A harbor scene by Northeast Harbor artist Wini Smart, who is celebrating 50 years of painting on Mount Desert Island. IMAGE COURTESY OF SMART STUDIO

The wonderful world of Wini! Smart Studio celebrates 50 years



If someone were to confer the title “painter laureate of Mount Desert Island” on a visual chronicler of its rocky coast, quiet lakesides, woodsy streams, cloud-shadowed mountains, gentle hills, dainty wildflowers, fancy gardens, sunlit coves, foggy harbors, clapboard cottages and shingled mansions, Wini Smart would unquestionably be among the top contenders.

Wini Smart. IMAGE COURTESY OF SMART STUDIO

This accomplished artist, who works primarily in watercolor, has been traipsing about MDI, Acadia and the outer islands with her easel and box of paints for the past half century. In doing so, she has captured with her light, spare brushstrokes a uniquely personal perspective of the beauty she finds there. Smart’s studio gallery on Main Street in Northeast Harbor has been something of a Mecca for those who want to take home a little piece of this place when they leave, or a piece of the summer season when it leaves.

Many of those “pieces” of summer and favorite scenes that now grace the walls of private homes and businesses throughout the country will return to Northeast Harbor for a retrospective show celebrating the 50th anniversary of the opening of Smart Studio. It will be held at the Northeast Harbor Library’s Mellon Room throughout the month of July. A reception is planned for July 20, from 5-7 p.m.

“When I first opened the studio in 1967, I thought I’d remember every painting I sold,” said Smart. “But in truth, I have painted and sold so many since – sometimes 50 a year – I have forgotten most of those early ones. So, it will be fun for me, too, to see them again.”

While she still paints when a troublesome back allows, Smart, now in her 80s, has passed on the operation of Smart Studio and, to a large extent, her artistic mission, to her daughter Gail Cleveland. Cleveland also is a gifted landscape artist and a former MDI year-rounder who has taken on the task of capturing the beauty of this place in all its seasons. Her winter wonderland landscapes and seascapes join her mother’s beach roses and sunlit harbors on the gallery walls.

Cleveland recalled how, when her mother first brought her and her four siblings to MDI, they would tag along to Smart’s favorite scenic spots. They would play, explore or fish while their mother painted.

It all sounds idyllic. And Smart’s paintings, which capture all the light, breezy happiness of those sojourns, would seem to be proof that the Smart family has been unusually blessed with good fortune.

But in truth, the only enduring blessings bestowed on Smart at birth were a pair of cornflower blue eyes that, despite some devastating tragedies in her life, have never lost their ability to see and appreciate beauty. She also was bestowed with a pair of hands to translate all that she sees with the world. And, oh yes, a good head for business.

As a New Jersey teenager, Smart lost both her parents and a sister in a horrific car accident, leaving her, with the help of a couple of aunts, to care for a mentally handicapped 7-year-old sister. By that time, Smart already was pursuing her artistic talents. Having that alternative focus was vital in getting through that dark time.

It was one of her aunts, Winifred Pearce, for whom she was named, who introduced Smart to Maine, first Rockland and later camping excursions on MDI.

Smart said she showed an interest and aptitude for art at age three and has a vivid memory of her first box of paints she got for her 10th birthday.

But she credits her uncle Edgar Pearce for introducing her to plein air painting, which became her signature style.

“It’s funny that while he taught me a lot by example” Smart recalled “He never really gave me a lesson or critiqued my work, just let me follow him around and do my thing.” She later received formal training at the Philadelphia Museum School of Art.

IMAGE COURTESY OF SMART STUDIO

In 1964, as a young New Jersey wife and mother, Smart started blending the place she had grown to love with her artistic talent by bringing her brood to Bar Harbor in the summer.

“We couldn’t afford to buy anything on the island, even back then” Smart recalled, so my husband Mike Diehl and I bought a houseboat for $2,000. I’d paint outdoors and sell my paintings at outdoor art shows.”

The following summer, the Smart family moved their whole operation to Northeast Harbor. In 1967, she found a little storefront to rent as a studio and gallery.

For the next 12 years or so, the Smart’s continued their houseboat life, an experience Gail said, despite the cramped quarters and no running water or electricity, she wouldn’t trade for anything.

“Actually, the village raised us,” Gail recalled. “We’d row ashore and spend the whole day running around town. We just had to be home before dark.”

As they got older, the Smart kids took turns helping out in the gallery so Wini Smart could paint.

Eventually, they had to move on shore when new environmental concerns made it illegal to dump waste overboard. The Smarts bought an old bank building that offered more gallery space and had a large apartment upstairs.

Wini Smart painting on the shore of Somes Sound in 1980. PHOTO COURTESY OF JEFF DOBBS PRODUCTIONS

The Smart Studio was a success from the get go.

The pretty blond artist with the cornflower blue eyes – whose husband was most often back in New Jersey running his own business – was apparently as big a new attraction in town as the paintings she hung on the walls of her gallery.

“Oh yes, the fellows would wander over to chat after they got their newspapers at McGraths, next door,” Smart recalled. “And often, feeling a little guilty, maybe, they’d take home a painting for their wives.”

If her good looks and vivacious personality was responsible for some of those early sales, without doubt, her talent and business savvy nourished that success. Those attributes helped sustain her emotionally for the next 50 years, which as time does to all, meted out its share of both great sorrows and great joys.

Eventually, Smart and her second husband, Jack Wallace, were able to buy a shorefront home on Great Cranberry Island. In addition to many other civic endeavors, she was instrumental in raising funds to transform a derelict building into an island history museum and cultural center. She found another beautiful place to live and paint in the winter months in Boca Grande, Fla., where she opened a second gallery.

More recently, Smart has been spending summers in Southwest Harbor with husband number three, Fred Quackenbush, where they are not at the whim of ferry schedules – a big consideration for octogenarians.

Smart said she is proud at how her daughter Gail has carried on what she began 50 years ago and, perhaps even more importantly, has made her own.

“We’ve taken many, many painting trips together over the years, and it’s been a thrill to watch her evolve as an artist with her own distinct voice.”

Perhaps that is how her own uncle Edgar felt nurturing her own burgeoning talent as a youngster and wondering where it would take her.

That question is eloquently answered daily at the Smart Studio at 137 Main St. in Northeast Harbor, where one can still see and buy a Wini Smart original or print. But the creative journey of this much-admired artist is what the 50th anniversary celebration retrospective show at the Northeast Harbor Library is all about.

 

 

 

Nan Lincoln

Nan Lincoln

The former arts editor at the Bar Harbor Times writes reviews and feature stories for The Ellsworth American and Mount Desert Islander.

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