John Egle died on Nantucket at the age of 101, four years after he’d stopped painting his contemporary primitive paintings, and today many consider him a folk art icon in New England. He certainly holds that distinction among contemporary Nantucket artists. Egle worked at the same time as Polly Bushong on Nantucket and Ralph Cahoon on the Cape, but painting occupied only his much later years, since he started in 1970 and became serious in 1972. His back story is equally fascinating.
Egle was born in Tukums, Latvia in 1886, a time when Czarist Russia had a strangle hold on the area. At fifteen, John was recruited by local subversives to distribute pamphlets that called for freedom from Russian domination. He escaped from scrutiny, reaching the Latvian community in Beverly, Massachusetts where is uncle lived. At age 22, John drifted for a year or two until he came to Nantucket to live with his brother-in-law. John took a job with Leeds Mitchell on Brant Point as captain of a new boat, a relationship that would last until 1957. John was both an employee and an extremely close family friend to the Mitchells and their children. In 1978, Leeds Mitchell, Jr. wrote a biography of Egle, a typewritten copy of which is in AAN’s Permanent Collection along with several Egle oils.
In the 1950s, the Egles moved to the Lily Pond area, sharing a property with their daughter’s husband, electrician Bob Blair. The Lily Pond would become the subject of many of his paintings, featured in summer and in winter.
John’s oil paintings quickly became fixtures with AAN at the Kenneth Taylor Galleries, at the annual Sidewalk Art Show, and at the James Hunt Barker Galleries.
In the year of his death, six canvases from his over three hundred completed works, were featured in “Stories to Tell; The Narrative Impulse in Contemporary New England Folk Art,” a large exhibition at the DeCordova Museum in Lincoln, Massachusetts.
— Robert Frazier