By Philip Howard
“Is there an artists’ colony on Ocracoke?” is a question I frequently hear.
“We do have a number of talented artists and musicians,” I reply, “but, no, there is no formal or organized Artists’ colony on the island.”
Ocracoke Island suits artistic types very well, and it is not surprising that visitors wonder if an organized colony has ever been established here. Although there is no artists’ colony on the island today, Ocracoke was the site of a small experimental community that flourished here more than sixty years ago.
The worldwide movement that spawned the quintessential artists’ colony emerged in the mid to late 1800s and continued robustly through the early twentieth century. It is estimated that thousands of artists participated in nearly one hundred art communities in Europe, Australia, and the Americas during that time.
In the early twentieth century Ocracoke was especially remote from cities, government interference in private affairs, and societal expectations. Without paved roads or ferry service, Ocracoke’s primary link to the mainland was the four and a half hour trip by mail boat to Atlantic, on the mainland of North Carolina. The island’s isolation and easy acceptance of strangers helps explain why a small group of artists and writers established their “Island Workshop” here in 1940.
Unlike many counterparts in Europe and elsewhere in the United States, the Island Workshop was neither a highly structured year-round community, nor an independent and self-contained community of transient artists and writers. Rather, it was a two-month long summer endeavor that was somewhat integrated into the year-round and long-established village of Ocracoke.
In 1935, Ocracoke resident Stanley Wahab built an inexpensive replica of a Spanish style building on the island, near where the Back Porch Restaurant sits today, to be part of his larger operation which included the Wahab Village Hotel (later renamed Blackbeard’s Lodge) and separate motel units dubbed the Green Apartments.
Made of plywood strewn with gravel while the earth-colored paint was still wet, the 400 square foot Spanish Casino mimicked an adobe hacienda. The flat roofed structure had extended and crenulated exterior walls with gently curving main sections. Windows were topped with decorative trim, and crosses within circles painted near the roof line suggested a southwestern theme. An open porch on the ocean-facing side was supported by peeled cedar posts, adding to the Spanish motif.
The interior of the Spanish Casino was one large room with a raised platform on the western September 2010 wall to accommodate a piano and musicians. Benches were placed along the walls, leaving a sizable dance floor in the middle. Island natives, Edgar and Walter Howard, brothers who had moved to New York City to play vaudeville in the 1920s and 1930s, came home periodically to entertain their fellow islanders. The popular music of the day included cowboy and western songs and ballads. Once in a while Edgar’s banjo and Walter’s guitar accompanied nationally popular entertainers who followed the Howard brothers to Ocracoke. At times, other island musicians played at the Spanish Casino. When live music was unavailable a jukebox served nightly to provide tunes for round dances, jitterbug, and traditional island square dances.
Stanley Wahab included a small canteen to serve his customers. Candy, cigarettes, and soft drinks were popular items. Eventually the Spanish Casino also offered hamburgers. Some years earlier, under the influence of Mr.Shaw, one of the Methodist preachers, sales of alcoholic beverages had been banned on Ocracoke Island. It was a rare night, however, when homemade meal wine did not flow freely behind the building or on the other side of the sand dunes.
In the summer of 1938 Vernon Albert Ward, Jr., a young man from eastern North Carolina, procured a job as manager of Stanley Wahab’s three-year-old “Spanish Casino.” Vernon who found his way to Ocracoke in the late 1930s had graduated from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill with a degree in English, and a specialization in creative writing. Although more educated than the local population, Ward quickly and easily settled into the community and made many friends. He was also a budding poet who had made contacts with other writers and artists from western North Carolina, New York, and Europe. Whether it was originally his idea, or someone else’s, the notion of an island workshop for artists and writers took shape. Vernon Ward became the organizer and contact person. Soon a catalog was created and advertisements placed in regional and national magazines.
Ocracoke’s first season for the artists’ colony was scheduled for July and August, 1940. Although the location was listed as Wahab Village, many of the classes were held in the local schoolhouse. Entertainment included dances at the Spanish Casino. Accommodations were arranged at the Wahab Village Hotel. The total cost for two months (room, board, tuition, and entertainment) amounted to a mere $200. Attractions included “swimming, boating, fishing, dancing, and excursions.” Ocracoke was hailed as the “world’s widest and most beautiful seashore.”
Courses included painting, sculpture, art history, creative writing, history of literature, Indian crafts, and physical education. The Island Workshop attracted an impressive list of talented teachers. Among them was Blanche C. Weill, a San Francisco native who studied in Europe with educator Maria Montessori and with psychoanalyst Alfred Adler. Weill earned a doctorate at Harvard practiced child psychology and was the author of two books, The Behavior of Young Children of the Same Family, and Through Children’s Eyes, the latter published by Island Workshop Press.
Robert Haven Schauffler, well known expert on the lives of Beethoven, Brahms, and Schumann, also participated in the Island Workshop. Schauffler, author, lecturer, singer, and cellist attended Northwestern University and Princeton University where he earned a B.A. in 1902. A prolific writer, he contributed to numerous magazines and journals, including Collier’s Weekly, and Atlantic.
