Ellen Liman has long had a love affair with Martha’s Vineyard — in particular with Vineyard beaches, Vineyard Sound and Vineyard flowers. But her love affair is more than that of the usual seasonal visitor. She’s been coming to the Island for 22 years. Each day she takes out her oil paints and canvases and, in vivid colors, reproduces for Island walls and the walls of Vineyard-loving off-Islanders what she sees in nature.
This afternoon, from 5 to 7, the opening of a new show of her work — Sunflowers of Martha’s Vineyard — is being held at the Louisa Gould Gallery in Vineyard Haven as part of Inspiration, women painters on Island, which also features exhibitions by Sheri Blalock, Kate Huntington and Leslie S. Smith. It will continue until Aug. 14. Some of the sunflowers Mrs. Liman has painted are the usual yellow and brown. But others are maroon or pink or white. Sometimes they are in full bloom. Sometimes they are fading. She takes delight in each aspect of each flower and selects them with care at the West Tisbury Farmers’ Market.
“The prefect sunflower,” she says, “is less interesting to me than the sunflower later on in its life — perhaps drooping, perhaps with no petals, perhaps with the underpinnings of the flower showing.”
Ellen Liman first came to the Island with her late husband, Arthur, in the 1980s when a friend, Judge Abraham Sofaer, husband of longtime Chilmark visitor Marion Scheuer Sofaer, extended an invitation. The 1980s were a busy and exhausting time in the Limans’ lives. In 1985, Arthur Liman, a member of the New York city law firm of Paul, Weiss, Rifkind, Wharton & Garrison had just successfully represented Pennzoil in a case against Texaco as both sought control of Getty Oil. Then, two years later, Mr. Liman was counsel to the U.S. Senate Select Committee overseeing the investigation and subsequent hearings into the Iran-Contra scandal. The committee had been established to determine whether the administration was involved in selling arms to Iran and using monies gained from the sale to support anti-Communist activities in Nicaragua. So it was good to be able to get away to Martha’s Vineyard.
Soon, through another friend, the late Beverly Sills, the Limans had located a little house on the Makonikey shore being rented each August by its owner, Ann McHale. It was just right for them. It was a two-story house with a two-story deck and, under the deck, Ellen Liman set up a studio. Directly in front of her were sand and Sound and beach grass, sunsets and sky and clouds. Except in the very worst of weather, she could happily paint there while her husband fished or worked or golfed at Farm Neck. All three Liman children — Doug, now a film director-producer (The Bourne Identity, Swingers and Mr. and Mrs. Smith are among his credits); Lewis, now a New York litigation attorney; and Emily, now a professor of neuroscience at the University of Southern California in Los Angeles — were away studying, so a modest shorefront cottage was quite big enough for their parents’ summer getaways. (There was, however, room enough for Emily, then a Harvard graduate student working summers in Woods Hole, to weekend with her parents.) Although Ellen Liman has spent July at the Blacksmith Valley, Chilmark property of her son, Doug, she will be back at Makonikey next week.
But the view of windswept grasses and Squibnocket Beach and the white combers of the ocean that she has from their Chilmark aerie is hardly to be sneezed at. There, Ellen Liman has converted a greenhouse into her studio.
A native New Yorker, Ellen Fogelson Liman has painted almost as long as she can remember. After studying in city schools, she went on to Pembroke College in Providence, R.I., because of the possibility of taking courses at the Rhode Island School of Design. But she returned to New York to graduate from Barnard College and begin a career as an interior designer. When her children were young, she was designing and writing books about design. Decorating Your Country Place, The Space Maker Book, The Moneysaver’s Guide to Decorating and Baby Space were among them.
Of a slightly different genre was The Collecting Book that grew out of the passion her son, Lewis, had as a child for collecting campaign buttons.
“Soon Arthur and I became collectors, too. We were particularly taken with 19th-century American board games. I was interested in them because of the design of the boards and the boxes.” She and her husband, Ellen Liman says, would “escape” for the weekend to flea markets and antiques shows in search of vintage games. They bore names like Every Man to His Station, Mansion of Happiness, Bulls and Bears, The Messenger Boy. Many of them taught lessons. The Messenger Boy could bicycle his way to the top of the company. The point of Bulls and Bears was how to avoid the perils of Wall Street investing. Mrs. Liman has now given their collection of several hundred such games to the New York Historical Society and their collection of 19th-century children’s paperbacks has been given to the Brooklyn Historical Society.
Both Ellen Liman and her husband were always interested in supporting causes in which they believed. For many years, she was chairman of the New York City Commission for Cultural Affairs that oversaw the programs and activities of New York cultural organizations, seeking exhibition space and offices for nonprofit groups and advising them on how to publicize themselves. Mr. Liman was the founder and for 26 years the chairman of the Legal Action Center that fought discrimination against those with histories of drug and alcohol abuse, AIDS and criminal records. In 1971, he had been chief counsel for the New York State Commission investigating the bloody Attica Prison riots. His report on the investigation, which found that the police had been unnecessarily brutal in quelling it, was nominated for a National Book Award.
Even though there were many such trying times in her husband’s career, she kept on religiously doing her own work. “The time of the Iran-Contra hearings,” she recalls, “was one of my most productive times artistically. We rented a house in Georgetown that had a garden and a studio. I wasn’t allowed to speak with anyone about the case, of course, and my husband was so busy professionally that I just grabbed the time and worked. I did quite a few portraits then.”
On the Vineyard, Ellen Liman is a strong supporter, emotionally and financially, of the Vineyard Playhouse, The Yard, the Hebrew Center, the Farm Institute and the Martha’s Vineyard Film Festival. In Palm Beach, Fla., Where she has her own Liman Gallery, she makes a point of trying to acquire art from unknown artists “whose work is of substance and excellent quality. I abhor what is chic.”
Liman paintings are not only of sea and shore and flowers; her paintings of the New York cityscape are part of an exhibition of urban art opening August 9 at Pik-Nik on Dukes County avenue in Oak Bluffs. During New York winters, it is skyscrapers and skylines that she paints. The view from the studio of her 51st street and First avenue apartment is of the East River, Roosevelt Island, Long Island City and Queens.
What she chooses to paint, Ellen Liman explains, depends upon what is available. In winter, it may be a cityscape or a bowl of apples. At Makonikey, it might be that she would be fixated on the sky. On her Blacksmith Valley hilltop, it might be the Atlantic in the distance. Last year, it was sunflowers that captured her fancy. The subject matter is not what matters to Ellen Liman. What matters to this determined diminutive artist is that she never stops painting.
The artists’ reception for Inspiration is tonight from 5 to 7 p.m. at Louisa Gould Gallery on Main street in Vineyard haven. All are welcome. For details, call 508-693-7373.