Part 20- Travels of a Young Artist: Wesley Griffin during the Great War
When we think of the role of artists in the Great War or other major conflicts of the twentieth century, we often conjure up images of battlefield scenes or home front efforts in factories and cities. But the onset of World War One had a profound effect on many artists from many nationalities across Europe and North America. In Britain, Canada and the United States, the conditions arising from a declaration of war had an immediate effect on public and private galleries where new and established artists normally showed their works and the absence of buyers and patrons who turned their attention to funding war efforts at home and abroad instead of buying works of art.
In cities, small and large, as well in rural settings, many artists joined the effort by enlisting, working in factories or taking up a desk job. But for those who did not respond immediately to the call to khaki were gradually held with contempt by some segments of the public as pacifists or slackers. More profound were claims that wandering artists who were painting or sketching outdoors around parks, harbours and especially urban settings could be potential enemy collaborators. This was particularly evident in England from the beginning of the conflict where artists had to obtain a permit to paint out-of-doors. Later it became evident in Canada and the U.S. where amateur spy catchers became almost a fad. Arthur Lismer, famed Canadian artist found it nearly impossible to paint around Halifax after the explosion that devastated the harbour in Dec. 1917.
This may have contributed in part to the movements and motivation for Wesley Griffin to travel from North Head to Los Angeles to New York and beyond from 1914 to 1918. Wesley Alton Griffin’s life began in a tumultuous and rapidly changing period in the story of a community on Grand Manan Island. Born Oct. 4th, 1880 in the Village of Woodward’s Cove at the geographical centre and on the eastern side of the island, it was regarded up to that time as the commercial and economic centre for island life. However, sometime after 1885 when his brother, Harold, arrived, the Griffins relocated to North Head and by the census of 1891 were situated on the Whistle Road. North Head had outpaced the Cove over the previous decade as the political and commercial focal point on Grand Manan, particularly after capturing the main ferry terminus in 1884.
Raised in the fisherman household of Webster Daniel Griffin and his dressmaker wife, Sadie Ann Willigar, Wesley was the oldest of three children which also included Harold Harvey (b. 1885) Alta Irene (b. 1890). When Wesley was barely a year old, their family escaped near tragedy in Sept. 1881 when Webster and his brother James were “engaged in getting paving stones from Indian Beach” to be shipped to markets in New York. Unfortunately, the dory upset throwing both men overboard. James swam ashore but Webster who was weighed down by his boots became exhausted and passed out across an oar with his head in the water. At first, it was thought he had drowned but two Indians rescued him in their canoe and got him to dry land where he recovered. Luckily, this turn of events had not left a young widow and Wesley, who was barely one year old, to fend for themselves. (St. Croix Courier, Sept. 15, 1881)
Nevertheless, living at the Whistle overlooking the Grand Manan Channel with the only neighbours being George Tatton’s family who tended the lighthouse must have had an enduring effect on Wesley. His appreciation and passion for marine life, landscapes and the natural beauty of the area left an indelible mark on him and his future calling as an artist. Finally in March 1901, at the age of 20, Wesley left the Island for San Pedro, California to pursue his dream. What compelled him to choose that destination is not precisely known.
It is difficult to rationalize how Wes made the determination to pursue his artistic endeavours in California. An unsubstantiated source claimed he went to the Los Angeles School of Fine Arts sometime after 1903 and moved back to Grand Manan in 1907 with his family. We do know from official border crossing records that he was destined for San Pedro, California in the Spring of 1909 when he was twenty-seven. At Eastport, Maine, Wes reported on April 8th that he had previously been in San Pedro from March, 1901, to April, 1902, which could have coincided with a school year. The only reputable school that he may have attended was the University of Southern California School of the Arts founded in 1888 in San Pedro before the community was amalgamated with greater Los Angeles. San Pedro, at this time, was a seaport and commercial centre to the hinterland.
According to the 1901 Charlotte County census covering Grand Manan it appears that Wes, his parents and siblings were residing in North Head. The census taken April 23rd demonstrates that he was still recognized as a member of the family as of March 31st even though he may have been a student in California at the time. His occupation was listed as a “painter”. So his parents, Webster and Sadie, including brother, Harold, and sister, Alta had not yet joined him on his first trek westward.
However, Webster does testify in the ferry crossing entry document from Grand Manan to Eastport, Maine, in April, 1912, that his destination was San Pedro where he and his family previously visited in 1903 and returned to Canada in June, 1907. On this occasion, in addition to Webster, Sadie, and his two children, they also included Harold’s son, Waldon. Harold had married Ina Tatton, daughter of George and Elizabeth Tatton, on August 1, 1908. However, his wife and youngest son, Roland, listed in the 1911 census for Grand Manan, did not travel with them. Apparently by 1917, Ina had remarried to Gordon Benson from Seal Cove. By 1919, Roland joined his father and brother, and, moved permanently to San Pedro at the age of seven.
