Inspired Islander
Memoir, Art Show Honor 98-Year-Old Emily Muir

By James J. Allen

Stonington—Even at age 98, painter and architect Emily Muir vividly remembers what it was like to be a struggling young artist during the Great Depression.

“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 times.

“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 Stonington.

“The Time of My Life” details the life the two artists shared through Emily Muir’s sharp and funny memories.  

Written almost 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. 

Describing 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.

The inspiration 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.

William Muir 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’ League. 

It was there, with Professor Richard Lahey, that “I had my first real art lessons,” Muir writes in her book.

Lahey’s art lessons were as  straightforward and critical as they were effective.

“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 tells them. 

“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. 

“With no 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.

Eventually the 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.

When designing 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.

“People’s homes 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 the door. 

Her friend, Dorothea Marston, had learned that Muir owned part or all of three local islands, and wanted to know how she planned to develop them. 

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 preservation.

In appreciation for her devotion to sustaining Maine coastal areas, the Island Institute has created the Emily and Willam Muir Fund.

According to 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 Maine.

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 leave behind.” 

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,” she said. 

With several 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 spoiled.”

   

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