Jill Hoy's paintings of Deer Isle and Stonington are festive, sunny canvases aflutter with bunting and whirligigs, day-lilies and lupine, poppies and Queen Anne's lace. Great white Victorian homes sun themselves stoically, attended by gardens and lawn furniture. Blue skies illuminate crimson blueberry barrens. Fields of wildflowers bow toward the stony shore and the sea beyond. These are the Hoy visions that have impressed themselves on Maine audiences since the 1970s whether gathered together in Hoy's own summer gallery, selected for exhibition at other galleries and museums, or published in guidebooks, art books, and L.. Bean catalogues.
But on the day of my visit with Jill Hoy and her husband, Jon Imber, this Stonington is nowhere to be seen. A coastal fog has reduced visibility to near zero, and the Deer Isle landscape has become one huge, green sponge soaking up the gray mist where the sky should be. Approaching the artists' hillside village home, however, the signature Jill Hoy garden is indeed in saturated bloom. And the liveliness for which Hoy is known awaits inside.
Jill Hoy comes to the door with garden soil beneath her nails, paint staining her hands. Her thick thatch of brown hair is tinged with gray. She is an earthy, open, friendly woman offering hot tea and good company. Ella, a new black Lab/Virginia hound puppy, comes bounding up in greeting, followed by Jon Imber, casual yet academic in his gold-rimmed glasses, accompanied by the artists' eleven-year-old son, Gabriel. The cottage is filled with paintings, books, duck decoys, antique tools, old wooden chairs, and stools wearing gay coats of paint. Yes, this is definitely the home of artists.
Maine has a rich tradition of artist couples, William and Marguerite Zorach perhaps foremost among them, but Jill Hoy and Jon Imber are an exceptional case. For where couples such as the Zorachs, Rudy Burckhardt and Yvonne Jacquette, John Wisseman and Nancy Wisseman-Widrig, and DeWitt and Pat Hardy have been equally identified with Maine, Hoy and Imber are not. Jill Hoy is well-known in Maine as one of the state's premier plein air painters, but Jon Imber is far better known in Boston than in the Pine Tree State for his powerful figurative paintings. The irony is that since meeting Hoy and moving to Maine, Imber has devoted himself increasingly to Maine landscapes, while Hoy has created a whole body of fantastic narrative figure paintings that Maine audiences rarely see.
Dividing their time between an artists' co-op in Somerville, Massachusetts, and the cottage in Stonington, Maine, (not to mention a pied-à-terre in New York), Hoy and Imber sustain a productive, creative life together, following separate paths that from time to time lead to the same place.
"Jon paints what's out behind me," Jill jokes.
"On our first date," says Jon, "we went painting together in a field. I drew Jill. Jill drew Queen Anne's lace."
Jill Hoy was born in Middletown, Connecticut, in 1954, but because her father was something of an academic vagabond, she grew up on campuses all over the country. The one constant in her life has been Deer Isle, where her family began summering back in 1962. She attended high school in California and received her BFA from the University of California at Santa Cruz in 1977, but she counts her most important artistic education as private lessons she took with painter Joann Falbo, now a resident of Cushing, while still a young girl living in Westbrook, Connecticut. She also grew up summers listening to Deer Isle artists such as Stephen Pace, David Lund, Leonard Baskin, and Karl Schrag hold forth on art, so Hoy's Maine pedigree is fairly well vetted.
After college, while living in New York, Hoy established her own gallery in the family's summer house in Deer Isle village and, in the process, established her own reputation as a fine painterly realist. In 1987 she moved down the island to Stonington where she has operated a gallery in three different locations. Currently, the Hoy Gallery is located just down the street from her cottage in a former livery stable.
Jon Imber was born in Baldwin, New York, on Long Island in 1950. After earning his BFA at Cornell in 1972, he spent a year in Europe and toyed with the idea of taking on New York but settled instead in Boston. He got a part-time job as a janitor at Harvard's Fogg Museum. He has maintained his Harvard connection pretty much ever since, for the past eighteen years teaching figure drawing there one day a week.
Imber's most important formative aesthetic experience was studying with the legendary painter Philip Guston at Boston University, where Imber earned his MFA in 1977. Philip Guston became an iconoclastic hero to Imber's generation of artists in 1970 when he made a sudden shift in his work from the orthodoxy of pure abstraction to a new style of cartoon-like figuration, painting Ku Klux Klansmen, hobnailed boots, and lima-bean shaped heads. Guston's radical departure seemed to open the floodgates for young artists hungry for subject matter and set the stage for the new wave of expressionism that followed.
"Hooking up with Guston was really significant. He was an incredibly wonderful influence in my life," says Imber. "My intellectual and emotional bent was akin to his. He encouraged my figures and encouraged me not to be a landscape painter. He'd say, 'I want to see something new and different. Do you want to spend the rest of your life capturing light?' My answer was 'No, I want to plumb the depths of my soul.' "
Just out of grad school, Imber made a big splash in 1978 with an exhibition of his own distinctive figure paintings at Brandeis University. Largely autobiographical, Imber's heroic figures had a mythic, even biblical quality, a humanism that critic Nancy Stapen attributed to "a self that is riddled with doubt."
