Love comes alive on canvas with Orient man’s paintings

'Spring, Orient," 1997 by Skip Wachsberger

Stroll through Orient village and you’ll notice some unusual tropical plants popping up in local gardens. This summer, when the young shoots of these Basjoo banana plants are 15 feet high, they’ll toss their leafy manes and passers-by might just smile and say, “Hi there, Skip.”

Skip Wachsberger, a painter, writer and horticulturist who gave the banana pups to his neighbors, died Nov. 20, three months and a day after his marriage at Southold Town Hall to his longtime partner, Charles Dean.

“Clyde Phillip Wachsberger: Watercolors 1997-2011,” an exhibition of his paintings, curated by Mr. Dean in collaboration with Oysterponds Historical Society, pays tribute to a remarkable man.

“Friends and family came to his memorial in Orient from all over the country,” said Mr. Dean. “Everyone knew about his garden, but Skip was so modest that many were unaware of the extent of his achievements. With the publication of his book, and this show, everyone can better know his myriad talents.”

‘Clyde Phillip Wachsberger: Watercolors 1997-2011’
Saturday and Sunday, Jan. 21 and 22, 2-5 p.m., in Oysterponds Historical Society’s Swanson Gallery, Old Point Schoolhouse, Village Lane, Orient. 323-2480.

Mr. Wachsberger’s memoir, “Into the Garden with Charles,” was published privately last year as a limited edition of 150 copies. This April, publishers Farrar, Straus and Giroux will publish a trade edition of the book, with full-color reproductions of 13 watercolors by the author. Many of the original paintings are included in the exhibition.

Mr. Dean’s selections — some from his private collection, others borrowed from family and friends — link Mr. Wachsberger’s paintings to his memoir.

“Skip painted what he loved.” he said. “His garden, his family, friends and Rover [their Havenese dog] … he loved me and he loved Orient.”

Many of the modest-sized works, often no larger than the photographs that inspired them, recall snapshots from old family albums.

Mr. Wachsberger recreated the black and white images, their scalloped borders bent, black and white contrasts crackled and faded, into vivid watercolors on textured handmade paper.

“My memories color in emotions,” he wrote. “The moments I chose to paint are colored the way I remember them, or … remember being told about them, or the way I would like them to have been.”

To this end, he transformed an old photograph of himself as a toddler by framing the child in a profusion of sun-blanched grasses, backlit by summer’s searing light.

Mr. Wachsberger’s paintings are as masterful as they are unpretentious. A keen observer of details who felt keenly about the subjects he painted, he could translate an amateurish photograph into a wonderful work of art.

“Thanksgiving,” for example, portrays a young Skip, here about 8, sandwiched between his mother, his aunt and a green wrought iron lawn chair, like the ones in his Orient garden. In this revealing ’50s image of a little boy overwhelmed by forceful women, Skip’s mother carries a bowl that obscures part of Skip’s head.

Many images of Skip as a pre-teen in Florida reflect his love of the tropical plants he sought for his garden.

The paintings also hint at his early awareness of his homosexuality. “I’m probably watching a lifeguard through the rolled up magazine,” he wrote about “At the Pool, Florida.”

Mr. Wachsberger painted his many friends and relatives visiting Orient, absorbed in the vivid sights and scents in his garden, chatting on the back porch of his 18th-century home or sunning on his favorite beach at the end of Youngs Road. They include numerous images of Charles, often with him walking or gathering pebbles and rocks to add to their collection.

One hilarious painting, “Charles Crowned by Apollo in Adsworthy House Gardens,” features Charles clad in a Hawaiian shirt, greeted by a naked Apollo who places a laurel wreath on his straw-hatted head. Adsworthy House is the name the couple gave their home because they met through an ad.

“Skip loved Orient’s pristine landscape,” said Mr. Dean. His desire to see its natural beauty prevail shows in the uninhabited scenes he painted of Youngs Road, and the stilled tractors he depicted resting in their fields. Then there are his renowned botanical studies. Skip received the 2002 Garden Globe Award for his sumi ink illustrations for “Of Leaf and Flower,” an anthology he edited with Mr. Dean. He won the same award in 2011 for the illustrations in his current memoir.

Mr. Wachsberger greatly admired famed 19th-century painter and photographer William Steeple Davis, who preserved a sense of time and place. Mr. Wachsberger captured its essence in his own time.

“Almost everyone in Orient owns at least one painting by Skip, as locals own the works of Davis,” said Mr. Dean. “Hopefully, like Davis’ works, Skip’s will pass down through the generations, a reminder of this favorite son, whose legacy is in the paintings that evoke his love.”