A Black Artist’s Haven on a (mostly) White Vineyard
Martha's Vineyard has long been seen as a summer retreat for the East Coast elite. The island’s reality, however, is a far more complex environment that has welcomed and inspired generations of Black Americans, including an artist and doll maker named Janice Frame.
By SKIP FINLEY
Martha’s Vineyard has been a major part of my life since 1955, when my parents brought the family here for the summer; they fell so in love with the place that they soon bought a house, built in 1872 and which we continue to own, in a Vineyard town called Oak Bluffs.
As we happen to be Black, I understand how difficult it might be for others to see Black families having such financial means. But plenty do, and plenty of them gather here. In an effort to follow the saying about it taking a village, children were encouraged to use ‘Aunt’ and ‘Uncle’ for the adults of Oak Bluff’s African-American summer community who fished, played tennis, golfed, swam and were welcome at social gatherings that at times included White people. Folks rocked on porches to breezes off Nantucket Sound, enjoyed clam bakes and ice cream, dined out and shared warm summer evenings. Children made friends at the beach where mothers became friends during the week, and which led, when the “Daddy boats” arrived on Friday night, to shared weekend cocktails and cookouts. Over time, our friends’ parents and our respective children became friends for generations.
Those sun-filled summers were spent free of the current events throughout the decades that spot-lighted America’s ugly strands of systemic racism. Even today, when leaving the island, we say, tongue-in-cheekily, “We’re going to America.” If you can imagine a place where being Black does not occupy most of one’s attention, Martha’s Vineyard is that place; and the Town of Oak Bluffs its capitol.
In 1857, Frederick Douglass, the Black orator and journalist who challenged Abraham Lincoln for the presidency, spoke twice on the Vineyard. Before long, several other abolitionists helped found Oak Bluffs.
Martha’s Vineyard always was, and still is, a mostly White community—only 12 percent of the population constitutes people of color; even in Oak Bluffs, less than five percent of the population is Black. Nonetheless, scattered between the myriad neighborhoods inhabited by old money families of the East Coast’s White upper class, various minority groups have prospered. There’s the Wampanoag Native American tribe, which lives in Aquinnah, a thriving township on the island’s western corner. The Vineyard also has a long history of being home to the nation’s largest per-capita concentration of deaf people, a reality that so dominated island life that the deaf community formed its own sign language (Martha’s Vineyard Sign Language, or MVSL). Since the early 1900s, the island has been a draw for Portuguese-Americans and, more recently, immigrants from Brazil.
The heritage of racial tolerance across much of Martha’s Vineyard arose partly because, centuries ago, the island played a central role in the early American whaling industry, which was developed by the Quakers. The whaling captains wanted indigenous, Black, and other people of color to man their ships, but the Quakers abhorred the practice of slavery. Outlawed on Nantucket in 1773, and then in Massachusetts in 1783, slavery was fought by a good number of Martha’s Vineyard’s abolitionists. One was Reverend Samuel Sewall, a frequent Vineyard visitor and a prominent judge who became infamous for his involvement in the Salem Witch Trials. He was no fan of slavery, however, and his anti-slavery manifesto of 1770, “The Selling of Joseph,” is believed to be the nation’s first document of its type.
In 1857, Frederick Douglass, the Black orator and journalist who challenged Abraham Lincoln for the presidency, spoke twice on the Vineyard. Before long, several other abolitionists helped found Oak Bluffs, which soon developed a reputation as a welcoming vacation spot for Black Americans; until the 1960s, in fact, Oak Bluffs was the only town on the island that welcomed Black tourists or would allow them to stay at local inns and hotels. Oak Bluffs’ history of racial inclusion eventually led to a permanent exhibit entitled “The Power of Place,” which debuted in 2018 in The National Museum of African American History and Culture in Washington, D.C. Today, Oak Bluffs is not only the Vineyard’s largest island town, it also boasts one of the island’s most popular tourist attractions—a collection of cute Victorian homes referred to as the “Gingerbread cottages.”
My connection to Janice Frame, the subject of this story, started one summer long before all this, when I got a job as a teenager at Oak Bluffs’ Flying Horses, the oldest platform carousel in America and a national landmark. Carousel riders grab steel rings from an armature as they ride the horses to the music of classical waltzes, anticipating catching the last one—a brass ring, which still entitles you to a free ride. About a dozen years later, my wife and I met Janice and Leo Frame—thanks to the friendship of my oldest daughter with their son. That year, he had that same job and was kind enough, after hearing I once worked there too, to gift me an original brass ring, which I still have.
