Kicking Back at East Hampton's Mermaid Ranch

“Satellite studio meets vacation set up,”
Nathaniel Mary Quinn took a moment to enjoy the scenery at the Mermaid Ranch, where he was in residence last week. Jennifer Landes

Just off Three Mile Harbor Road, down a long dirt driveway punctuated by deer, Mermaid Ranch sits high on a bluff over the harbor in a low-slung midcentury-modern-style box designed to unleash the creative forces in the artist residents it welcomes.

The interior has a louche 1970s kind of vibe, with plants taking over the ceiling and rafters in the great room. There is a turntable and a sizable collection of vinyl, and the low couches and chairs are done up in loosely geometric fabrics. It wouldn’t be too unexpected to spy a lava lamp in a corner. After three years of existence, Mermaid Ranch has a comfortable lived-in look. Stairs lead down to the beach, and chairs on a deck and in the grass overlook the water. 

Described as a “satellite studio meets vacation set up,” Mermaid Ranch was first envisioned by Richard Christiansen as a space for his Chandelier Creative advertising agency employees to get away from the office and recreate while still getting work done. His staff uses the house in the off-season, but for the past two summers it has hosted artists chosen through a selection committee that changes annually. 

Previous residents have included Sam McKinniss, Chloe Wise, and Daniel Heidkamp. On the list for this summer so far are Robert Davis, Shara Hughes, Austin Eddy, and Collier Schorr. 

On a recent Tuesday morning, Nathaniel Mary Quinn and his wife, Donna Augustin Quinn, had just arrived for their 10-day stay. Mr. Quinn said he was approached about two months ago by Rashid Johnson, an artist who has a place in Bridgehampton, and Bill Powers, the owner of Half Gallery, who with Alexandre Stipanovich, the residency’s director, form this year’s selection committee.

“We describe the place as a creative retreat in East Hampton,” said Mr. Stipanovich. “There they can be feet in the water, heads in the clouds, allowing them to take the time to recharge, breathe, and hopefully get some fresh inspiration for their upcoming shows.” Those at the agency hope that the artists’ work will inspire them, in turn, or lead to future collaborations. “But first of all, we’re offering them this place because we like their work” and want to support them, Mr. Stipanovich said.

“You never know what might spark someone,” said Mr. Powers, who planned to give the Quinns “the nickel tour” during their stay, taking them around Springs and to Camp Hero in Montauk, with a possible stop at the photographer Peter Beard’s place nearby.

“Artists like Jackson Pollock and Willem de Kooning and Andy Warhol made the Hamptons a famous destination for artists, but that distinction is not relegated to the past,” Mr. Powers said. “There is a rich ongoing tradition of artists inhabiting the East End, from Mary Heilmann to Richard Prince to Rashid Johnson. It’s always been a place that puts people in a contemplative mood, whether that means solitude or a refound appreciation for nature.” Mr. McKinniss worked on drawings during his stay and Mr. Heidkamp was interested in plein-air paintings. “But it’s also fine just to relax. Sometimes the best ideas bubble up when you’re only half paying attention.”

“They said you can come out, make art, relax,” Mr. Quinn said. “It’s nice to be working by the water. I like the environment. It’s quiet. I like that more than anything.”

The past four years have been a whirlwind for Mr. Quinn, whose canvases recall the British artist Francis Bacon with their distorted and exaggerated facial features in a kind of decomposed, expressionistic portrait. In fact, his first big show was in London at Pace Gallery in 2014.

Before then, he had spent a decade working as a teacher and counselor in Brooklyn for at-risk youth. They were kids with minor infractions, like stealing a bag of chips, who might be facing six months at Rikers Island. “We would say, ‘Give them to us and we will give them professional development, help them in school, help them get their G.E.D. or pass their math class, whatever they need. We’ll also work on their emotional health and restructure their behavior pattern.’ ” In his last job, they placed the kids in paid internships and helped them apply to college and work on their résumés, “everything you need to get through in the real world.”

He said he would return from his job at about 8, spend an hour with his wife, and from 9 to midnight make art in a converted second bedroom in their apartment in Bed-Stuy.

Through a series of connections, Marc Glimcher, the president of Pace, was brought to his studio in April of 2014. Two weeks later he was given the show. He left his job and devoted the next few months to making art for the exhibition. It sold out immediately.

Other galleries that represent him are Almine Rech Gallery in Europe, Salon 94 in New York, Rhona Hoffman in Chicago (where he is from), and M+B Gallery in Los Angeles. Elton John is a collector and invited the Quinns to his Oscar party this year. Mr. Quinn said the waiting lists for his work are long. The three canvases he hopes to finish in East Hampton are for an upcoming Salon 94 solo show.

Ms. Quinn has also found recent success. Her day job was in dental equipment sales and now she is working on several film projects. Her recent short film “Bodega” has been screened at several film festivals and she is working on a feature.

“I am very fortunate,” Mr. Quinn said. “It is far more likely that you will not become a full-time artist than become one. You can be talented and hard-working, those things are part of it, but a lot of it’s timing and the market. You probably have a better chance of being drafted for the N.B.A. or becoming a surgeon.”

Both of them said they could see themselves coming to the South Fork to live and work, as others have, now that their circumstances are rapidly changing. This is the stated and unstated goal of most artist residencies on the South Fork, to attract younger creative people here and get them to stay.

Those interested in applying for space at the ranch can do so by emailing mermaids@chandeliercreative.com.

Set on the water with floor-to-ceiling windows taking in the harborside view, the Mermaid Ranch has a playful 1970s quality in its furniture and decor. Jeremy Liebman
One of Nathaniel Mary Quinn's works in progress from his time at "the ranch" last week.Donna Augustin Quinn