painted it girdle pink. One summer, I decided to change the color. I ran into my old friend Russell at the store, who said, ‘Brita, I am so glad to see you. Last night I had a dream about your parents. They were a pair of storks, and they were dancing in your driveway.’ That afternoon, I took to the paint in the dining room with a butter knife—not a scraper, couldn’t find one—to see how hard it would be to clear the old paint. What I uncovered was a stork! And so began a year of uncovering wallpaper with the help of a group of friends and visitors. It was a combination of archeological dig and jigsaw puzzle.”
When I experience Long Ledge and hear the stories associated with it, I am reminded of the Charleston Farmhouse—the country home of the Bloomsbury Group (Virginia Woolf, Vanessa Bell, Duncan Grant, and their many friends)—which displays an accumulation of 60 years of work by the group. Long Ledge, like the Charleston Farmhouse, reflects the generational layers of the Elkins, Holmquist, and Hollins families and their friends. Over many decades, the families lived in and enjoyed the estate, painting, planting, gardening, cooking, boating, and sometimes even engaging in multiple activities at once—painting on the lobster boat or en plein air on the lawn overlooking the harbor. An archaeologist would find evidence of another era in which servants, cooks, and butlers shared the home with its owners. In the sitting room outside the Venetian bedroom, visitors will find the chair that Brita’s grandfather’s manservant sat in while waiting. The home also has a noticeable Italian influence, since Brita studied painting in Florence, where she met her future husband, Roberto, a Florentine. Roberto and Brita, after moving to Maine in the early 1970s, started a company that imports Majolica, hand-painted Italian earthenware.
The overlay of generations gives the home an organic, alive, and quirky character, as if it were a living, breathing entity prepared to surprise you at every turn. It’s a cabinet of curiosity with all the requisite elements of a Kunstkammer, including sculptures, paintings, curiosities from home and abroad, shells, feathers, horns, and stones.
Long Ledge was built in the late 1920s by Brita’s grandparents, William and Elizabeth Elkins. Like many Philadelphians of the time, the couple decided to build on Islesboro. The Elkins family has a long and storied relationship to art, and their collection dates back to the nineteenth century. Much of the collection has been donated to the Philadelphia Museum of Art. “My great grandfather, William L. Elkins, collected Corot, Rembrandt, van Dyck, Murillo, and Velasquez,” says Brita. “My grandfather, William M. Elkins, painted a little. I have two small paintings that he did in Long Ledge. I imagine he painted to understand what he was collecting—Monet, Pissarro, Matisse….His major field of collecting, however, was rare books, which reside in the rare book collection of the Philadelphia Free Library.” Brita’s great aunt and accomplished sculptor Stella Elkins Tyler and great uncle George Elkins donated works from their collection to the Portland Museum of Art also.
Given the family’s rich history, it’s no surprise that Brita’s immediate family are all artists of one vocation or another. Ibbie, her mother, painted in the pointillist style mostly from her imagination. She painted portraits of animals or fishermen. These paintings were set in Africa or India, even though Ibbie did not visit India until she was in her 60s and never set foot in Africa. She was also a portrait painter who worked on commission. Brita’s father, Goran Holmquist, and Ibbie started a store called Bonniers on Madison Avenue, which offered captivating, original crafts and industrial design from around the world. It was one of the few such stores of its kind in New York. Much of the family’s artwork has ended up in Long Ledge, along with the Majolica from Brita’s husband, Roberto, which add even more delight and whimsy to the house.
Brita’s own work, mostly oils and oil pastels, reflects her fascination with water, light, and Maine’s coastal islands. “The surface of the ocean is an old theme for me,” she says. “For 40 years, I have painted the tide and the wind moving on the water. As it is always changing, it is also continually fascinating to me.” And islands are another focus for the painter. “I paint islands because they are the edge of the livable planet, the thin orange and green wedge between the blues of infinity. Islands have always represented a place longed for, magical and separated from the mundane. Their pull is still present, at least to me. I am captivated by their magic.”
In the introduction to Brita Holmquist (Art House, 2010), Graham Wood calls Brita’s work “striking because of its very simple and bold composition.” In the same publication, in the invitation to the show Pelagic, Philip Isaacson states that Holmquist’s work is “endowed with deep emotional intensity. These forms are remarkable in their abstraction. To suggest a powerful force with such abrupt movements is a high accomplishment.”
Brita’s work has a feeling of generosity, mystery, and celebration—qualities that her friends and fellow artists also see in her. Brita holds an artists’ retreat each September. “The summer is over, people can come, and it is the best weather,” she says. “Participants are chosen by me and most are return suspects. The first year, three of us—Nikki Schumann, Susan Van Campen, and me—sat at the kitchen table and chose artists we wanted to spend a week working with.” The artists arrive on a Sunday and leave the following Sunday. The only proviso is that each evening they set aside their work for a communal dinner.
“I go as a respite to get away from the busy summer and because there are lots of other women,” says Susan Van Campen, an artist who lives in Thomaston. “Toward the end of the week—you see work mounting up as the week goes on—we have a show. We walk to each artist’s pile of work and they talk about it. This is not a critique, but rather an appreciation.”
“All the summers are like oranges in orange juice,” says Brita, who has spent every summer since she was six months old at Long Ledge. “They all mix together.” As do all the generations and all the art they have collected and made. Today, Brita is the unofficial curator of the collection. She tells stories about the work in the house, and beneath her favorite paintings, she sometimes adds stones, scallop shells, or feathers.
“The house has never been more joyful,” says Brita. “I am at Long Ledge alone with my dog Maestro, as Roberto is working in Cumberland. I paint most of the day, with breaks for boats or painting in boats. The rest of the time Roberto is here or Lilias, our daughter, and her friends. Or my friends. We boat. We work in the garden. We read. We cook and we eat. We sleep with the windows open and listen to the tide.”
Don’t you want to join her?