Beverly Hall, American
It’s a foggy day on Nantucket, Beverly Hall’s favorite kind. She prefers these moody, mysterious days for her images. The overcast gives a richness to the contrast she loves in black-and-white photography and, more practically, helps her portrait subjects avoid squinting. But the fog suits her in other, more personal ways. A cat lover and a quotation lover, she relishes the Sandburg line “The fog comes in on little cat feet.”
A foggy Nantucket day is also emblematic of her spiritual quest.
“I love change and I don’t like change,” she reflects, “that is my paradox.” Fog, of course, makes you look anew at the familiar and, as T.S. Eliot says, “know the place for the first time."
On this particular day, Beverly comes away from a walk on the beach along Madaket harbor laden with stones. She collects stones, from the smallest lucky stone (one with a white ring around it), to the carefully placed stones that form her two-circle garden labyrinth, to the Indian prayer rock from Dionis that is the centerpiece of her desert garden. Indeed, stones figure in all four of her garden areas. It’s as if the stones are counterweights to the fog, the solid earthbound balancing the ethereal, fluid, airy shroud.
It is no accident, then that the dust jacket on Beverly’s first collection of island images bears her classic photo “Foggy Road.” My Nantucket: Images of an Island, commemorating her forty years as a professional photographer and just published in June, does more than evoke a simpler time. Beverly’s photographs burrow into the island’s soul and emerge with elements of its heart: joy, love, laughter, like minds, neighbors, tranquility, discovery, passion, and, not least for Beverly, spirituality.
She landed on Nantucket by accident. One day in 1964 her younger brother and only sibling, Gary, was on Martha’s Vineyard and asked her to deliver a tennis racket to him from their family home in Queens, New York. She took the ferry to the wrong island. Call it fate, call it destiny, call it what you will, but Beverly had happened upon her spiritual home. The following year she started the Children’s Gallery on Old South Wharf and simultaneously embarked on a career as a professional photographer, although she knew little and cared even less about the darkroom. Later,after her career was firmly established, she had a studio at the Center Street Meeting House that had no door and where her postcards came to represent the last bastion of the honor system on Nantucket—a basket was left out to collect the money.
The art studio for children eventually dissolved, and Beverly Hall Photography took wing. Now, after forty years, she has brought together some of her earliest black-and-white images of the island in My Nantucket. It matters little who the actual people are or where the exact locations are in her images (although the “Photographer’s Notes” at the back of the book explain all). What comes through is how the pic- tures, often of seemingly mundane subjects—a snow fence, a watering can, a feather, a seagull, or familiar landmarks— capture an inner truth about the island that is deeply affecting.
Always a profoundly spiritual person, Beverly finally struck out for divinity school in 1998. A self-defined "seeker," she was, she says, looking for a new identity, something beyond Beverly Hall Photography. She earned her master of divinity degree at the Episcopal Divinity School in 2002. “I came out of the closet as a believer,” she says of the experience. She also came away from her four years in Cambridge with an unexpected and renewed “appreciation for my art.”
That art weaves in and out of her spiritual life. It has carried over into the home she and her architect husband Sascha Illich have created on Tennessee Avenue in Madaket. Once just a fishing shanty on Hither Creek, she says “[their home] went from a tiny shack to a rather large extension.” Together they have masterminded there what she calls a transparent home”—where all windows look out on water or garden and the outside is as ordered and deliberate as extended “rooms.” “I’m always moving the ‘furniture’—stones, plants, trees, statues, tchotchkes—in the garden,” she says.
A lover of things in threes—of altars, of stones, of separation and integration, of silence, of prayer, and of safe places—Beverly, with Sascha’s technical skills and guidance, has made a “soul place,” as she calls it, of her garden and her home. With the exception of a few sassafras trees, she says, “we have rooted everything here.” Including themselves.
Roots are of the utmost importance to Beverly. “My eye is restless. I am a restless spirit,” she says.
In her search for peace and an anchorage, she began to transform her little stretch of land along Hither Creek into another work of art. Apart from the labyrinth, which she uses as she does the beach, taking her lead from St. Augustine, “It is solved by walking,” she has lovingly and painstakingly created a trinity of gardens within her garden. All three are water gardens, and each “celebrates a stage of life”: marriage, baptism, resurrection. The first of the gardens was designed to celebrate their 1990 wedding on the deck that bridges the house and the garden. The marriage garden, like the marriage itself, has matured now. Its lush plantings, reflect-ing pool, and small arching bridge bring to mind a miniature version of Monet’s Giverny.
The baptismal garden is variously known as the dunking pool, since Beverly and Sascha regularly use it for quick, refreshing dips. Built to suggest a rushing mountain stream, it flows between boulders and down a rock-strewn bed and empties into a tiny pool. Flowers, shrubs, grasses, and a large, high-bush blueberry grow alongside to lend both definition to the space and to seclude it and its occupants as well.
The third, and most meaningful, of the gardens is the desert garden created around a pool and the towering prayer rock. Her brother, who died in 2002, was the inspiration for this most recent addition. it is landscaped as sparely as possible to suggest the Arizona desert where he lived, his Buddhist faith, and also her deep sense of loss. Filled with colorful koi and the sound of water running over small rocks, this garden suggests, too, the flow and continuance of life.
It's my work of art, making a home," she reflects. "It's my soul place. It's where my family is, my husband, my cats. It’s the hearth and the garden. It’s the place I always return to. The place I never leave. Even, she laughs, after four “pivotal years away at divinity school, I pivoted right back to Nantucket.”
My Nantucket, a title that Beverly is the first to declare isn’t possessive at all but simply personal, is about sharing her moment of time on this transitory elbow of sand. In its images are reminders for those who have loved the island, and how that love affair found a footing. And in these changing times, for those who find Nantucket an endangered species, Beverly’s photographs provide reason to persist in loving and protecting it. This book of extraordinarily evocative images, shot with love, transfused with the island’s inner light, gives a rare glimpse of the spirit of place, this place.
Which brings to mind a favorite quotation of Beverly’s, from
A work of art is nothing less
than this long journeying
to find again through the labyrinth of art
the two or three simple and great images
upon which, once, the heart first opened.
And so, there are stories to ground her; fog to give flight to reflection and re-evaluation. There is the sound of water and places for silence. There are roots carefully planted, rooting her as well as her garden to this island. There is the struggle with and embrace of change. There are photographs to freeze a moment in time and time passing to give the photos new patina. And there is the spirit behind all this that is singularly Beverly Hall.