Friday was a particularly grueling day for Joyce Holzapfel, who spent five hours interviewing four candidates for the William Steeple Davis Trust’s year-long artist-in-residence program — and that’s not just because the process took so long.
“It was difficult because there are so many good people who are all worthy,” said Ms. Holzapfel, an Orient resident who is one of six William Steeple Davis trustees. “And we’re still not finished. It’s a very hard decision.”
Founded in 1976 at the behest of painter and photographer William Steeple Davis, who died in 1961, the trust enables artists to live and work in Mr. Davis’ former home in Orient for one year. The King Street property, which is a short walk from Orient Harbor, comprises a modest six-room house and separate studio. Artists live rent-free but are responsible for their own utilities.
“It’s a wonderful opportunity for an artist if you can handle the ‘rustic living’ part of it,” said photographer and current artist-in-residence Sarah Prescott. “The house, let’s be real, is not insulated the best. The windows in the kitchen don’t open. But I overlook it.”
Each residency begins Oct. 15 and ends Oct. 1 of the following year. During that period, artists are encouraged to work full-time on their cultural pursuits.
“To give artists the freedom to experiment, even if it’s only for a year, is wonderful,” said Amy Folk, collections director at Oysterponds Historical Society in Orient. “And I think it’s just great that Orient, as a community, continues to support it.”
A ‘DILIGENT AND OBSESSIVE’ ARTIST
Born in 1884, William Steeple Davis was a lifelong Orient resident, according to the historical society. The organization is currently hosting an exhibition of Mr. Davis’ work that focuses on his paintings and photographs of the hamlet from the first half of the 20th century.
“He had a lot of natural talent and he explored it not only in painting but in photography,” said Ms. Folk. “He did a lot of commercial work, too, selling art to magazines. For a guy who grew up on the North Fork and spent most of his life there, he really was extraordinarily talented.”
In a 1999 Suffolk Times article entitled “The Search for William Steeple Davis,” reporter Liz Wood implied that little was known about the personal life of one of the East End’s “most diligent and obsessive artists.”
“Who was William Steeple Davis?” she wrote. “What’s known is that he was an only child born in Orient and educated at home by his mother; that he had a speech impediment, was often ill, had few close friends, never married, lived with his mother and never left Orient until she died in 1950.”
While these things are all true, Ms. Folk said, Mr. Davis’ seemingly reclusive existence afforded him the opportunity to hone his artistic abilities in a way that might not have been possible otherwise.
“His family really made sure he could nurture his gift and they gave him the strength to do it,” she said.
Since 1980, 32 artists working in mediums including painting, sculpture, writing and music have been selected as the trust’s artists-in-residence. Some, like Olinka Broadfoot of Shelter Island (2002), have been local. Others have come from far afield, like Joan and Ron Druett (1994 and 1995, respectively), who moved from New Zealand to accept the residency.
The majority of artists, however, have hailed from New York City. Carol Halliburton, a plein air painter who was the 1992 artist-in-residence, was working at a fine furniture restoration company in Manhattan when she heard about the trust.
“A couple of little old ladies who lived across the street from a friend of mine in Orient were having friends over for tea and it just came up in conversation,” said Ms. Halliburton, who has lived in Greenport since 1996. “No one actually knew anything about it, but the women had lived there all their lives and possibly even knew William Steeple Davis.”
Motivated by the prospect of being able to focus solely on painting for an entire year, Ms. Halliburton decided right away to apply for the residency.
“My friend and I just looked at each other and said, ‘Oh, yeah. You’ve got to try this, Carol,’ı” she said. “Because I was enchanted, of course, by the area.”
During her time in Orient, Ms. Halliburton said, she produced around 100 pieces of art.
“It was a life-changer,” she said. “For an artist, getting a residency is an important step on your résumé. It gives you an opportunity to paint every day.”
Orient, Ms. Prescott added, is an ideal place to work.
“The light that happens here is magical for artists,” the Ossining, N.Y., native said.
Ms. Prescott, who suffered a stroke and traumatic brain injury several years ago, has spent much of her residency preparing for her photographic exhibition “GetPaused,” which will be presented in early August at Riverhead’s JumpstART event.
“I had to rebuild my life,” she said of her decision to apply for the residency while recovering from multiple health problems. “This gave me that chance.”
AN ENDURING LEGACY
In a few months, the trust’s newest artist-in-residence will embark upon a 50-week adventure in the North Fork’s easternmost hamlet.
Ms. Holzapfel and the other trustees have yet to determine who that person will be, but one thing is certain: They will honor Mr. Davis’ vision for as long as humanly possible.
“We want to continue to be able to offer a respite for artists and be able to maintain the house and grounds — and continue his legacy,” she said.
(1) Sarah Prescott, the current artist-in-residence, hangs her photographs in the Orient studio. (Credit: Rachel Young)
(2) William Steeple Davis in a 1909 self-portrait. (Credit: Oysterponds Historical Society)
(3) Under the terms of a trust, William Steeple Davis’ home and studio in Orient now serve as rent-free working and living space for a different artist each year.