A clue to prior contact with California is cited by Webster in his travel manifest in 1912 who, when asked whether they were going to join a relative or friend, gave reference to a brother-in-law, William Willigar at 329-13th Street in San Pedro who was residing there before 1900. Therefore, the Griffins and particularly Wesley may have been prompted by Willigar to come to California for greater economic opportunities. During that period Willigar was occupied as a foreman in a lumberyard; the same location where Webster and Harold Griffin became employees as recorded in the Los Angeles city directory of 1913-14. In all likelihood Wesley’s stay with his uncle in San Pedro must have opened his eyes to a broader artistic world.
It is unclear when Wes ventured back east to New York but he shows up on the census in 1910 in Manhattan living at 352 West 55th St. with a real estate broker. He does not reveal his occupation but had enrolled at the Art Students League, the premiere artist-founded institution where he studied portraiture, sculpture and composition. Certainly during that decade he must have felt the influence of instructors like Norman Rockwell who was among the faculty in the early 1900s. One source claims he earned a scholarship at the school and eventually was offered a one year contract as an instructor. Certainly it was not unusual in the history of this cooperative institution to enlist some of its best graduates to become faculty members.
Here in New York is where he was first introduced to Jessica Burbank, born Sept. 1, 1878, to David and Amanda Burbank, and raised originally in Warner, New Hampshire, a small farming community north and west of Concord. By 1910, she was described as a “philanthropic secretary” or social worker in the New York census. Interesting enough, she is reportedly the only member of her family born in Canada. This is confirmed in an application for U.S. naturalization in 1931.
An unsubstantiated item reports that Wes first met Jessica on Grand Manan about 1908-09 when she came to the Island covering a story for a Boston paper. This seems unlikely since she was working in Rhode Island and New York throughout the decade as a secretary according to census records. No reference has ever been found to activity in Boston or work with a newspaper. Whatever the course of events, they eventually married in New York on July 12, 1910 at possibly the Little Church Around the Corner. However, in the 1912 New York City directory, Jessica is still listed as a single secretary living at her previous address at 204 West 83rd Street with Maria S. Robinson, a nurse who was renting out a room to her. Likely the data in the city directory is at least a year old by the time of publication, so it not surprising that it is out of date. Jessica alluded to the earliest point when Wes made a trip to New York “about 1905” when she applied for naturalization papers in 1926.
It is not known when Wes introduced his new bride to Grand Manan and particularly the wonders of The Whistle but within a year they firmly committed to life on the island by purchasing property from James Stanley Jr. on Sept. 9, 1912 for $150. Perhaps his appointment as an instructor at the art school gave them the ability to afford this acquisition which was expensive by current standards. Wes began to immediately transform the landscape overlooking the majestic cliffs and spectacular view of the channel into his version of the Garden of Eden. Joining him in this early venture was artistic friend from New York, Voislav J. Spalaikovitch, who had a flair for sculpture and likely responsible for the statues of Adam and Eve in the garden at The Whistle. Spalaikovitch, a Serb, migrated to New York in 1900 where he attended the Art Students League with Griffin. Later in 1928, the Griffins expanded their property by acquiring most of the headland to what is known as the Gully lot adjoining the property of Wesley from his aunt Elizabeth Griffin who had married George Tatton, the lighthouse keeper at The Whistle.
By 1920, Wes and Jessica were renting an apartment in Manhattan on 61 Bank St. where he was listed as an artist and she as an employee in an art shop. During the previous decade, Wes had made at least one trip to the west coast to visit his parents. His stay was long enough to ensure that he was registered as a resident with them in the San Pedro city directory in 1913-14 at 629 West 15th St. and enumerated as an artist. Perhaps his return had something to do with his father’s declining health since he eventually died in 1916.
After his return to New York, with the official entry of the United States into the war in April, 1917, Wesley found it necessary to register for the war draft. Like many Canadian men who sought out jobs in factories and farms where manpower was in short supply, perhaps this motivated Wes to leave his wife in New York living with her friend, Mrs. Robinson; and take up employment on a farm owned by David P. Huntley near New London, Connecticut. Alternatively, he may have had a simpler reason to be exposed to landscapes that caught the attention of his artistic eye. Nonetheless, it was here on Sept. 9, 1918, just weeks before the close of World War 1 that he registered for the draft in that state. Following the Armistice in November and into 1920, the Griffins decided to seek out their own quarters at 61 Bank St. in West Village, part of Greenwich Village. By this time the Village was emerging as “Little Bohemia”, a haven for artists’ lofts. By 1925, Wes and Jessica were still living on Bank St. but travelling each summer to Grand Manan where he conducted art classes for summer visitors at his studio at the end of the Whistle Road.
