A Unique Artists’ Retreat

The Point Way Inn has become an oasis for visiting artists to live, work, and commune on the Island. The fact that it’s free is a gift to the bottom line of many an arts institution.

For six years, Claudia Miller ran the Point Way Inn in Edgartown as a bed and breakfast, an immaculate, old sea captain’s home with serene gardens and seven bedrooms. Then, at the end of 2004, she decided to make a change. She stopped charging. The Point Way Inn became host to a new clientele: artists. The inn still functions much like a high-end bed and breakfast, but the guests don’t pay a dime.

“If you go back to the times of the twenties in Berlin or Paris or even New York, artists met at a cafe corner – a place where you know they went to talk,” says Claudia, who is also a sculptor and is originally from Munich, Germany. “But there was this time gap of about fifty years where I feel it was really missing. The need is here. People want to communicate with like-minded people.”

Now in its fifth year as a meeting place for creative minds (generally from May to October), the Point Way Inn benefits both the artists who stay there and the organizations, like the Vineyard Playhouse in Vineyard Haven and Featherstone Center for the Arts in Oak Bluffs, that would otherwise be responsible for finding them housing – and paying for it. The artists come together over breakfast and have common areas inside and outdoors to relax and exchange ideas.

Claudia shrugs at the philanthropic aspect of the inn. It’s not the difference between running an inn for profit and running an inn for free, she insists. It’s the difference between having seven bedrooms to yourself and having rooms to share.

“Ultimately what it is, is a private home, and we keep it as such,” Claudia says. “I happen to have this one, and I share it with creative people.”

Claudia’s private home includes lush gardens, stone sculptures, rich fabrics, and impeccable interior design. She’s responsible for that design aesthetic, although she credits Julie Robinson Interiors in Vineyard Haven as the source for fabrics. The house itself, on the corner of Main Street and Pease’s Point Way, was built as a sea captain’s home in 1851, using a combination of Greek revival and colonial architecture. It became a bed and breakfast in

There is no love lost between Claudia and her former inn business. “It wasn’t worth the effort, let’s put it that way, and I would much rather serve the arts community,” she says. “I always had in mind what I’m doing now.” Claudia’s visiting artists program, which she calls Artists Pointing the Way, embodies her concept of the role of artists in society.

“I view creative people – and with that, a lot of artists – as the people who express, in one way or another, the obvious and the hidden. The things we see and don’t want to see. Very often, they’ve been visionary without even knowing it, because it’s subconscious,” she says. “If we are able to hear and watch and see, it is a commentary not only of the times we live in, but the direction we go in.”

The number of organizations the Point Way Inn serves grows every year. Guest artists have included the Vineyard Playhouse’s actors, directors, and stage managers; Featherstone’s artists and teachers; performers and choreographers from the dance organization The Yard in Chilmark; filmmakers and actors from the Martha’s Vineyard Film Festival, also in Chilmark; the Katama FARM Institute’s Cornapalooza performers; Waldorf puppeteers visiting Plum Hill School in West Tisbury; Habitat for Humanity’s fundraiser performers; and artists showing at Edgartown’s Gardner Colby Gallery and Eisenhauer Gallery.

A close-knit group of people handles every aspect of running the inn. Debbie Brown of Edgartown has managed the inn with Claudia since 2001, and lives on site during the summer season. Debbie’s husband, David Brown, a master carpenter, furniture-maker, and sculptor, is the property manager and does all of the maintenance. He also makes the sculptures in the garden that are composed of hundreds of small stones. The landscaper is Debbie’s son, Justen Ahren of West Tisbury, who also teaches poetry at Featherstone and now runs a writer’s retreat at the Point Way in October (with West Tisbury’s newly appointed poet laureate Fan Ogilvie).

Before Claudia bought the inn in 1998, she owned and ran a studio and gallery outside of New York City that served about sixty ceramists. It had a similar spirit to Artists Pointing the Way, but no one lived there. Claudia says she would like to see more private homeowners on Martha’s Vineyard reaching out
to visiting artists.

“Do you know how many people on this Island have huge homes and media rooms and nanny quarters?” she asks. “Why not give that to the organizations?”

When Vineyard Playhouse producer and artistic director M.J. Bruder Munafo first heard about the Point Way program in 2005, she was shocked. “I couldn’t believe it. I said, ‘Someone is going to give us a room? Provide us housing at no cost?’ I had never heard of such a thing,” M.J. recalls. “When someone comes to work at the Playhouse, it’s a five- or six-week commitment. We’re responsible for housing everyone who works here. Finding the appropriate housing for all the people who come here is daunting.”

The Playhouse, which is a nonprofit, is now guaranteed at least one room for the duration of each of its productions. Sometimes it gets five or six rooms for its fall production. In 2008, the Point Way Inn donated a total of twenty weeks of housing to the Playhouse. “The contribution they’re making to the arts and offsetting the daunting costs of production – especially in the case of the Playhouse – is an enormous contribution,” M.J. says.

