Edward Hopper, Vermont, and the Aloha Connection

No, this is not the title of a new song by the Muppets. Rather, it’s a short story about coming across an odd and unexpected reference to the Aloha Spirit while doing the research for Edward Hopper in Vermont—a connection that’s aside from my having lived for many years in Hawai’i. Bear with me while I establish the links.

A couple of weeks ago I read a wonderful article in the New York Times travel section about the visit that Georgia O’Keeffe made to Hawai’i in 1939.  Of course I was immediately struck by the parallels with Edward Hopper’s visits to Vermont during the same time period. Both of these stories involve New York artists’ anomalous sojourns in beautiful, rural places, far off the beaten track. O’Keeffe stayed in Hana, a plantation town on the outer island of Maui, and Hopper boarded on a farm in central Vermont, where cows outnumbered people. In both cases, the result was a small number of distinctive works that could not have been painted elsewhere, the flamboyant O’Keeffe’s dramatic and brilliantly colored oils of I’ao Falls and tropical vegetation, and the quiet Hopper’s watercolor scenes of the White River, a more peaceful and subtle landscape. The eye witness to each of these stories was a child, both now elderly but still with us to tell the tale. In Hawai’i, Patricia Jennings, the 12-year-old daughter of the plantation owner, served as a guide for O’Keeffe, and in Vermont, 7-year-old Alan Slater, son of the owners of Wagon Wheels Farm, joined the cows in watching Hopper paint the First Branch of the White River.  Jennings has a photo of Georgia that she snapped in 1939. Slater owns a watercolor portrait of himself, painted by Jo Hopper in 1937.

The Georgia O’Keeffe story got me thinking about Hawai’i, and since I’m sitting in Vermont, it was a natural segue to thoughts of the Aloha Foundation and its camps—Aloha Hive, Lanakila, and Ohana—which are not on the beaches of Maui, O’ahu, or Kaua’i, but on the Vermont shores of Lakes Fairlee and Morey, just about 30 miles north of South Royalton. Unlikely as it may seem, these camps reflect a very real historical connection between New England and “the Sandwich Islands,” in this case, between Vermont and Hawai’i.  The Aloha camps were founded over 100 years ago by Edward Gulick and Harriet Farnsworth Gulick, who were the descendants of missionary families who had emigrated from New England to Asia and the Pacific in the early 19th century.  The Gulicks grew up in Hawai’i, most likely attended the missonary-founded Punahou School, and then reversed their ancestors’ itinerary, crossing the ocean to the U.S. Mainland and returning to New England.  In 1905 “Mother” and “Father” Gulick opened their first camp for girls, named Aloha in loving remembrance of Hawai’i, and based on the ideals of ethical service and community responsibility. Aloha was followed by Aloha Hive, for younger girls, and Lanakila, for boys. The Aloha camps have subsequently hosted multiple generations of loyal campers and continue to be vibrantly active to this day.

And now we get to the Hopper connection.  In the summer of 1920, four years before her marriage to Edward Hopper, Josephine Nivison worked as an arts and crafts counselor at the Aloha Hive camp. Jo was an accomplished artist—having studied painting with the famous Robert Henri—but an impoverished one. To earn a living she taught in the public schools of New York City. As a teacher, she may have been recruited by the Aloha Camps, or she may have answered an ad in the New York Times, offering “A Summer Opportunity” with “good salary” in an appealing and beautiful location, a respite from the heat and crowds of the city.  In any event, in 1920 Jo traveled by train to Ely, Vermont, and spent two months at Aloha Hive. Returning to New York after this stint in the country, she wrote that the problems of city life seemed remote and unreal.
I found no other mention of Aloha Hive in Jo’s letters in the Whitney Museum archives. But Josephine Nivison’s 1920 registration card, identifying her simply as a “craft councillor,” remains in the files at the Aloha Foundation in Fairlee, and I visited their archives to look for any traces of Jo’s summer in Vermont. In a box of assorted memorabilia I found a panoramic photo of all the Aloha Hivers from 1920, campers seated in the front row, counselors lined up in the back—and there was Jo, unmistakable for her curly hair and diminutive stature, dressed in the camp uniform of middy blouse and tie. Truth be told, her brow is furrowed, and she does not appear to have been infused with the esprit de camp—the Aloha spirit, in this case. Perhaps she was ill, as she had been when she left a difficult teaching job in New York City.
November 2010 057A

Nevertheless, the Aloha Hive landscape must have made a positive impression on Jo, for seven years later she encouraged Edward Hopper to drive across the Connecticut River into Vermont, in search of places to paint.  Perhaps she did indeed absorb the Aloha spirit–Vermont version–and the idyllic directive to the Aloha Hive campers in this paradise on the shores of Lake Fairlee:
“Get the rest and inspiration of this lovely spot. . . . Store up happy memories . . . and an  intimacy with the many beautiful places about Aloha. Shut your eyes and see if you can carry away with you for long years to come the picture you see from your tent, the wooded hills, the rippling lake, and the gray distant mountains.” (From a brochure cited by  Katherine S. Christie, “History of the Aloha Foundation,” 2003.)

Writing this makes me think once again how much Vermont reminds me of Hawai’i, something that seems odd only to those who haven’t experienced both places.  But that’s the subject of another story.

Lake Fairlee, Vermont, site of the Aloha Foundation camps. Photo: Bonnie Clause, 2010.

2 thoughts on “Edward Hopper, Vermont, and the Aloha Connection

  1. Aloha Bonnie,
    Fascinating story. Iʻve never heard another person make the connection between Vermont and Hawai‘i but myself. Iʻve spent a lot of time in the Hilo / Puna / Volcano area and quickly nicknamed the area “tropical Vermont” in describing it to East Coast friends. Kaneohe is more a sprawling suburb, lol. I look forward to reading more about Edward Hopper.
    A hui hou,

    • I think we have the makings of a new club here…I’m glad to have found another potential member! I’ll write more about why I think Vermont is like Hawai’i, so watch this site. And I hope you’ll read the book, even though the Hoppers never got any closer to Hawai’i than Jo’s trip to the Aloha Hive camp!

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