September 15, 2021

Sky, Sea, Salt Air, and the D'Amico Institute of Art

In March 1960, observers on Long Island, New York, were treated to an unexpected sight: the beaching of an old World War II Navy barge on the southside of Napeague Harbor for the most extraordinary purpose. For Mabel and Victor D’Amico, this place would become the culmination of a dream, the creation of a unique arts education experience in a place that was, as Victor said, “more dramatic [than a regular classroom] and reflecting the character of the environment—sky, sea, and salt air…”

For over 60 years, The Art Barge has served as a place to bring amateur and professional artists of all ages together not only to be inspired, but also to be immersed in the natural environment. Today, the Barge is part of The D’Amico Institute of Art (DIA), which includes the D’Amico Studio and Archive located across the harbor in Lazy Point. In 2021, the DIA was added to the National Trust’s Historic Artists’ Homes and Studios program and became a part of the campaign for Where Women Made History.

A wide angle view of a beached barge with  three colorful squares on one of the upper stories and a ramp leading up to the entrance. It is white and black with a small beach in front and the expanse of the bay behind it.

photo by: D'Amico Institute of Art

View of The Art Barge with the wide expanse of Napeague Harbor in the background.

As historic preservationists, we often talk about the power of place, but in the case of The Art Barge and the DIA there is more to the story. Mabel and Victor D’Amico were incredible educators, whose lives centered around a philosophy that focused on a hands-on approach to learning. That is, the idea that people can learn about themselves and the world around them through the practice and creation of art.

Mabel and Victor: Artist Teachers

Born in 1909, Mabel Birckhead attended the Pratt Institute in Brooklyn and then Teachers College at Columbia University. She honed her artistic sensibilities throughout her career—both as a teacher and then later as the head of the art department at Rye High School in Rye, New York, a position she held from 1939 to 1964. As a found object/construction artist, Mabel used a variety of different materials, from glass and wood to motors and paint, always learning and discovering new materials to work with.

This inquisitiveness was critical to the way Mabel taught her students. She once wrote, “Art breaks the barriers of language, race and creed. It is an international language. Developing a fine sense of appreciation for art values is a large move toward eliminating intolerance. The basis of all good art through the ages is a planned, ordered way of doing things, highly individual, but conforming in the broader sense to the fundamental laws of design.”

In the late 1930s, Mabel met Victor D’Amico while a student at the Teachers College—he was a teacher there—and they married in 1945. D’Amico, whose education ranged from fine art and costume design at Cooper Union, to art education at the Pratt Institute, is best known as the founding director of education at the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) from 1937 to 1969. D’Amico believed "that the arts are a humanizing force, and their major function is to vitalize living.”

Throughout their life together, the D’Amicos certainly were a force for arts education. This included projects such as The War Veterans Art Center, originally conceived by Abby Rockefeller, a program designed to help veterans from World War II adjust to returning home.

Black and white image of a man and a woman sitting inside a home that is under construction. Mabel is leaning over,  with wide smile across her face, and Victor has a hand on his hip looking forward.

photo by: D'Amico Institute of Art

Victor and Mabel D'Amico around 1940.

Perhaps one of their most remarkable programs was the development of the Children’s Art Carnival. The program first began at MoMA in 1942 to encourage children from across the city to experience the museum through engagement with the various elements of art. The carnival eventually traveled to international fairs in Milan and Barcelona and the later to the Brussels World’s Fair in 1957. In 1962, the Carnival was presented as a gift by First Lady Jacqueline Kennedy to Indira Gandhi (she would become Prime Minister of India in 1966) for the National Children’s Museum in New Delhi where the D’Amicos—Victor as consulting director, Mabel as a teacher—trained others in the methods of art education. In 1995, sponsored by the DIA, the Children’s Art Carnival traveled to The National Children’s Castle in Tokyo, Japan. Currently, The Carnival continues every other year at The Art Barge.

