Sperry Andrews’ Watercolors Recall an Earlier Block Island. Sperry Andrews is a name known to older Block Island residents, summer cottagers, and those familiar with the tradition of 19th and 20th century American Impressionism. The late artist, his wife Doris, also an artist, and their three children spent summers on Block Island since 1955 in the 19th-century house with a tower next to the police station on Ocean Avenue. His work was shown in The Ragged Sailor Gallery in the 1970’s and 80’s.
After twenty years, Andrews’ art returned to Block Island, July 22- August 3, 2011, in an exhibit at the Jessie Edwards Studio of 24 watercolors depicting the Block Island of the 60’s, 70’s, and early 80’s. When he died at age 87 in 2005, Andrews left a trove of over 5000 works in oil, watercolor, pastel, pen-and-ink, and other techniques. Block Island is the subject of over 500 of these works that reflect Andrews’ enduring love of the island.
Andrews was a plein air (open air) artist who completed his work on the scene to capture the essence of the light and atmosphere of a particular place and time. His son Ballard recalls his father leaving the house in the early morning and returning late at night, having walked the island and painted what caught his eye. “He followed his private bliss and his sense of delight in discovering the island,” he said recently. Andrews loved the scenery of Block Island — the bluffs, the harbors, the beaches, meadows, and ponds – but he also loved the old hotels, farmhouses, and shacks; sailboats, steamers, ferries, and fishing boats ; old cars, trucks, and farm machinery; the hubbub of the kitchen at the Narragansett Hotel and the steamy laundry room at the Ocean View Hotel.
Even as a child, Andrews was a serious artist and began sketching in earnest at the age of eight. He studied at the National Academy of Design in New York and at the Art Students League of New York. (There he met his wife when they shared an easel.) As a young man, Andrews was deeply influenced by the work of Henry David Thoreau, particularly his essays in Walden in which he writes of the value of solitude, reverence for nature, and a life “lived deliberately.”
While Andrews worked in solitude, he was not really alone. “He was in the company of his spiritual ancestors with the words of Thoreau, the poetry of Whitman, and the music of Ives,” said Ballard Andrews in a eulogy for his father. This energy, exuberance, reverence, and delight infused Andrews’ life and work both on Block Island and at his home at Weir Farm in Ridgefield, Connecticut, where the Andrews lived and painted for 48 years.
There, he carried on in the tradition of his predecessors. The 19th century American Impressionist Julian Alden Weir (1852-1919) acquired a farmstead in 1882 and made it a country retreat for artists, among them Childe Hassam, John Twachtman, Albert Pinkham Ryder, and John Singer Sargent. Weir’s son-in-law sculptor Mahonri Young (1877-1957) became a friend of the Andrews, and they bought the farmstead in 1957. When development threatened the surrounding property and some of the parcels of the original farmstead, the Andrews worked with others to create the Weir Farm National Historic Site, one of two sites in the National Park Service dedicated to American painting, and the Weir Trust that runs education programs and an artist-in-residence program.
Andrews’ art has won many awards, including the First Julius Hallgarten prize, the John Pike Memorial Award and Certificate of Merit from the National Academy of Design, the William Bradford Green Memorial Prize for Landscape from the Connecticut Academy of Fine Arts, and the Salmagundi Club Award for U.S. Citizen at the 20th Annual Exhibition, Audubon Artists, in New York. In 1993, he was elected a member of the Century Association and made an Academician of the National Academy of Design in 1994.
His work has been in many exhibitions: the National Academy of Design in 1938 and 1993; The Slater Memorial Museum in Norwich, Conn., 1956; the Ferargil Gallery and the Larcada Gallery, both in New York City, to name a few. The American Academy and Institute of Arts and Letters, the Columbus Gallery of Fine Arts, the Wadsworth Athenem, The National Academy of Design, the Miami University Art Museum (Miami, Ohio), and the New Britain Museum of American Art have Andrews’ work in their permanent collections.
Andrews taught at the Wooster Community Arts Center in Danbury, Ct. and at the Silvermine School of the Arts in Westport, Ct., where one of his students was Kate Knapp, an artist who lives and paints in both the Berkshires, Massachusetts, and on Block Island.