John William Austin grew up on Long Beach Island, New Jersey, a barrier island devastated by Hurricane Sandy in 2012. He later lived in "a little cottage down on a beach at Lavallette," on the barrier beaches just to the north.
He had many different careers: boat builder, fisherman, reporter, cartoonist, brakeman on the Bangor and Aroostook Railroad, agent for Northeast Airlines, shark hunter, pilot, aeronautical safety engineer with Pratt & Whitney Aircraft in Hartford, and founder/writer/illustrator of the Pratt & Whitney house publication on safety.
During WWII, Austin was a pilot with the U.S. Eighth Air Force investigating air accidents and performing air-to-sea rescues in England and on the European continent. He did thousands of pencil sketches with watercolor washes during this period. His son, Phil, describes "plastic folders full of pen-and-ink drawings and watercolors, and some of this stuff he did when he was a teenager in the 1930s."
A graduate of the Art Students League of New York after the war, he studied with Reginald Marsh, William Zorach, John Groth, Robert Henri, and landscape instructor Julian Levy. He also studied for two seasons with Edward Hopper (1882–1967) on Cape Cod, where Hopper summered in South Truro.
Austin exhibited at the Wiley Gallery in Hartford; the Munson Gallery on Old South Wharf and in Chatham and New Haven; the Cobb Gallery in Barnstable; the Carnival Gallery in Ridgefield, New Hampshire; the Kendall Gallery in Wellfleet; the Orleans Gallery; and, on island, the Main Street Galley as well as the Kenneth Taylor Galleries and the Lobster Pot Gallery.
John moved with his wife, Emily, and family to Nantucket from the Hartford area in 1973, but maintained a job as a special consultant to Pratt & Whitney. He exhibited on Nantucket first at the Munson Gallery on Old South Wharf; then the Lobster Pot Gallery on Easy Street; and for the thirty-year period of his flourishing career with Reggie Levine at the Main Street Gallery (and its brief spin-off, the Federal Street Gallery) until it closed in 2000.
He authored Why Stripe a Lighthouse? in 1997 and Roads Without Numbers: Farm Buildings of New England, published in 2001. "He was such a great storyteller in his younger days," says Phil Austin. While researching the second book, as told to author Chris Warner in 2001, one day "after he took a photograph of a red barn in winter, a woman approached and had a short exchange with him. Once he'd left in his car, her suspicions about the stranger got the better of her, and she called the police. The local officers pulled John's car over but let him go once they'd taken a look at his sketchbook." Austin often made notes on color and detail within his sketches. He started using a camera in the mid-1980s.
"As a commercial artist," writes Carolyn Walsh on the Rafael Osona Auctions Web site, "Austin designed floats for Macy’s annual Thanksgiving Day Parades." In 1981 the Inquirer and Mirror reported, "Over the years, Austin has executed a wide spectrum of client commissions, ranging from ’Sconset North Bluff mansions, Coast Guard vessels, antique cars, all the way to a black and white cat on the porch of a Pine Street house." His 1981 Main Street Gallery solo show was limited to paintings of abandoned island trucks, tour jitneys, fire apparatus, etc. His son Phil admitted that he liked "old vehicles and rusted stuff."
According to Dan Kelliher, Austin's connection to the Coast Guard was close. "A memorial service was held on 27 OCT 01 for the late marine artist John Austin. STA Brant Point had an impressive color guard at the service while BMCM Downey, BMCS Lucey, BMCS McClay, and YN2/SK2 Kelliher were in the church. Many Coast Guard cutters and Coast Guard homes proudly display John's paintings. When the crew of a cutter wanted to purchase one of John's paintings for a departing CO/OIC, John would ask how many guys were in the crew, and then charge them $5.00 or $10.00 per crew member for the painting." He helped found the Lifesaving Museum, and he was a member of the Wharf Rat Club. [WRC was formally established in 1927; John could not have been a “charter” member.]
Austin was a studio painter who almost exclusively employed tempera paints. "With watercolors," said Austin in the I&M in 1983, "you're racing against time, waiting for things to happen." Egg tempera, on the other hand for Austin, gave the appearance of oil and allowed him greater freedom. He used tempera paints on Upson board, prepared mainly from ground-wood and recycled paper products. "You can show more detail, more texture," he said. "I sketch the drawing out, then paint the white areas, then the blue—I start by painting the lightest colors first. Everyone has their own approach. This is what I do. When I'm done, I go over the whole painting and fill in all the details." His Nantucket house portraits hang in many households.
"From the Chicken Box to the Pence School, from pilot houses to cranberry harvests, Austin’s paintings captured the laid-back flavor of Nantucket culture. House portraits and commissioned works were his specialty, as Austin thoroughly relished the social exchange with his clients and collectors," writes Carolyn Walsh. "Commemorative ship portraits, presented by the Nantucket Coast Guard Station to retiring officers, earned Austin an honorary post in the Guard. Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis collected Austin’s work, as did Mrs. Paul Mellon and Joyce & Seward Johnson."
He became famous after the sale at auction of two tempera paintings—of Brant Point and Tuckernuck—for $56,000 total (they originally sold for $500 apiece) at Sotheby’s auction of the Estate of Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis in New York in April of 1996. According to his son Phil, "Jackie used to come over to the island just to buy the latest offerings. One day she wrote a check for eight [works] and told the [Main Street] gallery to deliver them to her little summer place over on the Vineyard."
Austin last dwelled in a "little Nantucket cottage at 49 West Chester Street." He had a stroke in 1999 and lost strength in his right hand.
- Robert Frazier