Imber's anguished figures established him as rising a star on the Boston art scene, and he has exhibited at Nielsen Gallery, one of Boston's most prestigious contemporary art galleries, since 1980. But around 1985 Imber began making a transition to landscape that is now nearly complete. In that year, he paid fateful visits first to his uncle's farm in Chatham, New York, and then to Vinalhaven where Pat Nick had invited him to make prints at the Vinalhaven Press. Both the farm and the island impelled Imber, who was beginning to feel fried from "painting out of my head," toward painting what was in front of him rather than what was inside him.
"Year by year, the excitement of doing landscape began to take hold of me," Imber recalls. "Today, the thrill of painting comes from my reaction to the landscape."
Of course, the fact that he is married to a landscape painter also may have something to do with Jon Imber's discovering the joy of external reality.
"The biggest thing I brought to you," says Jill Hoy as she and her husband show off Imber's backyard studio, "is painting outside."
Jill Hoy does all of her landscapes outdoors, repairing to the studio in the city only in winter, there to paint wildly imaginative narrative tableaux. Jon Imber works primarily in a studio that was fashioned from a garage and a lobster shack.
After visiting Vinalhaven in 1985, Imber began coming to Deer Isle in 1986 to visit a friend. He and Jill met in 1991, appropriately enough at painter Karl Schrag's traditional end-of-summer soirée. Schrag, who was widely viewed as a saint by the Deer Isle art community, opened his studio for a party at the end of each summer in order to show friends what he had been painting. Hoy and Imber did not know each other, or even know each other's work, before that evening at Schrag's, but the following summer they were married in a field on Deer Isle to music by Purcell and James Brown. Son Gabriel was born two years later in 1994.
Both artists agree that parenthood has had a profound influence on their work. For one thing, being a good parent necessarily entails being less selfish, less singularly focused on making art and advancing a career. Raising a son together is far more important to them than any painting either might create. And in purely practical terms having a child around the house and studio forced a few artistic adjustments. For example, Jill points out that Jon now tends to work smaller and faster to accommodate the reduced studio time, and when Gabe was little, he switched from oil on canvas to "poke-proof" oil on board.
The mature perspective that fatherhood has brought to Imber is nowhere more evident than in a pair of father-son paintings, one from 1979, the other from 2002. Father and Son (1979) depicts Imber himself as a boy sitting on the distorted back of his grinning, grimacing father in a painting that seems to be all about strain and burden. The Arbor (2002) is a far more naturalistic image of young Gabe riding piggyback on his father as Imber inspects a grape arbor. Far from being a burden, the son seems an extension of the father.
The loose, painterly gestures with which Imber evokes the foliage in the background of The Arbor is also indicative of the near-abstract approach he has been taking to the Maine landscape in recent years. Even as he has turned his attention to nature, Imber has retained an interest in making paintings that reflect his inner state. And while Jill Hoy's landscapes tend to be more descriptive and accessible than Imber's, her husband says viewers are mistaken if they think Hoy's paintings are simply cheerful renderings of appearances.
"What is that painting about?" he asks of Peg's Yellow, a Hoy painting that hangs in their home of a sunny yellow house sitting alone on the shore. "Is it about light? Or is it about loss?"
"In part it comes from loss," Hoy admits. "I moved around so much growing up that I am attracted to places as roots. But the things you value keep going out the window." And swiping her hand across the canvas, she indicates where a patch of lupine has recently been bulldozed to make way for new development. "Most people would think this is a happy painting, but it's an incredibly sad painting to me."
Though he shares his wife's concerns about the changing character of the Maine coast, Jon Imber, who has only recently begun to get the kind of attention in Maine that he has had in Boston for years, says enthusiastically, "Maine has been great."
"One of the great things about Deer Isle," he continues, "is that there is a savvy and supportive audience here. It's an unusually receptive place for an artist. It's not like the Hamptons, not like Provincetown. It is not an art colony and doesn't want to be."
Deer Isle, and indeed the whole Blue Hill peninsula, possesses a cultural mother lode in large part due to the forces of attraction that have drawn creative people to the region for decades — Haystack Mountain School of Crafts, Maine Crafts Association, Deer Isle Art Association, WERU community radio, the writings of back-to-the-land gurus Scott and Helen Nearing, beloved children's books by author-illustrator Robert McCloskey, and the urbane essays of New Yorker writer E.B. White. As a result, the island and the peninsula offer a balance of nature and culture that is found in few other places.
"In Boston, where I've been showing for twenty-five years," says Imber, "I've had very few repeat customers. In ten years here, there are a dozen or more collectors who have bought three, four, or five paintings."
Jill Hoy features her husband's work on her Web site, www.jillhoy.com
, but not in her gallery. Just to maintain a little professional distance, Jon Imber shows with G. Watson Gallery a few doors down the street in Stonington.
"Jill has a big following in Maine," explains Jon without a trace of jealousy. "I'd look like a sidelight in her gallery."