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      PEMcast | December 1, 2016

      PEMcast 9: The Winter Caretaker

      Dinah Cardin

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      Dinah Cardin

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      In this brief episode, a PEM exhibition about New England impressionist Childe Hassam inspires an interview with Alex de Steiguer about her work as a photographer and the winter caretaker of Star Island off of Portsmouth, New Hampshire.

      ABOVE IMAGE: © 2016 Alexandra de Steiguer.

      PEMcast 9: The Winter Caretaker

      [background music]

      Chip Van Dyke: Welcome to the PEMcast. I'm Chip Van Dyke.

      I wanted to share with you a short bonus episode before we say goodbye to 2016. It's an outtake from an episode I was developing in response to our big summer painting exhibition "American Impressionist – Childe Hassam and the Isles of Shoals".

      The episode involved me trekking out to the islands and exploring Hassam's favorite painting spots and interviewing some of the people who worked out there. It just never came together before the exhibition closed. It happens.

      There was this one recording I made that I just couldn't let go of. It's an interview with artist Alex de Steiguer. Some of Alex's black-and-white photography of the Isles of Shoals was actually featured in the Hassam show.

      If you've read her connected post from early 2016, you'll know that Alex has a pretty unique job. For the last 20 years, she's been the winter caretaker on Star Island. Star Island, for those who don't know, is one of the nine small islands off the coast of New Hampshire that make up the Isles of Shoals. Anyway, here's that recording. I hope you enjoy it.

      Can you tell me your name and what you do?

      Alex de Steiguer: Sure. My name is Alexandra de Steiguer, and people call me Alex. I am the winter caretaker on Star Island, and I'm also a photographer. I shoot film black and white.

      It's just an old Mamiya and it doesn't require a battery, which is nice because, when I'm out in the cold, the battery would tend to seize. It takes up a lot of room in the kayak and I have a dry bag for it. Mostly I try to bring it. There's some days when I just want to walk around without the weight. [laughs]

      Chip: You said you were a caretaker now for the past 20 years, is that right?

      Alex: Yeah, this'll be my twentieth.

      Chip: Tell me how you got that job out there.

      Alex: I was visiting a shipmate who was working at the marine lab on Appledore. He and I had sailed together on the Ernestina, which is out in New Bedford. He was always talking about how beautiful the islands were, and that I should come out and check it out.

      One day, my partner and I finally made it out there to take a look. This friend mentioned that they were looking for caretakers over on Star Island. We had all the right qualifications, and they hired us pretty much on the spot.

      [background music]

      Alex: We're both the winter caretakers out there, but I'm the one that stays there full-time and Brad will come and go. He brings supplies and groceries and things like that, and sometimes, drinking water. I stay our the full five months.

      I like solitude. I like that centering that happens when you're alone. I crave that. I spent a lot of time in my youth alone, just running around in the woods, and I really like that aspect of connecting deeply with nature and what's around me.

      I think, when you have someone with you, you tend to be more focused on that person and what they're experiencing, but when you're alone, all of that can go away. It's almost as if you can forget that you're there, even. It's pure experience.

      That's a wonderful thing for an artist to have, in particular, because I can experience a place deeply and then be moved by that experience, and then create from that.

      I do try to kayak over to the other islands when the seas aren't too big and when it's pretty much dead calm. There's been a few times I've been caught out when there's been a wind shift. It can be a little hairy, but I like to check in on the other islands.

      I'll pick one island to go to and then I'll just spend some time on that island. I like to circumnavigate it. I get out on the rocks and I just walk all the way around. Islands do have a little different character from each other. I think Appledore is a little bit bigger and it has these gorges that are a little more wild feeling.

      On Star Island, there's one part of the island that is full of buildings, the old hotel is there, and there's a stone village, and of course, the chapel. The rest of Star Island is very wild, especially out on the east rocks. There's some real high bluffs. There's a lot of climbing around and scrambling around on rocks that you can do.

      It's weird because it looks tiny from the water. All of these islands look pretty small. Once you get on them and you start walking, there's a fair amount of walking. It takes a while to get to the other side of these islands, because it's not necessarily an easy walk.

      Chip: What is your job exactly as a winter caretaker?

      Alex: I have to go around to all the buildings. I walk through each building, through each room, and I just make sure that all the windows are still closed, that nothing has blown out. These are old buildings, and the winter winds get really harsh out there. There was one winter, a door ripped in half, the wind just took it, and so I boarded up the whole door.

      There's also times when snow blows into the buildings. Gale-force or storm-force winds will send fluffy snow into any little crack, and it'll blow right into the rooms. It causes these strange drifts across the floor and up against furniture, and it's really quite interesting to open a door and find all these strange shapes of snow all over everything.

      It's funny. They installed one of those double-helix wind turbines one year on Star Island. This winter there was a particularly fierce storm. It was hurricane-force winds. They were 91 miles an hour. I stood in the back window and just watched this double-helix just rip itself apart.

      Chip: Are you ever concerned for your safety out there?

      Alex: Yeah, it could get pretty hairy during the storms, but I'm not too concerned. I know it would be hard for, or impossible for the Coast Guard to get out. I'm pretty self-reliant.

      When I was a sailor, those storms at sea were certainly a lot more precarious than what I had going on on the island. I'm on solid land. I'm on a rock, and so far less can happen. Things can still happen, but I'm OK with that. I would take the freedom over...the kind of life that I'm living right now over any kind of safer life on the mainland.

      I like to photograph what I'm living. To me, the thing I'm doing is the thing that I'm passionate about. Hopefully, we can all do that in our lives. Before I was a winter caretaker, I was a sailor on the tall ships for about eight or nine years. I would go to sea for six or nine months, or whatever the voyage was, and so, when I was a sailor, I photographed that.

      Then, as a caretaker, I'm photographing what's around me out there. It deepens my appreciation, I think, for the place. Maybe it's more that, I guess, I already really appreciate the place. I love it. Making photographs is a way to express that. That's what it does for me.

      I can also bring a little bit of that back home with me. Hopefully, the feeling and what I got from the experience, I can bring that back home through the photographs and share it with others.

      Chip: Alex, thanks so much for taking this call.

      Alex: You're welcome, Chip. Very nice to talk with you.

      Chip: If you're around Boston and want to see some of Alex's work, head over to the Pucker Gallery on Newberry Street. Her show, "A Debt to Nature Due", will be on view February 4th through March 12th, 2017.

      That's our show. Thanks for listening. Over the past year, our team here at the PEMcast has produced more episodes than the previous two years combined. We're continuing to attract new listeners, so thank you to all of you who have recommended us to a friend or have posted about us on Facebook, wherever. It matters a lot to us.

      We've got lots of exciting things planned for 2017, and we hope you'll keep tuning in. Thanks for subscribing to us on your podcast app and for sending us your comments and feedback.

      You can always write to us at pemcast@pem.org, or leave a comment in our show notes at connected.pem.org.

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