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Plein Air
by Deborah Fries : Editorial Board Member, Terrain.org

Days of Grace on Rutherford Island


Ellen Vincent.
Ellen Vincent, taken in South Bristol, Maine, c. 2002.
Photo courtesy South Bristol Historical Society and Vincent family.

Like turquoise seamounts, islands emerge in our collective imagery of escape and transformation.  In film, print, and dreams, we arrive involuntarily at islands where we are lost, deserted, thrown together with strangers, swept away.  Or we seek them out—longed-for places where we can escape toxic modernity and be restored.  In solitary retreat on private islands, we watch the sun rise through the pines, listen to the loon’s cry, and are healed in our isolation.  Shipwrecked, we fall madly in love with another castaway.  On the island, inevitably, we are changed.

In 1997, Ellen Vincent took a sabbatical from the art institute where she taught, and the Milwaukee suburb of Whitefish Bay, where she lived, to spend three months on Rutherford Island, Maine.  She already loved Maine, had visited before and admired its people and their traditions of working the land and sea.  She appreciated its natural beauty—especially its waters.  She loved it as an outsider, as someone who idealizes both a place and its people.  Ultimately, her love would be reflected.

Ellen’s path to Rutherford Island was charted by friends, strangers, and happenstance.  In 1993, while in summer residence at the Watershed Center for the Ceramic Arts in Newcastle, she took a closer look at a developing interest, and with a liberating shift in focus, began a new project that would change her work and outsider status.

For years, she’d been collecting vintage photos, compelled to rescue certain faces peeking out of cabinet cards and tintypes—paper ephemera that had become detached not only from their families, but also from all narrative context.  The faces would beckon to her from their flea market bins and Ellen would take them home, arrange them with old postcards and antique household and fishing artifacts until she’d given them the dignity of context, however fictional.  Through her assemblage, word bits, cookie cutters, and sepia portraits could evoke an emotional semblance of history.

South Bristol's Merrill House, 1993.
South Bristol's Merrill House, 1993.
Photo by Ellen Vincent, courtesy Tilbury House, Publishers.

But that summer, Ellen considered a new long-term project: instead of creating vignettes made with found objects, she would drill down into the real history of a town and its people, would salvage and document the story of a single community.  It would be, as she put it, still a purely working town, not given over to tourism, a place where the families were part of a generations-old continuum.  

She found such a place before summer’s end and her return to Wisconsin: South Bristol, Maine, a town so defined and integrated by the sea and marine occupations that its municipal boundaries hold in both Rutherford Island and a chunk of mainland.  South Bristol fit Ellen’s criteria, and in the time she had remaining in her Watershed residency, she began to meet and speak to members of the old families, to boatbuilders, fishermen, and shopkeepers, who defied their reputation as a closed community by inviting her in.

For the next few years, Ellen returned to South Bristol each summer as her project coalesced and grew.  The people of South Bristol continued to welcome her and share their stories.  If Tell me your story is the most seductive phrase in our language, as some journalism prof once told me, Ellen knew how to open the town’s heart. 

The tradition bearers, as she called them, welcomed her into their living rooms, allowed her to collect more than 70 hours of oral history, put their photo albums into her trusted hands, and guided her through extant and lost arts.  They told her about bottom fishing, seining, drying and mending nets, building pogy steamers, extracting oil from menhaden, shucking clams, and smoking herrings.  They shared tales of caulking wooden vessels, launching schooners, shipwrecks, lost lives, deep snows, and big storms.  They told her about how the old-timers who found stones when cleaning hake knew a storm was coming, that it was a fact that the fish swallowed them for ballast.  They described how to prepare dandelion greens, young raspberry shoots, bog onions, and fiddlehead ferns. 

