Written by Samantha Pinckney, Adjunct Professor, Dept. of Art and Art History, Eastern Connecticut State University
In response to the exhibition Sea and Stone: The Thimble Islands – Paintings by Arthur Yanoff on display at the Mattatuck Museum, June 3 – July 24, 2016.
“Sitting in the sound
With green water all around
Rugged pink granite mounds
Scoured by a glacier
Rise from the bay.
Tossed like seeds into the sea
By nature’s hand
In no concerted way.”
By Bob Milne
Beautiful places hold universal appeal. They enthrall and transfix. They are places where the wonders of nature are on full display. They inspire a person to take pause and beckon them to return to the scene again and again. The Thimble Islands is such a place. Halfway down the Connecticut coast, located on Long Island sound and situated just off the shoreline town of Stony Creek, rest the Thimble Islands. They consist of thirty inhabited islands and hundreds of rocky, granite outcrops. The thimbles were never commercially exploited, in part, because there are no deep channels into or out of the area. However, geologically, the islands have quietly carved out their significant corner of history.
The Thimbles and surrounding waters were not developed until the beginning of the “leisure revolution” which arose from the “industrial revolution” of the mid-18th to mid-19th centuries. The “Golden Age” of the Thimbles surged in the 1870s and peaked around the turn of the 20th century. At that time, the area was nicknamed the “Newport of Connecticut” and the venerable New York Yacht Club even held regattas in the main channel. Eventually, however, some very powerful world changing forces including World War One, the Great Depression and the Hurricane of 1938 (“The Great New England storm”) caused the islands to sink into obscurity. The 1980s and 1990s brought about a rebirth of the area and all the islands today have been revamped and fortified.
What makes the Thimbles and the town of Stony Creek so strikingly unique is a narrow vein of pink-colored granite that runs through town. The granite was discovered to be a highly durable and attractive stone which could be used in construction. In the mid-1800s the first quarries sprang up in town, as well as on some of the islands. Some famous examples of where the stone has been used include the Lincoln Memorial, the base of the Statue of Liberty, the base of the Brooklyn Bridge, Grand Central Terminal, the Soldier’s Monument at West Point, and South Station in Boston.*
The most striking feature of the Thimble Islands, then, is their geology. The islands consist of solid pink granite bedrock. Unlike other islands in Long Island Sound which are just glacial deposit and are eroding away with every storm, the Thimbles aren’t going anywhere for a very, very long time. The fact that their pink granite flowed from volcanoes that helped shape the planet gives one a feeling of permanence; an impression of longevity, of strength and endurance. The islands’ unique appearance is a result of both the golden, flesh tone of their rock formations and the thick vegetation that seems to spring from the solid stone. The immense solidity of this volcanic rock, that has withstood the test of time, contrasts markedly with the fluidity and variability of Long Island Sound that surrounds them.
I believe that it was this unique geology; the dichotomy between solid and fluid, opaque and transparent, surface and depth, movement and stillness that first drew Arthur Yanoff to the Thimbles. These images, though abstract, perfectly capture the spirit of the place that inspired them. In an image such as “Rogers’ Landing”, we sense the contrast between the solidity of the golden hued stone and the fluidity of the adjacent water. In “Submerged”, we are under the sea in the deep blue stillness, while in “Gull’s Catch”, by contrast, we sense the swirling movement of the water’s surface and the flapping of a gull’s wings as it soars and dives, looking for its morning meal. In still other images we are soaring over these islands dotting the sound, the wind whistling.
The remarkable abstract paintings by Arthur Yanoff on view in this exhibition may be seen as the culmination of the Romantic pictorial tradition that placed a premium on emotional expressiveness, broad loose brushwork and rich warm color. Nature seems to have functioned here not only to inspire his art but as a sort of surrogate religion for him, as evidenced by his willingness to submit himself completely to the beauty that surrounds him. In these images Yanoff seeks union with something larger than one’s self. He is concerned not with the mystery of individual feeling but with the mystery of a place. With these images he has unlocked the mystery of the Thimble Islands, much to the delight of his viewers.
*For the history and geology of the Thimble Islands included in this essay, I have relied on Bob Milne’s Thimble Islands Storybook, (2005), pp. 3-10.