Last summer, my mother came across this photograph of the painter and longtime seasonal Vineyard resident Thomas Hart Benton while rummaging in her house on Menemsha Pond. It was taken in the summer of 1960 by my father, Wally Scheuer (who died in 2004), on his motorboat, either on Menemsha Pond or the Vineyard Sound.
My parents and paternal grandparents were friends and neighbors of the Bentons, with adjoining properties straddling the then-Chilmark-Gay Head town line just east of Herring Creek. I remember the artist, who died in 1975, and his wife Rita, who always waved cheerily to us while clamming off their beach.
The Benton house has been rented at times to relatives — in recent years to one of my sisters, and I myself rented Benton’s studio for several summer months in the late 1990s. While there, I could imagine Benton, a half century or so earlier, painting with his protégé (and sometime babysitter for his son, T.P.) Jackson Pollack. It was around that time that my grandparents, after renting in Gay Head, bought their compound at the west end of Chilmark, and my parents turned a fishing camp overlooking the pond into a family home.
I also remember seeing T.P., though we never met. He would sometimes sail on the pond in his homemade boat — but only in bad weather, typically right after a big storm, when the wind was whipping up whitecaps and no one else was afloat.
In recent years, I rented a farmhouse on Middle Road previously owned by a Benton pal and fellow painter, Denys Wortman. On a visit to the New Britain Museum of American Art (recounted in the Gazette in 2006), I discovered the dueling portraits that Benton and Wortman did of each other on Benton’s dare. Hanging between the reciprocal portraits, like a diminutive referee separating two prize fighters, was a lovely small landscape of Menemsha Pond by Jackson Pollock.
For me, the newfound photo (shown here after restoration) conjures a lot of family history on the pond: the crusty, extroverted artist with his cigar; my father and his love of photography, boats, and Vineyard waters; and the adjoining land that the two families have lived on across the generations. The shot also brings to mind a plaque I once saw marking the site of a defunct Alaska mining camp, which read: “Life Here Was Good.”
Jeff Scheuer lives in New York and West Tisbury