Stepping Out

An artist’s touch: Observations of a life on the water at Heckscher Museum


Come aboard! The life and times of the artist pair Arthur Dove and Helen Torr are the focus of Heckscher Museum’s newest exhibit, “Salt Life: Arthur Dove and Helen Torr.” Before settling down in their Centerport cottage, the couple lived on a sailboat — the Mona — in and around the North Shore during the 1920s and 1930s. Captivated by the nature around them, Torr and Dove channeled their fascination into their modernist art.

In July 1924 when Dove and Torr sailed into Huntington Harbor aboard their 42-foot yawl, they could not have anticipated the extent to which Long Island’s North Shore would inspire some of their greatest paintings. Dove, a native of Geneva, and a Cornell graduate had achieved early recognition in the avant-garde art world for the abstract paintings he had created 14 years earlier, the first by an American artist. An accomplished illustrator, Dove had spent several years farming in Westport, Conn., finding little opportunity to paint. Born in Philadelphia and trained at Drexel Institute and at the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts, Torr met Dove in Connecticut around 1919. Recognizing kindred spirits in each other, the two artists eventually left their unhappy marriages to sail the waters of Long Island Sound together.

For years, they lived and painted on their boat before settling at what is now the Dove/Torr Cottage in 1938. Located on the banks of picturesque Titus Mill Pond, their 500-square-foot home’s surroundings provided the subject matter — light, wind, water, and sand — for some of the couple’s most inspired artworks.

The exhibit marks the 25th anniversary of the museum’s acquisition of their property, a mere three miles away. It’s listed on the National Register of Historic Places and is a member of the Historic Artists’ Homes and Studios (HAHS) program of the National Trust.

Dove and Torr were avid visitors to the museum throughout the years. “It’s a unique show because while museums across the country showcase the works of Dove and Torr, no one else can do it in the place that lived and inspired their art,” Karli Wurzelbacher, the museum’s chief curator, says. “We want to continue to champion their work.”

The couple’s connection to Long Island’s natural environment, their experimentation with materials and techniques, and the impact of Dove’s declining health on their art is explored. Of the 80 artworks on view, half are new to the museum through a partnership with the Amon Carter Museum of American Art (in Texas).

“Many of these are Arthur Dove’s watercolors that have never been on view in this area or haven't been here for decades and won’t be back again soon,“ Wurzelbacher says. Archival materials such as paints, paintbrushes, and art books that the artists used are also on display.

Additionally, an exhibit’s digital component offers visitors another glimpse of the artists. An outdoor soundwalk around the cottage property (accessed by downloading the Bloomberg Connects app) connects everyone to Torr and her artistic inspiration — part of a larger community project. “When people go on the soundwalk you hear students reading excerpts from Helen Torr’s letters and diaries. You also hear the sound like the wind blowing and ducks quacking and water running,” Wurzelbacher explains. “We’ve never done this before.”

It came about through a summer learning program in which middle school girls from Westbury and Huntington participated in a week-long “camp” with artist Susan Buroker. “I did projects with them every day. We drew, did model printing, sculpture, collage, we used native fish to do fish printing,” Buroker says.

With assistance from sound engineer Evangeline Knell, the participating students were also involved in capturing the natural environment with sound technology equipment.

“What’s interesting is to think historically why Arthur Dove has been celebrated and recognized and why Helen Torr was less celebrated and recognized, she adds. “Some of these reasons have to do with challenges that women artists faced in the 20th century and some of it had to do with the circumstances of their (Dove/Torr’s) life. Arthur Dove had a severe illness.”

For Buroker, who was inspired to create a sculpture symbolizing Helen Torr, on display in front of the cottage, her involvement offers an important message: “If you're inspired by art, it’s important to learn history … The girls became so empowered with themselves about how important it is to be educated and to have your own path.”