Whale Cove Cottages in North Head, a summer enclave for tourists founded by Sarah H. Jacobus, Sally Adams and Marie Felix from Manhattan in 1901, would have been a natural source for clientele to take Griffin’s summer art classes and purchase his works. While Wes carried out his painting projects supplemented by revenue from classes, Jessica is reported in the St. Croix Courier in 1929 to be managing Whale Cove Cottages with her friend, Edith Say. That season may have been unexpected employment for Jessica because of the sudden death of Alice Coney in a car accident in Florida in February of that year.
Not much is known about Edith Weekes Say and how she came to Grand Manan. However, in the census for New York in 1925, Edith is living in the same building as the Griffins with her nephew, Edward. Her occupation was listed as a chemist. It seems likely that the Griffins introduced Edith to the Island which she quickly adopted as a home; for she purchased the property at the Whistle Lighthouse next to Wes’s Garden of Eden studio in the summer of 1924. Two years later she sold a small adjoining parcel to Wes except for a twelve foot right of way. The social column in the St. Croix Courier for May 30, 1929 announced that “Miss Say, of New York, arrived recently and has opened her cottage at the Eddy near the North Head Whistling Station”. By September of that year she is reported as “ Mrs Hewitt”, who was managing Whale Cove Cottages with Jessica Griffin; and, now were spending a few remaining weeks at the Whistle where they had cottages. Apparently she had married over the summer to Winifred Harvey Hewitt from Delaware, Ohio, a graduate of the New England Conservatory of Music in 1910 and currently an Associate Professor of Ohio Wesleyan University in Delaware, his old alma mater. It is possible that they may have met on Grand Manan.
Following the death of Wesley’s father, Webster, in 1919 in San Pedro, his widow and heirs deeded the family property in North Head to William Sydney Worthen. These heirs included Wesley, Harold and Alta, who was now married to John Deforest Abbott of San Pedro. Finally, in 1924, the family’s formal ties were severed with the island through the sale of a small lot adjoining the original property on the main highway in North Head to Charles Parker.
During the 1920s, both Wes and Jessica undertook a series of trips overseas, separately it seems. In early August, 1921, Jessica sailed for England from New York ostensibly to do social research. She indicated on her passenger declaration that she was “unaccompanied”. On her return in November via Quebec, She apparently went alone because she records in her declaration that she is joining her husband on Grand Manan. While in London she gave her address c/o The American Express Co. at Haymarket, S.W. near Piccadilly Circus.
Wesley travelled to England on December 15, 1926, from Saint John aboard the Mont Royal, a steamship in the Canadian Pacific Shipping Line. The passenger list records his occupation as an artist landing in Liverpool and staying in London c/o the American Express Co. At this time, he gives his wife’s address in New York as 204 West 83rd Street, the home of Mrs. Maria Robinson where Jessica resided when she was single. This also coincides with his employment in Old Lyme, Connecticut, where he was working on the farm of David Huntley. Wes evidently stayed in London until June of 1927 and indicated he had stayed near Old Compton St., very close to Piccadilly Circus and within walking distance of the British Museum.
Obviously, Wes and Jessica must have moved several times about Manhattan throughout the 1910s and 20s while he sought employment in Connecticut or through his studio on Grand Manan. By 1930, they had settled at 643 Hudson Street at least until his death on December 7, 1935 at the age of fifty. During that year he had spent from April until December on Grand Manan at their “Garden of Eden” cottage and studio. An item in the St. Croix Courier for Dec. 19th recorded his sudden death from pneumonia in New York City. It noted that an “artist both with oils and landscapes, a native son and champion of Grand Manan, passed on with the death recently of Wesley Griffin at his home in New York City.” John Graham, the island undertaker recorded that his body was “brought home” on June 4, 1936, and interred at North Head Cemetery.
Jessica apparently carried on after his death in their residence in the city but by 1940 had been lodging with one Julia Sullivan at West 11th Street in West Village. She became employed as a script writer for Radio WPA sometime before April of that year and spent time in Washington, D.C. The Works Progress Administration (WPA) was a government program designed to counter the impact of the Great Depression of the 1930s. Created in 1935 by executive order of President Franklin D. Roosevelt, the Federal Theatre Project, was an offshoot of the WPA.
Little is known about Jessica’s activities after this period or whether she returned to Grand Manan. We do know she died on Feb. 4, 1957 and was buried in Pine Grove Cemetery in her parents’ home town of Warner, New Hampshire. State and local records have not yielded either a death certificate or obituary, so it seems likely she died in New York City. It seems the studio/cottage, Garden of Eden, was left unattended for the next two years, when the heirs of Wesley and Jessica Griffin deeded the property at the Whistle to Douglas Worthen of North Head, for one thousand dollars. Within six years Worthen transferred the property to Theodore C. and Olliffe L. Hobbs of Delaware, Ohio.