Learning By Doing

In 1940, Mabel and Victor began construction on a beachfront lot in Amagansett’s Lazy Point. During that period, that part of Long Island was quickly becoming a refuge for city dwellers looking to escape the heat, including modern artists such as Jackson Pollock and Lee Krasner.

The home that the D’Amicos built was a testament to their artistic philosophy. Their design aesthetic for the home focused on basic modernist functional principles. However, recognizing the material shortage and challenges brought on by the war, the D’Amicos used recycled building materials from another structure. In 1953, the home was expanded even more to include a glass-enclosed living area and a second-story art studio for Mabel.

A sepia toned image with a man working on constructing some walls while another man sitting behind him observing with a cigarette in his hand. The background is of a bay of water and an open landscape..

photo by: D'Amico Institute of Art

Photograph, circa 1950, of Victor D'Amico working on their home at Lazy Point while the artist Jackson Pollock observes from behind.

Throughout their time in the home, the D’Amico’s—particularly Mabel—would add to and change their home through the use of found objects. Christopher Kohan, president of the board of trustees at the DIA, said, "The house with all its found object art works as one large box art construction in itself.”

In 1960, the D’Amico’s opened The Art Barge—originally an outpost of MoMA—where most of the initial instruction focused on studio painting and teacher training courses. As the curriculum expanded, more teachers joined Victor—and later Mabel—with a particular focus on workshops designed for younger people. Inspired by the practice of “painting on location,” the D’Amico’s saw value in directly connecting the artist with inspiration not only through the school’s unique facilities, but also the broader view of the harbor and the Atlantic Ocean.

Interior of the D'Amico House with wide glass windows and seating areas. There are pieces of art scattered along the window sills, on the walls and along the floor, each piece a combination of media and found objects.

photo by: Jenny Gorman/Victor D’Amico Institute of Art

Interior of the D'Amico studio at Lazy Point.

Where Victor was a force in the art world because of his work at MoMA, Mabel was no less innovative and groundbreaking. Not only was she a founding member of the National Committee on Art Education, she was also known for creative experimentation and creating educational tools that are still used today—such as creating a standard setup for painting that includes primary colors, black, and white with a sponge, a water bowl, and three brush sizes. The Art Barge was where both D’Amicos were able to conclusively demonstrate their overall vision for art, artists, and the role of an art educator, as was described by Mabel, “crucial to the discovery and development of every individual’s creative expression.”

The D’Amico Institute of Art Today

Following the death of both D’Amicos—Victor in 1987 and Mabel in 1998—the home at Lazy Point, The Art Barge, and the Archive continue to further the D’Amico’s belief that “art is a human necessity.”

Not only can students still take courses at The Art Barge, but they can explore the D’Amico Studio and Archive, which displays a wide range of artwork that belonged to and was created primarily by Mabel. Preserving the structure and the collection of the D’Amico Studio and Archive along with sharing their creative story with the public is a testament to the creative legacy of Mabel and Victor. By letting visitors become the artists, The Art Barge provides a further glimpse into the D'Amico's philosophy as both artists and educators.

For Kohan, being a part of the Historic Artists’ Homes and Studios program is an honor, he says. “The D’Amico Studio and Archive and The Art Barge are unique, as are all the other HAHS sites. Not only can you visit and see how these two individuals built, lived, and worked in an unparalleled beautiful natural surrounding, but the visitor can become the artist and attend a class or workshop at The Art Barge. Mabel and Victor truly believed that every individual can discover their creative potential and learn to appreciate the variety in the world around them. That is living history.”

Those who can visit The D’Amico Institute of Art will be able to breathe in the bay air and see first-hand how Victor and Mabel worked to imbue the world with boundless creativity, because Mabel believed—something we can all agree with—that “art should become for all young people, regardless of their ability, a form of expression which they will use naturally and unselfconsciously throughout their lives.”

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While her day job is the associate director of content at the National Trust for Historic Preservation, Priya spends other waking moments musing, writing, and learning about how the public engages and embraces history.

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