While artists-in-residence at the Heliker-LaHotan Foundation on Great Cranberry Island in 2009, photojournalist Rebecca Buyers and artist Janet Best Badger teamed up to chronicle the lives and visages of a group of islanders.
While Badger drew their portraits, Buyers interviewed them. Their project gained attention and admirers through exhibitions at the Great Cranberry Island Historical Society, the Maine State House, and College of the Atlantic.
Fourteen or so years later, the result of their collaboration is available in print form in The Great Cranberry Island Portrait Project. With a vintage map of Great Cranberry on the cover the slim book combines image and text to present some of the hearts and souls of this sparsely populated island, the largest of the Cranberry Isles.
With the exception of seven-year-old Sofie Dowling, all of the subjects were older islanders. A number of them have passed on since they sat for their interviews and portraits, making this collection something of a memorial.
“Dependent on human memory and the spoken word, [the stories] are not folklore, not gossip, not hearsay, not rumor,” writes Buyers. Indeed, the 12 islanders share stories that are often very personal and forthright.
Charlene Allen, for example, is candid about the abuse she suffered at the hands of her husband after he returned from four years in Vietnam.
“You never knew whether he was going to hit you or not so we ended up divorced,” she told Buyers.
The drowning in Spurling Cove of 15-year-old Elroy Alley in the 1940s is mentioned several times. As Annie Alley tells it, the teenager wanted to lobster but the battery in his boat was dead. Against the advice of some older fishermen, he decided to row out with a new battery in bad weather. When the Coast Guard found his body, Alley relates, he “still had the battery in his hands.”
Badger’s portrait of Annie Alley captures her signature smile and a kind of sadness in her eyes. For those of us who knew Annie, the likeness is bound to conjure both delight and grief: she died in 2014.
Wesley “Junior” Bracey (1938-2021), a legend of lobstering on the island, relates how a gigantic anchor came to be an island landmark in front of his house on the main road. Retrieved off Big Duck Island, the 12-foot long behemoth, with its 14-foot-long “stalk,” weighed about five and half tons. “The British made it,” Bracey told Buyers. “It had to be a Man o’ War or a privateer.”
Many of the portraits highlight the ingenuity of the islanders. Eva Galyean left Great Cranberry in 1953 to go to high school and returned to live full-time in 2000. In addition to being the island’s post-mistress, she created a cottage industry fashioning some of her brother Junior Bracey’s discarded floating fishing line—“outlawed due to risk of entangling whales,” writes Buyers—into door mats.
“Sewing kept me from going insane,” Ruth Westphal noted. “During the Bush administration, when I got really worked up, I’d go and make potholders and I’d be OK.” She reported selling 280 of them at Polly Bunker’s Whale’s Rib shop, enough to pay her taxes.
Lita Pauline “Polly” Bunker (1927-2022) could not be persuaded to be interviewed for the project despite the author’s and artist’s best efforts, which included making several purchases at her shop. They also missed Michael “Mickey” Macfarlan (1925-2018) due to health issues. He lived in the historic Preble House for 55 years and was an iconic island figure, soft-spoken and wise.
At one point Sofie Dowling was the only child on Great Cranberry.
“There are fewer people that are my age that I can play with,” she tells Buyers. When asked what her favorite time of day is, she replied, “I like it in the summer when you can go to bed with the light still coming through the window.”
How fortuitous that Buyers, a seasoned journalist, and Badger, a fine portraitist and printmaker, should meet up on Great Cranberry to make this record of some of the island’s most beloved residents. As they identified each islander with a defining characteristic—Alley was “constant,” Bracey “salty,” Galyean “adventurous,” etc.—the two deserve their own: brilliant.
The Great Cranberry Island Portrait Project is available at www.blurb.com/bookstore.
Carl Little’s most recent book is Mary Alice Treworgy: A Maine Painter (Marshall Wilkes).