Memoir, Art Show Honor 98-Year-Old Emily Muir
By James J. Allen
at age 98, painter and architect Emily Muir vividly remembers what
it was like to be a struggling young artist during the Great
“We’d do about
anything to earn a nickel,” Muir said recently of herself and her
husband, sculptor and painter William Muir, who died in 1964.
Once, after a
cruise to the West Indies to paint, the couple was asked to build
a Hindu Hut display for the cruise line’s office window.
“I have a hundred
dollars to work with. What can you do for a hundred dollars?”
asked the cruise director.
“We can do
anything for a hundred dollars,” William Muir replied.
In “The Time
of My Life,” Emily Muir’s autobiography published this spring by
the Island Institute in Rockland, she writes that she and her
husband nevertheless had “nothing to fear” during those tough
“We were too
happy,” she writes. While the Depression was perhaps one of the
hardest times to earn a living as an artist, Muir writes that the
couple stayed true to their art and found a happy life in
“The Time of My
Life” details the life the two artists shared through Emily Muir’s
sharp and funny memories.
entirely in the present tense, the book recaptures quirky
moments—the couple was married on a whim by a family friend after
a day spent searching for a wedding venue—and daily details
ranging from family travels to wintertime lobster picnics.
changes in her life and on Deer Isle, she draws in events in the
larger world—the rise of the Nazis in Germany, her visits to
Trinidad and St. Petersburg, and events within the U.S.
she felt from the island and its residents shaped her view of the
world and added to her work, she writes.
In high school,
Muir took private lessons from an art teacher who simply taught
her to copy objects as accurately as possible. She went to Vassar
College, but dropped out after a single year and enrolled at the
Art Students’ League in New York City the next fall. She met her
future husband in a sculpture class.
traveled early in his career and even tried his hand at designing
golf courses before moving to Maine with Emily in 1939. He would
call Stonington home for the rest of his life.
At the time of
their marriage in 1928, Emily Muir was working primarily as a
portrait artist while her husband held several jobs in design.
In an interview,
Muir said her first portraits strove to be exact copies of the
subject. Dissatisfied with her work, she decided to take her
husband’s advice and take a painting class at the Art Students’
It was there,
with Professor Richard Lahey, that “I had my first real art
lessons,” Muir writes in her book.
lessons were as straightforward and critical as they were
“He looked at my
work one day and asked, ‘Did you paint that?’ I said ‘yes’ and
then he asked ‘Don’t you ever feel anything?’” Muir recalled. “I
felt as if the floor should open up and swallow me whole.”
Muir took the
criticism to heart, and in the following week set herself the goal
of trying to evoke a model’s headache in a painting. “Thank God,”
her teacher said.
The change in her
work gave her new confidence to take on projects in other mediums,
such as architecture and sculpture.
Muir said she
offers similar advice to young artists. “Feel something,” she
“Do we paint
because we want to make pretty pictures or because we want to say
something?” she asks in her book.
Muir tested her
newfound confidence when her mother bought 85 acres on Deer Isle
and asked her to design a house to fit the property.
architectural training, I [spent] hours trying to draw everything
to scale,” Muir writes.
With the help of
local builder Pop Joyce, Muir erected the family home, Mainstay,
which she and William visited frequently in the 1930s.
Muirs built an art studio on part of the property, which they
added on to and made into a house of their own in the mid-1940s.
Emily Muir lives
there today, surrounded by her paintings, drawings and mosaics
drawn from the everyday lives and landscapes of Deer Isle .
Years after she
designed her mother’s house, when she was in her 50s, Muir started
a new career as an architect.
houses, she said she has tried “to suit the site” getting the
natural feel for the terrain and how it will be used. Muir’s own
home features two steps down from the living room to the kitchen,
following a drop in the granite ledge on which the house rests.
shouldn’t commandeer the land,” Muir said.
She shared this
vision with her longtime friend and head carpenter on her designs,
Basil Bray. Together the two built 10 houses on property in
Crockett Cove on Deer Isle.
Muir built more
than 40 houses in all, garnering rave reviews from critics,
environmentalists and in architectural journals.
Her attention to
the land has made her a environmentalist.
In her book, she
describes her call to conservation, which started with a knock on
Dorothea Marston, had learned that Muir owned part or all of three
local islands, and wanted to know how she planned to develop
Driven by her
memories of the islands and how they had served and inspired her
artwork, Muir decided to donate or sell a large portion of her
property to The Nature Conservancy and The Island Institute for
for her devotion to sustaining Maine coastal areas, the Island
Institute has created the Emily and Willam Muir Fund.
Philip Conkling, president of the Island Institute, the fund is
intended to support local community programs and development as
well as increase student and teaching activities off the coast of
In an afterword
to her book, Conkling writes of Muir: “Her life is a testament to
the belief that what we do with our everyday lives matters [and]
adds up to a lasting picture of who we are and what legacy we
Muir has served
on the board of the Maine Coast Heritage Trust and on the
Stonington Town Planning Board as an advocate for conservation.
Today Muir writes
short essays (“my meanderings”) for the Stonington-based Island
Advantages newspaper. She continues to show her art work, now on
view through Aug. 18 at the Farnsworth Museum in Rockland, where
one of her mosaics is permanently installed.
“The Time of My
Life” took 10 years and three computers to write, Muir said. It
stirred memories of her husband, whom she “misses terribly.”
“He was perfect,”
assistants helping her around the house and in her gallery up the
road, Muir is hardly lonely, though.
In her late life
she still gets around on her own. With all the help around the
house, Muir remarked with a smile, “I feel as if I’m being