Dr. Lisa: Today’s theme as we mentioned previously is “Oceans and Islands.” We are fortunate to have Peter Ralston from the Ralston Gallery in Rockport, cofounder of the Island Institute here with us in the studio today. Hello Peter.
Peter: Good morning.
Dr. Lisa: Why are you so interested in islands? Why did you found something called the Island Institute?
Peter: Great question. I grew up in Chadds Ford, Pennsylvania, on the Brandywine River and right in front of our house the Wyeth family, Andy and Betsy Wyeth, owned a mill there and the dams that damned up the river to provide water to the mill made islands. These islands were 150 years old, artificial islands in the river, but they were magical places as kids.
As a kid and then in Florida with my grandparents we would poke around on boats and islands have always been really really magical places to me. There is that line. Who wrote the poem … “To have slept on an island, your life is changed forever. Once you have slept on an island you will never be the same again,” and there’s so much truth to it. I fetch up in Maine in 1978 totally from Hawaii and because of the friends who invited me here they had islands. They knew exactly what they were doing. They knew they were baiting me in. They knew about my island thing. I got to see some really extraordinary islands up close and personal. It all took me back to …
Here I am from away in my late 20s and the arrogance through the spirit and the energy of youth and so forth, but I was seeing the place having traveled a lot as a photojournalist, seeing a place that wasn’t really destroyed yet. I was seeing a place that wasn’t so irreparably changed like so many other places that I have seen and we’ve all seen beautiful places that have been ruined that the community, the heart, pulse, the mojo is gone and it’s all been suburbanized and homogenized. I had the naïveté, but certainly the optimism and the hope and Phillip Conkling, the two of us started the Institute. We met. He was from Nyack, New York, and like me, had seen his natal home totally trashed. You go over the Tappanzee Bridge, there’s Nyack.
Here we are in Maine back in real community and to me it was a homecoming.
It was really a homecoming. We got together over island work and it really took off from there. It was going from one island where we had very specific interests. This is off of Port Clyde and then starting to see other islands and then going to these uninhabited islands where you’d find seller holds, where you’d find rock walls, beautiful walls in the middle of 70, 80, 100-year-old spruce forests. The question inevitably becomes who was there? What were these communities? Then we learned that there were once 300 year round island communities off the coast of Maine. Today there are 14 or 15, depending on how you count them. If there had been that sort of loss in any natural community, snail darters or spotted owls, there are millions of federal dollars to protect that community and so forth.
Human communities, certainly out of sight, out of mind communities don’t get that kind of aid, don’t typically engender and that’s the economic reality. That’s the way it goes. All of that if this makes any sense, all of that comes together with us thinking, “Maybe we can actually do something.” What we saw happen elsewhere, not just our home towns, but all along the Atlantic coast of the United States there are very, there really are no other places like left, like we’ve got here in Maine, where there’s a coast-wide maritime culture still very much intact.
Dr. Lisa: The Island Institute was founded to do what?
Peter: Help sustain the year round working island and inevitably, the island communities, but also those communities at shore that are tied to the communities that sustain the communities. That’s a pretty broad statement and we didn’t constrain ourselves too much. We’re not a land preservation organization. We’re not a recreational organization, but it was about helping these little communities that have been here for a long time, but that now more than ever are really …
Of course, we were saying this back in ’83 and it’s just as true today now more than ever and certainly more now than even in ’83, the pressure is just so intense, the pressure that would wash away these communities where people have lived for 13 generations. There are families that have finished off the same shore side, the same wharfs and so forth for 13 generations in some places.
Genevieve: This brings us to the “Oceans” part of our show which is that the health of the oceans helps sustain some of these economies, these small island economies and that the over-fishing and the pollutants in the ocean are slowly degrading their livelihoods.
Peter: We’re lucky here in Maine. Pollution, with a few hotspots, is not a major issue. It’s management of the fisheries and governance of fisheries and what has been called the “tragedy of the commons.” Here’s the ocean. That’s the common.
