Barbara Hadden’s lovely “Sag Harbor Windmill at Sunset,” one of several recent paintings she’s exhibiting at the Sag Harbor Whaling and Historical Museum in celebration of this weekend’s HarborFest, evokes a sense of storybook serenity, nature as sweet harmony. It’s a charming scene without people. This is not, of course, the way HarborFest really is—streets are jammed, and the iconic windmill area by Long Wharf at the foot of Main Street is crowded with residents and tourists who have come to see, hear, shop and amble along.
HarborFest is an unofficial homage to the end of summer and a celebration of local history. Hadden’s pleasant, muted-color oil painting invests the familiar scene with nostalgia, albeit created: the Sag Harbor windmill, unlike authentic gristmills and wind pumps on the East End, is only 49 years old, but Hadden’s picturesque composition captures the community mood of “Our Town,” the name of her exhibit at the Whaling Museum with fellow local artist Michael A. Butler. The image also exemplifies Hadden’s recent work—pleasing land and seascapes that show her turn from acrylic and ink and watercolor to water-based oils.
The “Our Town” exhibit may, for some folks, call to mind Thornton Wilder’s Pulitzer Prize–winning play of that name. You left your town of Peekskill and came to New York City to pursue an acting career. How long did it take you to realize that acting was not for you and when did you start drawing and painting?
I was serious about wanting to be an actress when I settled in the city. I took classes at the Actors Studio. I also met and became friends with Kim Stanley, whom I saw multiple times in the same show because I thought she was that good. I felt I couldn’t be that kind of actress. We remained close friends, however, until her death. Dusty Hoffman was a classmate, a wonderful guy. We did improvisations together—once we were both drops of water coming down a shower curtain. Mildred Dunnock was a teacher. I didn’t start painting until I was out in Southampton and settled in with my partner of 46 years now, Jane. She’s from England. She was a nurse and midwife whom I met at Roosevelt Hospital in the city. She studied at the Art Students League for a while and now works in glass.
So, what did you do to, as they say, to make a living, and did it relate in any way to the visual arts?
Various day jobs when I was studying acting. After that I worked at Roosevelt Hospital with patients in the occupational therapy program. In fact, the first painting I ever did was for them—a watercolor with trees and mountains. Several of us got a grant to do this work in the psychiatric ward. I loved it.
You’re 80 years old, and came to painting in your 40s, describing yourself as a self-taught artist. Were there artists you admired along the way?
My great-grandfather was a Hudson River School painter and his work hung on the walls of my home. I never thought I could do those rich, dark hues. When I started to paint I was doing simplistic, primitive work, often outlining in ink. As for artists I admire…no one more than Georgia O’Keeffe but not as an influence in style or technique. [I admire her] because I saw how she put her whole soul into what she did and that became inspirational. In fact, I have her sayings all over my bathroom. They keep me going.
You can view Hadden’s work in the “Our Town” exhibit at the Whaling Museum, 200 Main Street, Sag Harbor through October 15. The opening reception is September 12 from 6–8 p.m. In addition, you can view her works online at the Artists Alliance of East Hampton website, aaeh.org.