Albert Alcalay

The abstract expressionist painter, concentration camp survivor, and Yugoslavian émigré has been summering on the Vineyard for almost forty-five years.

I started in 1956 to take my family from Boston to Gloucester for the summer, where I opened a school of painting. I was very successful teaching both students and adults, so I had to run all over with a bicycle. Pretty soon it got so busy I was just saying hello to everybody and didn’t do any work. That was when David Douglas [of Campbell and Douglas Harness and Feed], who had been my student in Boston, told me about Martha’s Vineyard.

We [with wife Vera and sons Leor and Ammiel] came for the first time in 1963 with four bicycles, a dog, a rabbit, and a cat. We stayed on Middle Road in Chilmark and went to Squibnocket Beach, where everybody seemed to be from Harvard and MIT. We loved the Vineyard, and I had my first Island shows in 1963, 1964, and 1965 at a little gallery in Menemsha run by the Irish painter Virginia Beresford.

When an article appeared in 1967 in The New York Times saying Martha’s Vineyard is the place to go, we all jumped up and decided we had to buy. My wife and I looked and looked, but we could not afford anything, so David said, “I’ll give you the land for nothing if you let me build the house.” I was teaching architectural design at Harvard at the time, and I was very impressed with his work. But I said to him, “David, I taught you design; I didn’t teach you architecture,” so I declined. He tried to persuade me by saying he knew my taste, but I told him I didn’t have the money. I had a house in Boston to pay for.

By then it was Labor Day – time to leave. A friend named Jerry Berlin knew of a house for sale in West Tisbury with a big barn. Our children were the same age, and he thought it would be nice if I would buy the barn, so I said, “Let’s go look.” But it was too dilapidated. I called David to say hello, but his wife said he was over at Bronislaw Lesnikowski’s and that they were building my house. Bronislaw was the artist and carpenter married to the Japanese sculptor Ikuko Burns. I tried to be as noncommittal as possible, but Bronislaw told me I’d better buy the house David was building. My sister even offered to lend me the money, but I still didn’t want to do it.

Then I had a big show at the DeCordova Museum and Sculpture Park in Lincoln. In three weeks I made the money I needed. I called David and said, “I’m in.”

The carpenters hitchhiked to West Tisbury center every day and spent all day working on it. Then at the end of the day they’d go swimming. By June 28, the house was all ready. The whole house gives me a Romanesque feeling when I look at it from the outside. It has a center like a church and two wings. David and I agree that it blends very well with nature. There is not one piece of plywood in it, and David used eight or nine kinds of wood. The fireplace, which is made of stone, is especially beautiful. David wanted to build a bridge between the house and the studio in case I got inspired in the middle of the night, but I laughed it off.

I was exhibiting all the time then. I must have had thirty shows. We had so many friends. There was Rick Herrick, who taught my kids tennis; the painter Vaclav Vytlacil; Aaron Siskind, the photographer. Also, photographers Alfred Eisenstaedt and Bruce Davidson; [Harvard professor] Sam Huntington; [future Nobel Prize–winning economists] Bob Solow and Frank Modigliani – it was a whole bunch of good friends. It was a lot of fun.

I worked really hard, and the studio David built me was an excellent place to work. David was very proud of it. I wanted him to build houses, and he got a commission from a priest at Yale, so he built the same house in Gay Head and got four or five other commissions. But when his clients became more
demanding, he retired to become a gentleman farmer. We haven’t changed anything in the house, out of respect for his originality.

We have never missed one summer. Our kids stopped coming during college, but now they come back with their families. In 1977 I had a heart attack upstairs; David carried me downstairs. Now my knees are bad, so I can’t climb upstairs so easily. I go up and down once a day. When I was diagnosed with macular degeneration in 1997, and I could no longer distinguish between blue and green. I stopped teaching. I miss teaching, but there are generations and generations of students who keep in touch. Several of them made a documentary film about me and my work called Albert Alcalay: Portrait of an Artist; it’s in the West Tisbury Library.

I am in the era of my macular degeneration style. Now I am doing a lot of watercolors, and I leave spaces between the colors because I can’t see where they end. I am also painting on vellum, the kind of leather that is used in making Torahs. My next exhibit will be in August for my ninetieth birthday, in the gallery at the home of Rabbi Joshua Plaut in West Tisbury. My book The Persistence of Hope [University of Delaware Press] will also be out this summer.