After artist and native Rhode Islander Peter Dickison graduated from the Swain School of Design in New Bedford in the 1980s, he wanted to see the world and be inspired. He settled in a number of picturesque zip codes boasting captivating landscapes to fuel his creative fire, but after many years, he found there’s truly no place like home.
“One thing that happens along the coast that you realize if you spend any time elsewhere is that the water changes the light. Water reflects the light a lot, and so in communities along the coast, the light is sort of… different,” he says thoughtfully. “It’s kind of hard to describe. It’s just this way it changes the atmosphere, what it does with the weather, how it changes the light. Lower Rhode Island, we are kind of sticking out into the ocean almost, and I think even though I am really drawn to the landscape as a subject, I just find everything I need here really.”
For centuries, the South Coast – a region referring to the RI townships of Tiverton and Little Compton, along with Dartmouth and Westport, Massachusetts – has inspired artists from near and far. Its captivating diverse topography, serene milieus, and tranquil vistas of land and sea – many unchanged from early American times – are a sensory playground for creators in all artistic mediums. Nineteenth-century artist Ruby Devol Finch , who’s been called “one of the most uniquely creative female American folk artists of her time,” spent her life in Westport and used watercolor to capture family milestones and her community along the South Coast. Her work can be found at both the American Folk Art Museum in New York City and The Abby Aldrich Rockefeller Folk Art Museum in Virginia. In modern history, watercolorist Mary Elizabeth Grinnell, better known as M.E. Post, settled in Little Compton in 1971 and helped found the Little Compton Art Association.
“The creative energy out here is just palpable,” says Kelly Milukas, a painter, sculptor, and photographer self-described as an “overly curious constant learner.” “Certainly nature inspires me in every way, so living out here – actually interpreting something from nature or not – the energy of it is here, the foundation of what makes the universe tick…If I’m painting an abstract, nature inspires that. The colors I see, the textures I see when I walk outside my door and go down to the water: It’s all right here. I couldn’t ask for more.”
Milukas pulls inspiration from her treks across the globe and has produced many pieces that capture the essence of life in exotic places – the white domes of Santorini, a souk in Morocco, a beach in Basque Country – but those experiences have only made her appreciate the South Coast even more. “Travel is a big source of inspiration: the culture, the colors I see. The nature you see is different in Lithuania than you see here,” she says. “But I can’t tell you how many times, after the many, many, many trips, we’ve come home into our driveway and say, ‘You know? We live in a really amazing place too. … You pull back into your neighborhood and think, ‘this is pretty magical.’”
That magic has a long history of being contagious. Artist or not, the South Coast’s je ne sais quoi is something many can’t shake. “Through the years, I can’t tell you how many people would arrive in our community from the Boston corridor, the New York corridor, and outer ring states that are common to visit here, and just fall in love,” says Milukas.
Eighteen years ago, Milukas gathered with other local creators and together, as she says, they “essentially took an 8.5 x 11 piece of paper” and created the Open Studio Tour. She says it became obvious they needed to formalize by establishing a governing non-profit organization and membership organization “so we could serve our greater community of artisans.” The weekend-long event, which continues to take place every summer, typically features more than 70 artists who generously open their studios and galleries to the public so fellow artists, collectors, and casual art appreciators can see them in their personal spaces honing their craft.
Featuring artful stops throughout Westport, Dartmouth, Tiverton and Little Compton, the free, family-friendly self-guided tour typically welcomes hundreds of folks, many of whom make it a yearly pilgrimage from far-off places. The event gained momentum as an August mainstay, and demand launched an additional July rendition beginning in 2009. This year, the Open Studio Tour resumed as an in-person event following 2020’s exclusively virtual experience (one or two works from each participating artist are featured online so those who could not attend this past summer can still engage with local talent).
Milukas was the founding president of South Coast Artists, serving for eight years. “I’ve gone through the bumps, the hiccups, the joys, the tears – all of it,” says the artist with a smile. Today, the organization is led by fine artist and former museum director Heather Stivison.
Stivison, who moved to Tiverton from New Jersey in 2014, says it’s not just the breadth of artistic talent here in the South Coast that’s so remarkable, but the diversity of mediums. Watercolorists, pastel artists, photographers, woodworkers, metalworkers, mosaic artists, sculptors, potters, encaustic wax painters, jewelers, eco-artists, ceramicists, experts in basketry, fiber artists – across the South Coast, you’ll find myriad talented visionaries.
“It’s a huge range,” she concedes. “Part of the motivation for being in this particular community is that there are so many artists, and so it makes an ‘art community.’ You have room to breathe, but a chance to gather, have a chance to contemplate. It’s just an amazing place.” Stivison also wants to ensure the sustainability of local talent. The South Coast Artists Board of Directors created a Youth Artist Grant that is awarded to high school students in Westport, Dartmouth, Tiverton, or Little Compton to be allocated toward funding an art project or expanding their art education via classes or apprenticeships. But she’s quick to point out that art can be learned and enjoyed at any age. Not only does the South Coast Artists host workshops, but many of the members, including Dickison and Milukas, have taught or teach classes, lead workshops, or offer private lessons.
Support for artists in this coastal-meets-pastoral enclave comes in many forms – it’s not simply amongst the people making the art or buying the art, but very importantly, the people exhibiting the art. Gallerists are stewards of what art is being introduced to the masses and typically have relationships with both artists and collectors. More than two dozen galleries pepper the South Coast including Gallery at Four, located in the heart of historic Tiverton Four Corners. Owner Chas. Hickey opened the contemporary gallery in 2017 and hosts between eight and nine shows a year, many featuring the work of local artists.
“I like to present a range of sculpture, painting, photography, [and] assemblage, in mediums from encaustic to acrylic, oil [and] pastel,” says Hickey. He’s quick to point out that for more than a century, Little Compton and Tiverton in particular have been a “magnet for artists and art-related people.” He cites as an example Lloyd Goodrich, a former director of the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York City who the New York Times called an “advocate of American art for more than a half century,” as someone who was lured to Little Compton.
“So it’s always been either a hidden or a very evident artist presence here,” explains Hickey, who touts the efforts of other local galleries that elevate the visibility of local talent for whom the South Coast is their muse. “6 1/2 Bridge Street Gallery in Padanaram, for example, is almost exclusively showing South Coast artists.”
As the South Coast continues to recognize artists of the past and present, and empower the artists of tomorrow along with the support of key figures in the local art sphere, this region will continue to flourish as a haven for all creators.