Robert Indiana’s Island Home Still Grapples With His Legacy


VINALHAVEN, Me. — Forty-one years ago, when Robert Indiana, the artist, came to this remote island spotted with idle granite quarries, he fell in love with the place, and with a Victorian confection that he would make into his home.

Mr. Indiana bought the building, once a meeting hall for the Independent Order of Odd Fellows, and turned it into his refuge, not only from the Manhattan art scene he sought to escape but also from those islanders who viewed a rich artist from New York with some suspicion.

“We weren’t a big city,” said James Knowlton, the town’s harbor master. “We were just a little offshore island town, and here he was, right on Main Street.”

Not long after Mr. Indiana’s arrival, young locals broke his front windows, and Mr. Indiana boarded them up. They stayed shuttered through the decades until his death at 89 last year, even as many in this tight knit community of 1,200 eventually warmed to the idea of having a famous artist living in their midst.

Now islanders are weighing in on one of Mr. Indiana’s last requests, a proposal in his will to turn the building, known as the Star of Hope, into a museum that would honor his legacy. He chartered a nonprofit, the Star of Hope Foundation, to take on the task and directed that assets from his estate be put toward its creation.

But there are concerns here on the island about just what an Indiana museum might entail. Who would it attract? What sort of people would be running it? How might the character of the island, which already doubles in population when the “summer people” arrive, be affected?

About 70 residents gathered in the Union Church last month to voice their concerns at a meeting called by the nonprofit.

Since the granite quarries closed decades ago, lobstering and tourism have driven the island’s economy. But that doesn’t mean, several speakers noted, that the town wants to attract cruise ships or “Bud Light and T-shirt tourism.” Another resident worried that the nonprofit that would operate the museum would be “a foreign object,” one that disrupted island affairs. Several asked why there weren’t more islanders on its board.

The questions came one after another, many of them involving uncertainties still to be addressed in the quest to honor Mr. Indiana, a Pop Art pioneer whose most famous work was his “LOVE” sculpture with the jaunty, tilted O.

Will the nonprofit have an endowment sufficient to maintain the house and three other buildings it inherited from Mr. Indiana, even as sea levels rise? Will the buildings’ nonprofit status increase property taxes for others? Might the Independent Order of the Odd Fellows be interested in helping with the Star of Hope restoration?

“The voice of the community was felt and it was heard,” Kris Davidson, one of two Vinalhaven residents who sit on the nonprofit’s board, said after the meeting. “There’s a lot of emotion. The tension lies in how to interpret his vision.”

The board’s immediate focus is to preserve the Star of Hope, which is the island’s most striking building and a structure that has been listed on the National Register of Historic Places since 1982. By the time of Mr. Indiana’s death, though, it had deteriorated so badly that the nonprofit Maine Preservation placed it on its list of most endangered historic places. The building now boasts a new roof, but still has rotten clapboards, pigeons roosting in the broken eaves and those boarded up windows, a vestige of the early years.

Phil Crossman, a Vinalhaven town officer who runs The Tidewater, an inn down the street, recalled that a “noisy minority” had harassed Mr. Indiana back then because he was gay. The local welcome cooled even further when the artist was charged with paying a young islander who modeled for him to have sex. But Mr. Indiana was acquitted in 1992 and ultimately settled into a routine here. He ate breakfasts on the dock at the Surfside restaurant with a rotating crew of studio assistants. He painted backdrops for a local theater troupe. He hunkered down over art of his own, working in the studio of his home, which became his sanctuary.

“He’d only come out of the house to go to the store and the bank,” Mr. Knowlton said.

In his later years, one of the people Mr. Indiana saw regularly was Jamie L. Thomas, an islander who became his caretaker and who was later picked by Mr. Indiana to lead the nonprofit that will operate the museum.

Mr. Thomas attended the community meeting here, but he did not speak, and his role has been complicated by a series of lawsuits in which the adequacy of the care he provided for Mr. Indiana has been challenged by, among others, the lawyer who is the executor of Mr. Indiana’s estate. The lawyer, James W. Brannan, has accused Mr. Thomas in court papers of taking advantage of the elderly artist, an accusation that Mr. Thomas has denied and one distinctly at odds with the verdict of his neighbors in the church. They applauded vigorously, at one point, in support of him.

Mr. Brannan and Mr. Thomas were once, as Mr. Indiana designed it, the only members of the board of the Star of Hope Foundation. But with the two men at loggerheads, the Maine attorney general persuaded the various parties involved in the litigation to accept Larry Sterrs, a veteran of Maine nonprofit management, as a new board member. He is now the board’s chairman, and serves alongside Mr. Thomas, Ms. Davidson, and Patricia King, formerly the associate director of the Colby College Museum of Art. Mr. Brannan has stepped down from the board.

Ms. Davidson said the board is still getting its feet under it, and plans to recruit more members and hire staff. The art that Mr. Indiana left behind and entrusted to his estate, a collection of some 500 pieces, has been moved off the island for safekeeping and would have to be shipped back before any museum could open.

But that is far away, everyone agrees. Mr. Indiana did not leave behind a detailed blueprint for his vision of a museum, so the idea will need to be refined as the building is updated and the islanders have their say.

Mr. Sterrs agreed that the work of the Star of Hope Foundation is just starting. “We haven’t hit that sweet spot yet,” he said. “We’ve heard most about what people don’t want to see.”

But one vestige of the legal and personal disputes that followed Mr. Indiana’s death is that even now, more than a year later, there has been no official memorial service to mark his passing. A new museum would certainly make clear that the islanders do not intend to forget him, even if they are still trying to understand just exactly where he fits in.


Source link