Passionate about her project and the people of South Bristol, Ellen taped their stories and made over 500 copy negatives of their photos.  In Ellen Vincent’s hands, their recollections became a 258-page book, Down on the Island, Up on the Main (South Bristol Historical Society & Tilbury House, 2003).  As Dave Andrews, a South Bristol resident and Ellen’s friend, says, “Ellen Vincent created a photo album for an entire community.”

Main Street South Bristol postcard.
Main Street South Bristol postcard No. 48, c. early 1900s.
Photo courtesy South Bristol Historical Society.

In its forward, she writes: This is truly a collective memory of place, spoken in the words of its people.  Their strength of character and unflagging humor have carried them through many decades, and it shows through in the cadence of these tales.  Idyllic at times, at other times laden with hardship, this was a place where self-sufficiency was a virtue and neighbors were as family.  It has been my good fortune to have been entrusted with gathering and assembling these recollections, and to now have the opportunity of sharing them in this book.  In these pages I hope to share some of my good fortune with the reader.  Through the images and rich memories, and with the words of these remarkable people, I hope to take you back in time to a place called South Bristol—back to those days of grace on the coast of Maine.”1

Ellen continued to revisit those days, honoring them through “installations”—arrangements of photos, drawings and artifacts accompanied by audio—that would be exhibited in two showings in Maine and one in Milwaukee.  She worked with middle school children in South Bristol, engaging them in their own oral history project.  She held up a mirror to a community to show them who they were, how admirable she found them, and in return, they trusted and admired her.

Photographer, sculptor, professor, oral historian—Ellen Vincent, a petite city woman whose background was unlike their own, had made the effort to come into their world, and the people of South Bristol loved her for it. They found her to be a patient, good listener, whose authentic interest in them revived their interest in their own historical society.  In August 2003, in a ceremony of mutual adoption, the selectmen made her South Bristol’s first honorary citizen.

View of Elliot's Cove from Anodyne House.
View of Elliot's Cove from the gardens of Anodyne House, where Ellen Vincent often stayed in South Bristol.
Photo courtesy Dave Andrews.

Although she longed to live there full-time, the sabbatical on Rutherford Island, annual visits, and time spent at Dave and Betsy Andrews’ Anodyne House were days of grace that could not be sustained.  Tethered to Milwaukee by a recurrence of breast cancer, Ellen drifted away from the coast of Maine, even as her good friends there continued to call and send cards.

In February 2007, Ellen Vincent died in hospice care in Boca Raton, Florida, near family and water. 

Four months later, I visited my former neighbors, Deane and Sarah Nesbitt, in their new home in western Massachusetts.  Ellen and the Nesbitts had moved from Maryland to Wisconsin in 1989, caught up in a faculty migration.  Although they stayed there for 18 years, buoyed by their close friendship, Milwaukee never felt like home to them.

We’d all left Wisconsin.  And as we sat in the Nesbitts’screened-in porch on a July afternoon, we talked about the moves we’d made in the past 20 years, hoping to find the house, the town, the state that felt right.  We talked about Ellen’s journey.  Her recollected history of South Bristol, with its watery blue cover, lay on the antique chest in front of us.  It was proof of how some of us can and do earn that state of grace.  Of how we lose ourselves and find our places.


Deborah Fries works in multiple genres—including poetry, short fiction, and nonfiction. Her poems and poetry reviews have appeared in numerous print and online journals, including Cream City Review, North American Review, Cimmaron Review, Valparaiso Review, and Terrain.org, where she has been a contributor since 2000. Her first book of poetry, Various Modes of Departure, was published in 2004 by Kore Press, Tucson. Her second book, A Field Guide to Temporal Habitat, will also be published by Kore. She is the editor of the online publication, New Purlieu Review.
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Maine Folk Life Center

Maine’s Island Institute

Maine Memory Network

South Bristol, Maine

South Bristol Historical Society

Watershed Center for Ceramic Art


End Notes

1. Ellen Vincent, Down on the Island, Up on the Main (South Bristol Historical Society & Tilbury House, 2003)  pp. xi, xii.



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