It’s a common resource. If you look at the Maine Lobster Fishery, which is one of the most successful self-regulated fisheries in the world, it’s great. These guys, not to be gender inappropriate, but mostly guys who are out there doing the fishing, these communities have been really smart about regulating and making it work. Inevitably, state regulations, federal regulations come in, but the lobster fishery is very much a success story. When you talk to a fishermen last year it was absolutely a year of record landings. They never had landings like that.
At the same time, bait is way up and there are environmental and fishing regulatory reasons for that. Salt’s way up. Diesel is way up and that’s beyond anybody’s control. The lobster fish that is what holds the working harbors together. If the lobster fishery were to go south here in Maine, it would be a true tragedy. It would be a game changer. The offshore fisheries that’s a whole different story. That’s much more of a management issue and over-fishing. Over-fishing including extra national, other countries’ fleets coming in and very complex stuff. Indeed fisheries was one of the things the Institute has become very involved with here in Maine and then almost by default elsewhere. What we have learned here is what can be applied to islands here, there are lessons we can learn and share and that’s what community is. You are learning and sharing.
Shelley Pingray, who of course is from North Haven, Shelley’s great line years when we were starting the Institute. Shelley and I are pretty tight. Shelley’s great line then and it’s been a mantra throughout is, “Islands are really laboratories of community, models of community.”
Dr. Lisa: It’s the microcosm representing the macrocosm? It’s this whole sense that something that something smaller can represent something bigger
Dr. Lisa: … and be useful as to be studied?
Peter: Yeah. If you really look at it … Who was it, Joni Mitchell sang, “This little green garden planet in the darkness of space …” Here is life change for everybody when we first saw that Apollo image from the moon looking back at the earth. Here is this little garden planet, it’s like an island.
Dr. Lisa: You’re talking about financial, economic, use, sustainability. You are talking about a lot of really big issues. One of the things that fascinates me about your interaction with the Island Institute is how you have drawn people in to support the Island Institute and that comes from your background in photojournalism.
Peter: I think what’s really drawn people to the Institute’s work is passion for place.
Dr. Lisa: Some of this “passion for place,” you cannot deny the impact of your photography and the photography of the islands in bringing people to support your organization.
Peter: That has been part of it. We were really lucky. When we started the Institute Phillip and I thought, “Well, we’ll publish.” Philip’s a wonderful writer and I knew … You remember film. I used to know what to do with film. We thought we would publish. It was Betsy Wyeth, Andrew Wyeth’s wife, who really encouraged us and it was a brilliant moment for us. She said, “Look, if you’re going to publish, if you’re going to spread the word and so forth, don’t just do some mimeograph, self-congratulatory thing.” She said, “Really, really do it right. Philip, you’re a wonderful writer. Peter you know what you’re doing with the camera. Do it first rate,” and thus was born that moment was born the Island Journal and we used that. Year one we had zero members. We had two contributors and we were off and running. We did things that combining stories, telling stories and sharing information, sharing lessons would grow awareness.
When we first went to Augusta, there was actually, so help me God, there was a state legislator in Maine, here we are, and they remarked to Philip, “You mean there are people that live on those islands all year?” Truly out of sight, out of mind. The year round population is something like 5000 now. Wicked independence and ultimately, intellectually has to be interdependence. It’s a great mix, which is why these communities are so intense and everybody does know everybody and everything about everybody. If I were to drop this bottle now on an island, they’d know about it on the other side of the island before it hit the ground. That completely freaks out some people, but others, I’m a small town boy, I love it close and intimate like that.
Dr. Lisa: I have two relatives who live on an island, different islands, but I have grown accustomed now to their habit of stopping by. They just stop by, no warning, but the door is open. The doors should be open because that’s what it’s like in their community. It doesn’t matter. They don’t expect you to look a certain way or have food on the table or anything like that, but it’s just social and it’s a time to be together. That’s a really interesting part of community there that here in the city we go out to meet our friends and we make a plan, but on the islands you can just stop by at any time. You have a problem, you have a celebration, you just share it.
