The ABCs of Pat Gardner: Artist, Birder, Conservationist
If you parked in the circular driveway by Pat Gardner’s cottage on Hummock Pond Road, you faced her workshop and studio. When you entered the doorway, you’d first spy the framed pastel of Pat as a young girl, rendered by a dear friend of her youth. Beyond that you’d find a tiny space with her framed art and a few carved birds. The main workshop section of the building housed chisels, drills, rasps, saws, hammers, and an array of old hand tools mounted on the walls between and around the windows. Her favorite beech wood mallet sat on one of the plywood-topped benches, a narrow surface that sported a large woodworker’s vise, its flat jaws lined with soft wood for a grip on her latest bird carving. Another bench displayed more finished birds and abstract sculptures. Shelves built into a pegboard supported a semi-organized mass of tins and jars of paintbrushes. On a homemade taboret sat a small fine art printing press. A long striped apron hung from a hook.
You might have discerned much about the owner’s day-to-day life from this entire tableau, but it could reveal only a sliver of her Yankee character.
A descendant of original Nantucket settlers, Mary Patricia Gardner was born to Edouard O. Gardner and Helen Powers Gardner, and she was raised on Mount Vernon Farm along Hummock Pond. There she learned to pasteurize and bottle milk from cows that occasionally pastured by the pond, or even further afield across the sparsely populated southwest of the island.
The Gardners were descended from half-share settlers, who were allotted a certain number of acres. Over time they bought neighboring acreage along Hummock Pond, said Pat’s cousin Marcia Gardner Tooker. “Until they owned shares 17, 18 and 19.” But she noted how private property taxes escalated. “Turning that land to agriculture only made sense.”
“The farmhouse was beautiful,” recalled Tooker. “With no central heating, we’d light fires in all the rooms. Woodsmoke and cooking smells. Those bring back great memories.” In the barn there was a side room that held old whaling gear that had been passed down through the Gardner family, and that included logbooks from ships. “Pat and I would take them up into the hayloft and read them. I remember the handwriting was so precise. We’d dream about sailing around the Horn.”
Tooker recounted how she and Linda Loring and Pat used Pat’s tiny shack on Hummock Pond as a starting point for adventure in later years. “We’d sail down to the end of Hummock Pond from the shack and go swimming in the ocean, then sail back. Cisco was pretty much empty.”
Tooker considered that Pat’s early years had a great impact on her adult life and artwork. “Growing up on a farm,” she said, “you learned so much about nature. You appreciated how it worked.”
Pat began her art training with sketching and painting lessons from Ruth Haviland Sutton, and her long-term friendship with Sutton led her to the Artists Association and its tight community of patrons and artist members. Pat graduated Nantucket High School in 1944, and she joined a fledgling AAN a few years later as an oil painter, serving briefly on its board while she completed her education at Skidmore College. “I think,” said Gardner, “my exposure to the beginnings of the Artists Association was very influential in my life.”
After graduating Skidmore in 1948 with a fine arts degree, Pat learned illustration in Seattle at the Cornish School of Art, which led her to Rhode Island and an eight-year stint rendering detailed international maps from U.S. Army aerial photography. She returned to the island in 1960, the year that Sutton passed away, “looking for ways to get back into art work.” Taking an unconventional approach, she began to repair and refinish furniture in what she termed “an apprentice sort of way” with clockmaker Earl S. Ray. “I was learning what I could by helping him. I learned about carving tools and how to use the electrical tools in the shop.” She also studied with Aletha Macy, who worked in both wood and ivory.
At first, Pat carved birds by copying the many antique decoys owned by her family on the farm. As she grew proficient, her painted birds were influenced by traditional carvers of the 19th and 20th century, yet her hardwood birds in walnut and mahogany employed streamlined shapes in a very personal style. She even chiseled freeform sculpture. “I like abstract natural wood objects,” said Pat. “The wood dictates what the shape will be. It’s exciting because you’re really not in control of it.”
Pat sold many of her birds through the Main Street Gallery and Nantucket Looms. “Pat was very modest about her work,” noted Looms owner Andy Oates. “She worked painstakingly on her carved and painted birds, painting them and repainting them before she was satisfied.” George Thomas, who managed the AAN Permanent Collection with Pat’s help during the 1980s and 90s, often praised her dedication. “Pat’s world and her love was birds.” She held a respected position in the island’s birding community, covering her segment of the island during the annual bird count--which included a Land Bank property known now to birders as “Pat’s Puddle.”
Despite her success at woodcarving, she always declared a fondness for painting. “Painting is my first love,” said Gardner, “although there are more painters around than bird carvers. I love landscapes. I do a lot of painting out of doors. I can achieve what I want best by doing that. It has a more spontaneous quality if I paint on the scene.”
Pat took up watercolors around 1970 and never looked back. What excited her about the medium was its immediacy. “I simply, and in a straight forward fashion, arrive at the essence of an object without a lot of detail. If I don’t capture the scene immediately and on the spot, I have lost it.” When arthritis reduced her efforts to carve birds at the pace of her youth, Pat concentrated on watercolors and pastels of unspoiled island scenery. The annual AAN Artist/Patron award for excellence at en plein air painting is named after her.
Early career shows for Pat were mounted at the Main Street Gallery in 1972 and 1978. Her collectors included family members of the Beineckes, Menschels, Rockefellers, Mellons, as well as Jackie Kennedy Onassis. She also enjoyed one-woman shows at AAN’s Little Gallery, first in 1965 and then 1975. In 1985 her work showed with that of Elizabeth Saltonstall and Emerson Tuttle at the Maria Mitchell Science Library on Vestal Street.
Pat also maintained a lifelong involvement with AAN. In 1975 alone Pat acted as co-vice-president of AAN, coordinating year round business, and she chaired the membership committee. Her reminiscence with Reggie Levine in the July 4, 1995 issue of The Nantucket Beacon spoke volumes about her attachment to the association.
Gardner’s passion for the island of her birth also led her to serve on the boards of the Maria Mitchell Association, Nantucket Atheneum, and Tuckernuck Land Trust. She was instrumental in her last years at placing nearly 50 total acres of Gardner family property along Hummock Pond into safekeeping with the Land Bank. “She has a long history of conservation,” Land Bank director Eric Savetsky said of Pat and her last conveyance in 2002. “This acquisition simply adds to the legacy she and other members of the Gardner family contributed. It’s a nice way to remember her. Conservation was near and dear to her heart.”
George Thomas, a director emeritus of AAN, summed her legacy and her heart in 15 words. “She just did things for the love of it. And she did incredibly skillful things.”
- Bobby Frazier, 5/2018