More Than a Wildflower

Wed, 04/02/2014 - 5:49pm

Last week, in the cold of the Historical Society, looking at photographs on the wall for an unimaginable summer project, I found myself explaining a particular streetscape, one including the facade of the Odd Fellows' Hall, still recognizable for its simplicity.


When the Ragged Sailor Gallery, the creation of Eileen Lee and Diana Stevens, opened in that building it was something new and exciting. It was... new, in and of itself exciting in the 1960s, and it was a sort of boutique, with top billing given to original fashions and accessories. The ladies were generous and they were smart, showcasing their unique design talents in costumes for the school's Shakespearean plays, photographs of which grace the lobby of the Empire Theatre. A friend still recalls a dress her mother badly wanted, and her father managed to buy for her. Unlike those costumes it was simple, solid red with bright prints at the cuffs and cowl neck.


Ragged Sailor they called their venture, a nod to the blue chicory that grows along the roadsides, the wildflower with the long tap root that may be the only green in my yard on the driest August day. It is a bloom of early morning, bright before the sun has risen high and leached it of its color; it is brighter yet on cloudy days.


It was a bold undertaking, a big step up from what had been on Block Island. Eileen, an artist and graduate of RISD, and her husband, John, a photographer and sculptor, had established themselves with the Offshore Workshop in the front of their home halfway down Bush Lot Hill. Diana and her husband, Peter, a commercial illustrator and portrait artist whose highly recognizable work hangs in the Rhode Island State House gallery, moved here in 1963. Eileen was an Islander, Diana had grown up in Kenya; they shared music and art and the ultimate bond, teenage daughters.


Eileen's mother, Janet Littlefield, had a bakery in a rented space on the first floor of the Hall, historically retail space (Building Blocks today). The rest of the building was vacant, the upper floor meeting room and the third floor kitchen were just there. It was the same throughout Old Harbor, spaces, especially upper floors, sat empty and unused in the 1950's and 60's. It is a time easy to romanticize but it was, in truth, bleak.


The painting, sculpture and prints for which Ragged Sailor became known were the “small print” on the sign that hung between the second floor windows of the building, bought by Eileen and Diana before their own success might have priced them out. The pieces I remember most from the early days were the Lees' signature bird sculptures and drawings, and Sandy Swan's exquisite collages, images crafted from tiny pieces of wood, most if not all from/of the Highland House, the abandoned hotel next to her home on High Street.


The space, overlooking the harbor, was a jewel. It had been the ceremonial hall of the Odd Fellows and their sister organization, the Rebeccas, and the floors gleamed, the walls painted an traditional white drew in the light. It was high and airy and seemed to have been made to be a gallery, even the entrance, down an alley and up a wide flight of stairs, gave it a sense of apartness from the street below.


Jessie Edwards talks of the early days when she was a teenager painting birds on beach stones, riding by on her bicycle, smelling Janet's baking, and having Eileen call out to her “we need more owls!” She remembers the gallery being both “elegant and comfortable” where people were welcome instead of being “put off by fancy art.” Everyone brightens when asked about Ragged Sailor. Fraser Lang says it was a “a breath of fresh air,” a place to which he took visitors, where he and his new wife, Betty, bought a small painting in 1974. “We still have it” he adds with the pride so many share at having been privy to that time and place.


Jean Napier, who first came to work in the adjunct Country Store opened after Janet's Kitchen closed, moved upstairs when Eileen fell ill and became the long time gallery director and eventual co-owner with Marceline Mazzur. She recalls it was “a great space, and we had such great artists.”


They did, and the legacy of Eileen and Diana is far greater than those costumes for high school productions. Ragged Sailor evolved into “the” gallery on Block Island, not a component of a gift shop or a home studio. It was the leader, making accessible fine art and giving artists a venue that had not previously existed.


Eileen died in 1978, and the business was sold to Sim Atwood. She retained Jean, an unsung hero in Block Island's art world, who still speaks with justifiable pride of the artists she helped bring on board and watched prosper, as manager and then co-owner. Peter Gish was at Ragged Sailor; when a new work of Victor Mays came in such was the demand they held a sort of lottery for it. The list is long and Jean still recalls minute details of individual works.


A quick search of “Ragged Sailor Block Island” brings up many artists today represented by Jessie Edwards Studio. Among them is Diana's and Peter's daughter, Gillian, who creates spectacular wood collages depicting local buildings.


The gallery above Water Street was where Malcolm Greenaway's photographs first gained wide public recognition – after Malcolm had spent a winter as a carpenter with Bob Huggins creating the Ice Cream Place two floors down. It was the place from which Greenaway shot the old Yankee at the Interstate wharf, a view through old, wavy glass.


Later, Jean and Marceline moved to Chapel Cottage and continued Ragged Sailor into the 1990's, but the lack of that glorious space and the profusion of galleries for which their own had paved the way took their toll and the doors closed.


It is hard to imagine even those brave women who first gave Ragged Sailor life could have dreamed it would become the pivotal force it did, launching new artists, proving there was a market for well crafted art in various mediums. They were pioneers, they and their successors opened doors and the fact of their gallery is far more than just another little bit of Block Island trivia, its name more than a wildflower.