Now, the only trouble is choosing which actor or director gets to stay there. With the general lack of apartments on the Island and the inhibiting expense of hotels, the other Playhouse artists are accommodated in private homes (that do not happen to be elegant bed and breakfasts), usually near the Playhouse in Vineyard Haven. “We often house someone at the Point Way who has their own car and doesn’t mind driving to rehearsal and to performances,” M.J. says.
She may also choose to send someone who likes dogs, since Claudia has two Yorkshire terriers, Skippy and Cleo, and Debbie has a golden retriever named River and a mixed-breed dog, rescued from Anguilla, named Lucy.

Thomas Bena, founder and producer of the Martha’s Vineyard Film Festival, also recalls his surprise and gratitude when he first heard about the Artists Pointing the Way program. “A few years ago, Claudia came to us and offered to house our visiting filmmakers,” he says, acknowledging that the usual cost of housing “for a nonprofit in the summertime is exorbitant.” Claudia guarantees the film festival one room at the Point Way Inn for the duration of its summer film series and lends the entire inn for its March festival.

“It’s an experience for the filmmakers when they stay there in the summertime,” Thomas says. “They get to meet dancers from The Yard, actors from the Playhouse, artists who teach at Featherstone. You stop by there and you can feel the energy. It’s a great gathering place.”

Actor Victor Talmadge can attest to that artistic energy. He stayed at the Point Way for more than a month while performing in the Vineyard Playhouse’s 2007 production of Pure Confidence. And after the production ended, he stayed a few extra days to write.

“I live in Los Angeles and I’ve been in the business a long time, and this really is a unique place,” Victor says. “It’s such a respite here. This would be a five-star bed and breakfast anywhere....I’ve toured around the country – and various other countries – and I’ve never been in a situation like this.”

While staying at the inn, Victor had conversations with dancers, poets, filmmakers, sculptors, comedians, and actors. “And because we’re all under one roof, we become immediate comrades, and there’s an immediate dialogue of interest and cross mediums, which I have found totally invigorating,” he says. “I’m usually hanging out with theater professionals or other people in the business. I’m not hanging out with poets or dancers.”

Because Claudia is an artist herself, the inn’s lifestyle is in tune with artists’ temperaments and schedules, which often means odd hours and ample privacy. “There might be music blaring because someone is actually trying to create something – and that’s okay,” Victor says. “They leave breakfast for me for whenever I get up.”

The artists, who typically share breakfast together rather than dinner because most are working at night, say they gain an appreciation for their fellow guests’ artistic mediums. “What I’ve heard on a daily basis is ‘Gee, I had no idea how much work it was for them to do their craft,’ or ‘how much time and effort is spent rehearsing dance or learning lines for a play,’” Debbie Brown says.

Debbie has also learned a thing or two about artists while working at the Point Way – things that have helped her to better understand her artistic husband and son. “Sometimes [creating art] is not a choice,” she says. “It comes from inside and it just burns so strongly.”

The mixing of ideas and mediums is at the core of Claudia’s philosophy for the Point Way Inn. “On this small Island, we all need to be with each other, learn from each other, and know what each other are doing,” Claudia says.

Originally, Claudia had wanted to bring Island and visiting artists together at the inn, but she realized that the time of year that artists visit the Island – summer – is simply too busy for the artists who live on the Island. The housing demand from visiting artists is also too high.

“It’s luxurious, it’s wonderful; I’ve asked if I can stay there,” Featherstone Center for the Arts executive director Francine Kelly says with a laugh about the Point Way Inn. “Claudia says no because I’m not visiting.”

The opportunity for a free stay at the Point Way Inn may not be open to Islanders, but another of Claudia’s recent projects is open to everyone, every day of the year: a seven-circuit, forty-foot-wide Cretan labyrinth. On Featherstone’s campus in Oak Bluffs, the labyrinth was built in 2007 by David Brown, Justen Ahren, and Justen’s landscaping crew. Unlike a maze, labyrinths are designed to be a spiritual or meditative experience, rather than a puzzle. “I wanted to build one because I think it is a fantastic meditative tour,” Claudia says. “You don’t need an invitation. It’s open to the public all the time.”
Although Claudia has not been able to bring all of the Island’s artists together, she has been able to bring many of the Island’s nonprofit and arts directors together. Every fall, the Point Way Inn hosts a dinner for the leaders of the groups that used the Point Way Inn that year, as a way of thanking them for enriching the culture of the Island.

“In the same way it’s important for the artists to exchange, it’s super important for the heads of the organizations to exchange,” Debbie says. The dinners have sparked some friendships and collaborations, and the beneficiaries were surprised again by Claudia’s generosity.

“Not only did they provide housing for some of the people who were helping us do what we do, but they provided us with a wonderful dinner to thank us for doing what we do,” says Julie Willett, executive director of Habitat for Humanity of Martha’s Vineyard. In 2006, Habitat for Humanity held a fundraiser with Lorraine Graves and Friends, featuring principal dancers from the Dance Theatre of Harlem. Some of the dancers stayed at the Point Way Inn.

As happy as Habitat for Humanity was with Claudia’s donation of Point Way Inn rooms, the Harlem dancers were probably happier. “I think the most important thing we’ve heard is that when [artists] travel, they never know where they’ll end up,” Claudia says. “So often, it’s a very casual and crowded situation – and here is an oasis.”