Peter: I was a little in the last minute mode when I was calling some of these people and I had been told, “You’ll probably want to visit so and so,” and I knew some of them, but some were first time for me. As you know, I’m chatty and I show up with cameras and all this stuff, but I’ve been around long enough that I feel pretty comfortable talking to anybody. I called on one 80-year-old woman …
I’m sorry. She would kill me. 78-year-old woman down there who’s had quite a tough life, quite a tough life and I was told she’s not going to be all together comfortable about this. I’ve got a new friend for life.
This little piece of porcelain that I now carry, she gave this to me and she believes that God leads her to everything she finds on the beaches. Her line, so I’m talking to her. I’m halfway to the ferry saying, “By the way I’m coming and can I see you and might I call on you and I promise it won’t be too painful.” Her line was, “Come aboard.” It was just so beautiful. I thought that’s it. “Come aboard.”
Dr. Lisa: You own a gallery and as you know for centuries Maine islands have inspired great artists, great American artists all around including the Wyeths. Do you think that that has something to do with it, that feeling, that spiritual …? Why are Maine Islands so inspiring to the nation’s artists?
Peter: That’s a great question. Certainly, the first, the duh factor on that one is they’re just so beautiful, but I really think that’s the half of it. Speaking for myself and yeah, if you even scratch American Art history they’ve all been here. It really is amazing. There’s the light. The light is flat out different, always been very keenly aware of light. I think light was my first word. Light is how I make my living. I write in light. The photography light is different. It’s unique. We get the old, “Wait five minutes, the weather’s going to change.” There are all these fluctuations and that’s dramatic and exciting and edgy and wonderful and thank God we have the winters we do. Yes, I’m quite partial to the winters.
It’s the people, too, and I think it’s the culture. Whereas, we can say today,
“It’s all gone everywhere else.” Back in the 50s things had changed dramatically, culture. Resource-driven cultures are very disadvantaged. You can’t hold back the tide of agribusiness, big business and the homogenization of the box stores and all that. There’s just no going back on that in America. There really is and
I say this almost nervously because, at all cost to avoid caricatures or stereotyping, but there is an independent spirit. There is a spirit and an ethic and a mojo and a community.
These are not easy places. There is danger. Anytime you’re fooling around on boats and going back and forth and there’s fog and there’s night, there’s winter and there’s ice, all of it, not to mention those pesky ledges, it adds something.
I think there really is a quality in these communities that you simply don’t find in other places. That’s true today. What artists of 100 years ago were finding,
I think if you go back and look at what some of the great ones were painting then, even then, a 100 years ago they were on to that. They got it. It was present.
Dr. Lisa: You have spoken to us about a lot of very profound themes. I know we could spend a lot of time talking to you, a lot more time talking to you, but we appreciate your coming in and spending time with us today. Maybe we’ll have you back again in the future.
Peter: My arm is very easily twisted by the pair of you. If anybody is interested, I told you before my initials aren’t PRF for nothing. I’m shameless.
Dr. Lisa: Yes, I was going to ask you how can people find out more about you, what you do and the Island Institute?
Peter: It’s easy. Of course, we all have our little iPads and smartphones and computers and the Institute really has a fascinating mission and website, which is islandinstitute.org. Then the almost as fascinating and interesting Ralston Gallery site is Ralstongallery.com and I have got lots and lots of pictures there. I’m now doing a thing. I’m finally coming out of my shy mode.
Dr. Lisa: Yes. I could tell you are very shy.
Peter: I am. Actually, I don’t know if you guys have seen it, but I’m telling one story a week. I decided for a year I would tell the story behind images, primarily driven by the fact that I get tired of hearing, “What are the sheep doing in the boat?” You know that one …
Dr. Lisa: Now you are just going to pre-empt that by telling people what the sheep are doing in the boat?
Peter: Yeah. They will end up with 52 stories.
Dr. Lisa: This is on your website?
Peter: Yeah, print of the week.
Dr. Lisa: Very good. Thank you so much for coming in and talking to us Peter.
Peter: Surely my pleasure.