The Light of the East End

Written By: Terry  Staverman

It happened a long time ago, in the early years of several decades past when I first came across a reference to The Light out here. Since then there have been many more sporadic mentions over the years which have kept my initial bewilderment engaged as to: What is there about the light out here? I’ve never actually heard a speaking human voice commenting on The Light. In fact, I believe all references came to me in print form. The latest popped up in the November 26, 2012 issue of New York Magazine, in an architectural critique of the Parrish Art Museum’s new home in Water Mill; the curiously minimalist design, and its site in the middle of a former agricultural field – appearing simultaneously obtrusive and forlorn in its barren environment. The latter observation is my own. The quote as follows: “The design springs from that milky East End radiance that has seduced artists from William Merritt Chase to … and Jane Freilicher.” “ … milky”? “East End radiance … “? It goes on to further explain: “The museum lies askew to the road so that one bank of clear-glass skylights can face due north, as in the ideal studio.” During the course of studying the visual arts, one soon learns of the preference artists share for working in conditions where the only natural light comes from the North, whenever possible. The most sought-after ateliers are the ones with available North facing windows. The reasoning is that northern light stays fairly consistent during the daylight hours as the sun makes its arc from rising in the East to setting in the West at the end of the day, thereby leaving the light from the north undiluted with the sun’s coquettishly, glaring rays. So, is there an overabundance of available northern light out here than anywhere else? Almost all of the references to The Light have usually been related to art, and in near reverential tones – to my mind’s reading ear, mainly referring to the many artists living and working among the scattered villages of the East End. This is what brought them out here, or one of the reasons at any rate. They love working in It. There is no further explanation of what they mean. In fact, there is never any more information forth-coming. Is The Light especially beneficial to the plein air landscape artists? How does it benefit the artists working indoors in their studios? Unless, of course, those studios were custom built with large North-facing windows and custom-designed skylights. Yes? … And? … I hear myself asking. What more of this Light? It’s as if they assume everyone knows what they’re talking about. If you spend any amount of time out here, say more than a weekend, you may come to realize that there’s a great deal of It all around you. Volumes more than anywhere in the midst of New York City – except if you’re near the rivers bordering Manhattan or surrounding Staten Island; the southern coastline of Brooklyn and the 90+ miles of Long Island coastline west of the East End. But I’ve never come across anything favorably written, or verbalized, about the light of those environs. Out here you would notice immediately that there’s a great deal of It overhead. No high-rise, sky-scraper buildings to block the great expanses of horizon in all directions, when your gaze comes down from the sky. At my favorite beach in the Hamptons there’s a beguiling illusion I’ve not noticed at any other beach visited from Maine, New Jersey, to South Carolina, Florida, Key West and beyond to the islands of the Caribbean. Looking toward the East, or the West, down the coastline past the bathers and the umbrellas, far off in the distance where the parallel lines of sea and shore come together, you might see a rather sizeable, hazy burst of shimmering light resembling a benign, earth bound supernova. I can only speculate that this is the probable coalescence of sea spray and sun glare emanating from the sand and water. Otherwise, I’ve imagined this illusory sight as something of a sci-fi portal; entering and moving through the haze, surrounded in it, and coming through to the other side in another dimension of time and place — ideally, somewhere in the spectrum of time where there exists world peace. But of course, in reality when you get to that point there will be nothing there to walk through – just more light and air. An optical illusion like the one that creates the mirage of a lake in the desert, or when driving along the L.I.E. on a hot Summer day with the sun beating down on the asphalt, you may think you see a puddle up ahead. I have no doubt that the abundance of East End light has much to do with the verdant fecundity of the flora out here. It’s as though it pulsates. By mid-Spring, after a few strung-together days of sunshine and warmth, everything fairly explodes overnight. I have seen the trees and shrubs erupt from emerging early buds to full leaf in a day. Or so it seems. There follows an accelerated rate of growth that can seem threatening, as though if I stood still long enough the shrubbery, the vines, the trees, the ever-pesky weeds, would envelope and smother me, the house, and everything in its path. There is evidence of this probability whenever formerly occupied and well attended properties are abandoned. Then, I must hire a gardener for a day or two, and once armed with our weapons we declare an all-out assault and go about pruning and weeding and sawing and hacking back the overgrowth to widen the distance between me and ever encroaching Mother Nature. It’s a losing battle. She’s an impenetrable and formidable birthing machine. At times when I’m strolling around the garden at the end of the day, inspecting shrubs and new plantings, I find myself waiting for the moment the air stops moving, the birds have gone to roost, the neighbors are indoors with their children and their dogs, and my world is still and quiet for a while. It is when the waning light of day has not yet kissed the dark goodnight, and gone to bed together, that I become enchanted with the transcendental light of the gloaming. The saturated hues of the world in daylight have toned down to a study in grays – gray/green, gray/blue, gray/brown … I pause in this subdued pastel gray light, and — hearing a faint rustle in the dried debris of fallen leaves, I spin a fantasy of wood nymphs awakening from an all-day slumber, going about and gathering their friends. They nag and cajole Pan, who stands among the day lilies, to make music with his pan-pipes while they dance and plan the mischief they will play all night. I stand under an old oak tree and wait for fairies to tug at my hair. As if flights-of-fancy about other-worldly portals, wood nymphs and fairies were not enough to warrant frequent self-imposed reality checks, there happened a most unusual occurrence one late afternoon in the late Summer of perhaps three years ago, that was so astonishing I’ve berated myself to this day for not thinking to make notes of the event. It was when The Light virtually changed and became a color. Yes, The Light became the color Mauve! It was as though I was looking at the world around me through Mauve colored glasses! A bit giddy at the sight I began twirling myself around in it, my arms outstretched overhead, imagining possible hidden health and beauty benefits – or, perhaps, the essence of eternal youth. I suppose the elements involved for this phenomenon had to do with the position of the late-afternoon sun, probably some clouds providing refractivity, gases and particles in the air, and who knows what else. The ineffable beauty of the world awash in Mauve light was simply a wonderful act of sublime atmospheric theatre. During the hot and humid Summer days when I should be lying on a lounge outdoors sipping lemonade and reading a book under the filtered shade of the patio Honey Locust, I find myself instead, restless and energized – and off I go on a brisk two-mile walk up and down the aptly named Shinnecock Hills. Is it The Light filling me with all this robustness that keeps me strong and healthy for my years? Is it because the air is filtered and cleansed with sea-spray causing The Light to become clearer and brighter, and thereby radiant? Is the light more beautiful at all the coastal environs along the east coast? What about the light of the seaside towns and villages of New England? Are the artists up there swooning over their light as well? Will I ever find out what’s so special about The Light of the East End?