A Practical Visionary

Remembering Emily Muir: A city maverick who found her artistic inspiration in Stonington

I recall the day I met Emily Muir in 1975 clear as a bell. I was a graduate student collecting baseline ecological data on twelve Maine islands owned by the Nature Conservancy. Two of the islands were off Stonington’s shores and the organization’s trustees suggested a local resident and yachtswoman, Muir, might be willing to transport me out to the islands, where I could camp.

I drove down a long winding driveway opposite a lily pond to find Muir at a modest white clapboard house. I later learned she had designed it and carefully situated it amid massive shouldering granite outcrops. Muir greeted me and escorted me down the ramp of her dock, where she hopped into her 24-foot inboard-outboard Whaler, invited me aboard, throttled up, and navigated a winding course through the half-tide ledges of the Deer Isle Thorofare out to Wreck Island.

After we dropped anchor and rowed ashore, Muir and I walked up a trail to the height of land in an old field near an abandoned stone foundation surrounded by an encroaching army of cat spruce. We marveled at the views of the dark-domed, island-studded landscape stretching south to Isle au Haut’s spiky silhouette and then back north to the cheek-by-jowl jumble of Stonington’s busy working waterfront. Years earlier, Emily Muir had presciently begun buying and protecting these islands—eventually owning all or parts of five of them—because she knew how easily this landscape could be permanently altered by errant development.

Muir, a painter, had been inspired by these landscapes ever since her parents brought her to the area as a child in 1914. She donated her one-third interest in Wreck Island to the Nature Conservancy in the mid-1970s and rallied her neighbors and local citizens to raise the funds to buy and donate the remainder. When I returned ashore after  Wreck Island field work, Muir took me into her studio, where stacks of her canvases were lined up against the walls next to piles of clay from ceramics projects, clay figurines, and a wonderful assortment of sculptures by her husband, Bill Muir.

Emily Muir was born in Chicago and raised in New York City, but she found her true home in Maine. Like her neighbors in Stonington and Deer Isle, where she settled and spent her long and productive adult life, Muir was both visionary and practical. Beyond her work as an artist, sculptor, writer, designer, developer, conservationist, political activist, and community leader, she also dreamed of changing the world, and then doggedly chased her dreams into the bright light of day. Until she died at 99 in 2003, Muir was sharp-witted, but never sharp-tongued. She was kind and generous, but no one could ever tell this creative talent what to think.

Muir spent her first year of college at Vassar, but wanted desperately to study art full time After Muir appeared at a friend’s graduation ceremony dressed in men’s white knickers and men’s shoes, a disapproving dean suggested Muir leave Vassar College. Muir was happy to leave and enrolled the next fall in the Art Students League in New York City. Muir recalled the first critique of her painting in an Island Journal interview I did with her in 1987. “The instructor came around for the criticism and asked, ‘Did you paint that?’ I said, ‘Yes.’ ‘Don’t you ever feel anything?’ he asked. Oh, I felt something right then! It was as if the world had swallowed me.” The following week the model had a headache, and Muir vowed, “If I have to get a headache myself, I am going to put that headache on canvas.” The instructor came around again. “Did you paint that?” he asked. “Yes,” she said. “And he said, ‘Thank God.’ That stayed with me,” she said of the lesson, and that is the advice she often offered young artists. “Feel something,” she told them.

Muir met the sculptor Bill Muir at the Art Students League, and they married in 1928. When Muir’s mother found a piece of land at the eastern end of the Deer Isle Thorofare, Muir designed a house for her mother and father—even though she had never studied architecture. Shortly thereafter she designed a smaller studio and Cape on the shore for herself and Bill, where she would spend the remainder of her life.

In 1939, the Muirs moved permanently to Stonington to settle into a creatively inspired life of art, design, sculpture, local politics, and outdoor adventures. After Senator Margaret Chase Smith came to Stonington to give a lecture and stayed with Emily Muir’s parents, whom Muir referred to as “safely Republican,” the senator asked her to paint her official portrait for the Maine State House. In her 2002 autobiography, Time of My Life, Muir describes capturing both the senator’s hands in action, because her hands were never still. Smith is in a red dress with her signature red rose with a glimpse of the capitol dome and a figure of liberty in the background. The Maine Arts Commission asked for 23  changes, “all carefully listed,” suggesting the senator’s hands should be in repose, and that the capitol dome and liberty figure were not appropriate to the subject. Muir’s response to the commission’s request for changes was, “Go do it yourself.” The portrait now hangs in the senator’s private collection.

Margaret Chase Smith, for her part, convinced President Dwight Eisenhower to appoint Muir to the National Commission of Fine Arts in 1955. As Muir later wrote, she was “the first woman to serve in that capacity, and as I soon learned, in the minds of my colleagues, hopefully the last.” Muir found that her expected role was simply to remain quiet, and then to go along with decisions about artwork that had already been made by others. She suggested to her six male fellow commissioners, “It might be a good idea to reserve a certain percentage of the cost of any new government buildings to enrich and beautify them with art.” No one listened, but eventually the federal government and most states, including Maine, established Percent for Art programs beginning in the late 1970s, and Muir wrote, “Sometimes I tell myself that perhaps, just perhaps, I might have given it a start.”

The small Cape on the shore, where I originally met Muir and visited her until her death, became the center of her universe. In her Island Journal interview she said that designing houses came easier to her than her other artistic work. “In designing houses, I didn’t have anything to outgrow, as I did in painting and sculpture, so the buildings are more me. I could go into a house right away and see what I would do differently. When I’d hear of someone who was going to build, I’d practically throw myself at their feet and beg them to let me design their house. Of course, no one ever let me.”

In 1959, Bill Muir encouraged fellow members of the board of trustees for Haystack Mountain School of Crafts, then located in Liberty, to buy one of two pieces of land available in Stonington and relocate to the Maine coast. That was the spark Emily Muir needed. Her father had just died and left her a little bit of money. She said, “‘Bill, I am going to buy the other piece and build a house on it and someone is going to buy it.’ And I did.” That first house was on Crockett Cove, and it became one of 46 houses she designed or renovated during her long career, garnering rave reviews from critics and environmentalists, and earning her a Design International award.

Muir said her houses “turned out to be contemporary, but they are not copies of anything I ever saw. They are meant to fit the needs of the landscape.” Muir admired the proportions of old farmhouses on Deer Isle and Stonington, most of which are situated in old fields or along roads. Most everything she built, however, was on uneven or steep- sided ground near the shore. Muir’s houses, the majority of which are situated amid bold granite outcrops on the west-facing shore of Crockett Cove in Stonington, feature large glass facades with sweeping views of the daily surge and swash of the cove’s tides. “My idea,” she said, “was to make the approach friendly and leave the drama for the water side.”

While sitting in her living room overlooking Deer Isle Thorofare and reflecting on her long life in Stonington, Muir told me that what she appreciated most about her adopted homeland was that it kept her “out of contact with—I guess sophistication is the best word. The things that are ‘put on.’ It’s not that I hobnob a lot with the fishermen here, but I like them. They make me feel like there’s something solid about them.”

Her neighbors might not have initially known what to make of this unconventional woman who came to live among them, but they ultimately recognized in her fearless individualism a kindly, creative, and kindred spirit.