Artist finds niche on Smith Island Painter in harmony with bay residents

January 21, 1992|By William Thompson | William Thompson,Eastern Shore Bureau of The Sun

EWELL, Smith Island -- In a house at the end of a lane at the end of a town at the end of the earth, Reuben Becker Jr. plunges a spoon into a bowl of chicken stew and dumplings, releasing a pungent cloud of steam.

Outside in the darkness, the wind that will slam against the clapboard siding at daybreak is as quiet as the cats and Mallard ducks that crouch sleepily on the neighbor's lawn.

The aroma of boiled chicken mingles with other smells. Logs burning in a wood stove fashioned from an oil drum. Tobacco in an open tin. Half-dried paints and pure gum turpentine.

It is cozy inside Mr. Becker's two-story house. There is a sense of purpose and accomplishment, a sense that the 55-year-old self-exiled artist from Hanover, Pa., and later Baltimore, has found a niche where his painterly instincts and eccentricities are in harmony with the unpredictable nature of Chesapeake Bay and the routine ways of the 600 or so folks who make remote Smith Island their year around home.

Mr. Becker wants to believe it's all serendipity -- how he came to Smith Island almost 20 years ago, how he chooses his own subjects to paint and still manages to sell his works to satisfied collectors, even how he ended up with an attic filled with discarded doors. But most of all, how he -- a foreigner to these parts -- has been able to remain on Smith Island while other mainlanders have come and gone.

But there is a pattern to Mr. Becker's island life that is not all chance and circumstance. By his own choice, it is a work-in-progress that mirrors his earlier years when he was trying to be a painter. Now that he is one, it is a movement toward symmetry.

Mr. Becker is not keen on labels. Depending upon his mood or the subject, his works can be realistic, abstract or representational.

"I am the inheritor of all these forms," he says with a tug on his grizzled beard. "I don't have to pick one school and say I fit into that."

The one label he will not duck is expressionistic. "Isn't that all art anyway?" he asks.

For Mr. Becker, the process between beginning and finishing a painting is a series of questions and answers. Say he paints a black stripe on a white background. "It's a question," he explains. "Now what?" And so on.

"If you make the right choices, give the right answers, it will complete itself," he says. "It's answering all the questions."

Life in a small town has both repelled and attracted Mr. Becker. He grew up in Hanover -- he even worked in one of the shoe factories there -- and toyed with painting in his spare moments. His first commercial success, he remembers, was selling jelly jars he had decorated with little flowers. He got 15 cents for each jar.

"I guess it bent my whole life," Mr. Becker jokes. "I was never much of a businessman, but I could sell a jelly jar."

The need to paint followed him into his teens and 20s. He studied under the late Ernest Krape at Gettysburg College and taught a few art classes himself in Hanover.

He moved to Baltimore in 1968 to escape Hanover's provincialism. The lure of the city did not last, though he stayed for eight years and studied a bit at the Maryland Institute of Art.

In a watershed decision that would have enormous effects on his output, Mr. Becker found work in a dental lab in order to earn what he needed to pay child support and the rent at his apartment on the corner of St. Paul and Preston streets.

If he wanted to live by his paintings, he says, he would have been forced to paint what others were willing to buy -- portraits, conventional scenes, the very stuff he did not want to paint.

"I decided I'd rather make false teeth," he says. "I was very good at it."

A couple moved into his apartment building one day. The husband was from Smith Island and talked of the great sport fishing in Tangier Sound and the bay. Mr. Becker went fishing with him a few times. But he was the one who took the bait.

When Mr. Becker's second wife, a nurse, was offered a job providing medical care for the islanders -- mostly families that earned their livelihoods from harvesting crabs and oysters -- the two agreed to move to Ewell, one of three waterfront villages on Smith Island.

Mr. Becker says he had been looking for a way out of the city. He had stopped painting and wanted to begin again. He was growing skeptical about city life in general, how it was threatening his physical and spiritual health.

There are too many rules in a city, says Mr. Becker. There is too much "meanness." "There is structure but no content."

He wanted to live someplace where he could get by with as little cash as possible, where he could see if he could paint, where he could learn about himself.

"I think that islands have an anthropolgical something about them," he says. "I think island people are a special breed. My life was going past in a grayness. Some days were sunnier than others. Some were cloudier. I thought an island situation might be the answer."

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