A Portrait of the Artist as an Innkeeper
PROFILE Jack Nahil – JUNE 2007
By Joshua Bodwell
Photography Darren Setlow
Many artists are perpetually torn between the necessity of their day job and the revitalizing charge they feel when creating art. But the respected southern Maine innkeeper, restaurateur, and painter Jack Nahil is one of the rare few who have managed to combine their artistic passion with their business.
“Whatever I do,” Nahil says, “it has to feel creative.” In many ways, his long career is the result of several leaps of faith.
In the late 1960s, Nahil was a painting student at the Massachusetts College of Art. During weekend trips to visit a girlfriend in Ogunquit, the young painter fell in love with the little fishing-village-turned-artist-community. Nahil was soon spending his entire summers in Ogunquit, waiting tables at night and running his own art gallery during the day.
By 1973, Nahil was settled in Maine full-time. At just 26 years old and armed with only his experience as a waiter, he purchased the dilapidated and un-winterized Forest Hill Hotel near Kennebunk Beach. Nahil renamed the business the White Barn Inn and immediately undertook a grueling renovation of the property. “Naiveté is great when you’re young,” Nahil says with a laugh, remembering the renovation work that some days felt insurmountable.
Over the next 15 years, Nahil built the White Barn Inn into one of the Northeast’s most revered dining and lodging destinations. But after a decade and half of ceaseless exertion, Nahil was frustrated with how little time he had to sneak away with his easel and paint. “I was tired,” he says, “and I still dreamed of painting full-time.”
Nahil sold the White Barn Inn and relocated to the white-sand beaches of Marco Island, Florida, just south of Naples. In this tropical setting, Nahil casually restored the old house he had purchased, painted watercolors and oils for hours a day, and became, in his own words, “a real beach bum.” Yet after six years of this routine he grew restless. “The restaurant business is something you either love or hate—there is no gray,” Nahil says. “I happen to love it.”
After moving back to Maine in 1994, Nahil opened the Salt Marsh Tavern, and soon afterward purchased the Cape Arundel Inn. In 2000, Nahil sold the Salt Marsh Tavern to give the inn his full attention. Perched on the edge of the Atlantic Ocean, with a wide, sweeping porch, the turn-of-the-century, Shingle Style building has a simple yet stately appeal that was the perfect canvas for Nahil’s artistic talents and business acumen.
Drawing on a seemingly endless store of energy, Nahil has refurbished the Cape Arundel Inn’s dining room, guest rooms, and grounds. Hardworking and passionate, Nahil has inspired strong loyalty in his staff over the years, and many, including executive chef Rich Lemoine, have been with him since he owned the White Barn. The downside of Nahil’s commitment to the Cape Arundel Inn, however, is that work has once again conspired to pull him away from his art. “The energy I feel while working at the Inn makes it hard for me to stand at an easel some days,” Nahil says. “But this property is like a canvas for me—my mind swims with it, and I’m constantly redrawing it.”
Still, no project or venture is powerful enough to pull Nahil completely away from his art. These days, he keeps a painting studio at an old mill building in nearby Biddeford, where he works in oils, watercolor, and pastels. Though Nahil primarily paints landscapes and still lifes, he says he has no desire to “slavishly reproduce” what he sees. “The place or object I’m painting is the starting point,” he says, “but then I want my creativity to take over. When I can loosen a painting up, it allows the viewer to interact with the piece and bring their own sensitivities to it.” Nahil shows his work at Kennebunkport’s Mast Cove Gallery and avidly collects and displays the work of other Maine artists in the Inn.
Nahil has two easels in his studio right now: an unfinished oil painting sits on one, and a half-completed watercolor on the other. “Both of those paintings still have me ensnarled,” Nahil says, casting a contemplative glance out the window of the Inn’s elegant dining room, where dark waves can be seen crashing along the rocky shore.
“I paint a lot of trim these days,” he laughs, turning away from the ocean view. “And windowsills, and ceilings, and walls.” Nahil’s not sure when he will get around to finishing those two paintings in his studio, but he doesn’t seem to be in much of a rush either.