Other presenters and teachers at the Workshop included Daniel Tilden, a Cherokee Indian Chief, and Anita Wetzler, a nationally recognized sculptress.
The most colorful of the Workshop organizers and teachers, however, was Madame Helene Scheu-Riesz (pronounced Shoy-Reese). According to islanders who knew her, she was very friendly and outgoing. Mme Scheu-Riesz, as she preferred to be addressed, was born in what is now the Czech Republic in 1880, but spent most of her life in Austria. At age 38 she published her first novel, Der Revolutionär. Eine Lebensgeschichte (The Revolutionary, A Biography), which came out during the Bolshevik Revolution in Russia. However, she made a name for herself as a narrative writer, poet, playwright, editor, journalist, and translator. She was active in the Austrian Women’s Movement, and was especially interested in making books available to children. She edited the “Sesambücher,” a series of classic works, in German, for young people, and translated Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland to German.
Mme. Scheu-Riesz emigrated to the United States in 1937, after her husband, Gustav Scheu, died. True to her old-world traditions, she continued to wear gathered skirts, blouses with laced bodices, and a small scarf or peasant’s cap over her salt and pepper hair. Earrings and red shoes highlighted her colorful dress. Mme Scheu- Riesz, short and thin, spoke with a thick German accent.
It is not known how Mme. Scheu-Riesz came to know Vernon Ward, but clearly they were moving in the same circles once she arrived in America.
No record survives listing the Island Workshop students. Local sources indicate that only a handful of people were ever enrolled in classes, maybe 8-12 people at any one time. Dare Wright, popular 1950s photographer and author of children’s books, several set on Ocracoke, seems to have had a connection to Vernon Ward, and may have participated in the Workshop. No doubt the extreme isolation of Ocracoke contributed to the small number of students. In 1940 no ferries served the island, and the journey across Pamlico Sound on the 42 foot wooden mail boat Aleta took four hours.
No local islanders are known to have taken advantage of the courses offered.
1940 was a time of upheaval in Europe, and the events there were causing anxiety and concern throughout the world, and Ocracoke Island was no exception.
Before the United States declared war on Japan and Germany in 1941(and established a Navy base on the island in June of 1942) Ocracoke had been one of the most isolated communities in the country. Few outsiders visited the island, and most of them were anglers and hunters.
Most of the Workshop participants enjoyed spending their days on the beach. Islander, Jake Alligood, had an old flat bed truck that he had converted to an island taxi, and he often drove them across the tidal flats to the ocean. It was not unusual for the teachers and students to walk to the beach after dark.
Several island teenagers, intrigued by the exotic artists and intellectuals, and looking for adventure, decided to snoop around their quarters. They had listened to adults as they discussed the artists’ unconventional behavior and different lifestyles. Connections to foreign countries, strange dress, and a degree of eccentricity had made them suspect. Could the artists really be undercover Nazi spies?
The “detectives” never discovered any incriminating evidence.
Mme. Scheu-Riesz’s Jewish heritage points to something quite different from a suspected German spy. Rather, she appears to have been a committed progressive thinker. In Europe she hosted socialist salons, worked with her husband to broaden the viewpoints of “dreadfully nationalistic” Viennese primers, and was active in the burgeoning “first wave” of the women’s liberation movement. According to information from the Library of Congress, Mme. Scheu- Riesz also had a connection with Sigmund Freud, with whom she carried on correspondence in 1930. And she frequently combined her interest in art with her passion for politics.
The Ocracoke “Artists’ Colony” (the Island Workshop), operated for only two summers (1940 and 1941). The December, 1941attack on Pearl Harbor changed everything. In the next six months hundreds of merchant vessels were torpedoed by German submarines off the Outer Banks. By the summer of 1942 the US Navy had constructed an Amphibious Section Base with as many as 600 personnel stationed on the island. Ocracoke was no longer the quiet, isolated retreat suitable for an artists’ colony.
Six months later, the Spanish Casino, which had already begun to disintegrate, was closed on the recommendation of the Navy commander. Shortly afterwards the building was demolished.
According to some sources, Mme Scheu-Riesz operated an art gallery in New York City after WWII. In 1954 she returned to Vienna. She devoted the rest of her life to school reform, writing numerous adaptations of fairy tales and translating children’s books from English to German. She died in 1970.
Vernon Ward went on to become a professor of English at East Carolina University in Greenville, North Carolina. He published several books on poetry and in the early 1960s he created and edited Tar River Poets, a literary journal devoted to publishing poems by members of the Poetry Forum in Greenville. It has been listed as one of the top ten poetry journals in the United States. Ward was married and was survived by a daughter and son when he died in 2000.
Philip Howard enjoys researching island history which enriches his avocation as a story teller. Philip and his daughter, Amy will be doing a program at Deepwater Theater at 8 PM on Monday evenings called “You Ain’t Heard Nothin’ Yet, Strange Stories & Quirky Tales of Ocracoke Island.”