A Creative Retirement

Paintings offered for sale at the West Tisbury Farmer’s Market on a long-ago summer’s day.
Shirley W. Mayhew

When I retired from teaching school in 1986 at the age of sixty, I thought I would be content to sit in my rocking chair on my porch, reading a good book every day. (Even though I didn’t even have a rocking chair – or a porch.) A few days of sitting in my lawn chair on my patio and reading made me realize that something more was needed – especially if I lived to be ninety, as my mother and father did. Thirty years of sitting in my lawn chair on my patio began to seem less like an idyllic dream and more like a nightmare.

I had always been a photographer of sorts: In my early years of motherhood, when I found it expensive taking so many pictures of my children, I decided to take pictures of other people’s children and earn enough to pay for all the film and developing costs of my own pictures. That was good for a few years, until the birth of my third child kept me too busy to deal with other people’s children. Then I occasionally sold photographs to the two Island newspapers.

When my interest turned to world travel, I thought I could pay for it by writing travel stories for newspapers, with my photographs as illustrations. That was fun, but it never really worked because I could only afford one trip a year, and nobody ever offered to syndicate my annual travel story. I did sell my story of climbing Mount Kilimanjaro in the early eighties to the Chicago Tribune, and they used it as an example of a good travel story at a conference of travel writers. That was the high point of my travel-writing career. In 1988, I wrote a piece about my trip to Burma and The Boston Globe agreed to buy it. Then the military junta took over Burma and tourism ceased for a few years, so my story never got published. That was the end of my travel-writing experience.

During the 1990s, I decided to take up painting. I chose watercolors because oil painting seemed too messy and I didn’t like the smell of turpentine. I began with a class in Tisbury taught by David Wallis, and later took a couple of classes with Millie Briggs. Then I joined a watercolor group at the Tisbury Senior Center that met every Thursday. Most of us had no illusions about becoming artists – we just wanted to become adept at producing a reasonably recognizable picture, perhaps to give as a birthday present to a grandchild or a friend. It was quiet and relaxing as we struggled with getting the right amount of water on the paper and the right colors onto the brush, while we chatted about current movies and town elections.

We painted rosy red apples on a blue-green plate and beach umbrellas in the sand. We painted a meadow beside a river, and a country road in the fall. My favorite subject was a sunset with trees in silhouette. It was easy. I could wet the area of the sky and drop in a little pink, a little yellow, a little orange, swoosh it around, and there was a sunset. Then, when the paper was dry, and with the smallest paintbrush dipped in black, I could outline the trees in the foreground. I have dozens of sunset paintings in my folder. They all look pretty much alike.

There was a problem though. Week after week we painted together, collecting paintings that seemed to be going nowhere. I hesitated to give my amateur paintings to anybody, unless they expressed a desire to have one. It would have been a strain on any friendship to expect someone to hang my painting in her house if she didn’t like it. I only have one of my small paintings of a sunset hanging in my house.

However, our group of senior citizens became somewhat accomplished in our efforts, having advanced to painting old, weathered barns and boats in the harbor, as well as Island lighthouses. As we approached the summer of 1996, we hated to disband for the busy season. So when someone suggested, as sort of a joke, that we might sell our paintings at the Farmer’s Market, held on summer Saturdays at the Grange Hall in West Tisbury, we were immediately inspired to try.

I scouted out the territory with a co-painter and decided that the white fence in front of the Grange Hall might be a perfect place to hang our pictures. I told John Alley, who was a selectman at the time, of our desire to sell our paintings to a clientele who would already be in the area to buy vegetables and flowers. He gave us permission.

Tom Hodgson, an old friend and neighbor as well as an excellent sign painter, made us a sign proclaiming “Art Market” in large letters that could be read from the cars going by and turning into the parking area. The next Saturday, we made our debut – the day before the grand openings of the Stan Murphy Art Gallery up the road in Chilmark and the Allen Whiting Art Gallery down the road in the other direction, and practically across the street from the Field Gallery, which sold fine paintings and Tom Maley statues. Three elderly matrons, all wearing sun hats, sat in beach chairs in front of a white picket fence hung with two dozen large and small watercolor paintings, unframed, but nicely matted.

By 8:45 a.m. shoppers were lining up at the gate into the Farmer’s Market. They didn’t glance at us until, satiated with armfuls of lettuce and carrots and large bunches of sunflowers, they returned, and on their way out to State Road, they slowed and looked at the paintings as they walked by. Some stopped to ask who we were and what these paintings were all about. We explained ourselves and quoted prices: $19 for a painting of the Edgartown lighthouse by Gertrude Knowlton, $35 for a picture of the Gay Head Cliffs by Mae Dinielli, $15 for a still life by Louise Jennings, $25 for a small painting of a stone wall by Shirley Mayhew, among others. Well, these were bargains compared to the prices of the flowers and vegetables – what was another $20 to $30 for an original painting? We sold. They bought.

At noon we packed up our chairs and our sign and what remained of the paintings hanging on the white picket fence. Then we all huddled around the front seat of my car and counted the money we had made: $633 for sixteen paintings by six beginners and one teacher. That was the pinnacle of my painting career.

That career didn’t last very long either, but I still needed an outlet for my creative juices, so I decided to return to writing. Nowadays, the computer age, Island-related magazines, membership in a couple of writing groups, and all my years of creating memories show promise in keeping me busy for a few more years to come.