Frame says her creativity was inspired by her uncle, Fetaque Sanders, who pored over magic books as a child and, from the 1940s to the 1960s, became the country’s most prominent Black magician.
Many years later, following my former career as a radio executive, I decided to become a writer; and Janice Frame, with a similar family background, became an artist.
“Martha’s Vineyard has allowed my creative process to flow,” Frame told me while sitting in her home studio in Edgartown, which lies just south of Oak Bluffs. “The Vineyard allows you the space to face who you really are. There is a natural purity of energy that fosters creativity. The simple escape from the distractions on the mainland have allowed me to focus on my creative journey.”
Frame was born in 1948, in Columbia, South Carolina. Her uncles included a pharmacist, a dentist, and a minister; her father was a doctor. Frame herself was among three generations of teachers. And she followed four generations in her family to historically Black Fisk University, a small, elite college in Nashville, Tenn. After getting a bachelor’s degree in fiber and textiles, as well as art education, she went on to a master’s degree in curriculum and instruction from Cambridge College, a school for adult education near Boston.
Frame points to her uncle, Fetaque Sanders, as being the one who ignited her creativity. As a child, Sanders pored over magic books, and the hobby eventually became a profession. He performed at the 1933-1934 Chicago World’s Fair when he was 18, and from the 1940s to the 1960s and became the country’s most prominent Black magician.
After graduating from Tennessee State University in 1938, Sanders bought a second-hand set of Punch and Judy puppet figures. He built a cabinet and used it as the backdrop for a variety act that included other puppets and marionettes that he made by hand. He also drew his own print ads and built many of his own props, frequently airbrushing them with an African motif.
Every year since she was a teenager, Frame spent the first two weeks of August on Martha’s Vineyard with her family, and in the 1980s, she moved here permanently. Today, she is a tall, thin woman in her early 70s with a soft voice. She describes herself as a “southern lady,” fond of the ceremony of tea. It might seem fitting, therefore, that her first commercially successful creations were handmade sachets framed in lace.
In 1985, Frame turned her attention to what she calls “guardian angels”—tiny porcelain dolls designed to be gifts from godmothers to godchildren. She made the porcelain heads and cherubic faces from a mold and painted them in colors ranging from brown to pink. She secured fabric left over from curtain treatments and furniture coverings sold at the local Vineyard Decorators furnishing store and sewed gowns in white or ecru Belgian lace. Frame also crocheted booties for the feet and silk bonnets, along with undergarments from shantung, a thin silk often used for bridal gowns; crepe; and organdy, a lustrous, see-through fabric. The dolls, which Frame called the “Presence of Angels” series, were shown around the island in galleries, craft shows, and gift shops, as well as at The Studio Museum, in Harlem, and the California African American Museum, in Los Angeles.
Frame’s attraction to doll making originated with her dislike of the dolls available during her childhood. These dolls had Black faces but White features, which Frame felt obfuscated the reality that Black people come in many colors. By the mid-1990s, she started thinking about making dolls that borrowed from her African roots. This led to a series of dolls she called “Red Dancers.”
“Her work was impeccable,” says a local gallery owner. “She is one of the most creative artists I have worked with. Each summer, I still get inquiries for her dolls.”
The Red Dancer dolls are about two feet tall and slender. Their name stems from the Maasai tribe in North Africa where tribal members adorn themselves with red dye, made from ochre, and perform a jumping dance called Adumu. The dolls are dressed in colorful hand-sewn textiles, which Frame gets from Africa. Much like the Maasai themselves, there’s a quiet dignity in their serene, featureless Black faces. Many are adorned with shells, feathers, beads, earrings, necklaces, hairpieces, or head coverings, and several carry baskets. Frame says it took her between 36 and 48 hours to make each doll; she made, and sold, more than 500.
Two of her customers were former President Bill Clinton and former U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. Others who have been enchanted by Frame’s Red Dancer dolls include the wife of this writer and a collector in Belgium, who owns 10 of them.
And just as strongly as they came, they were gone. “The dolls left me,” Frame says. “They came out from me, and then they went.”
After Frame’s Red Dancers series was exhibited in Oak Bluffs—in Cousen Rose, the island’s only Black-owned art gallery—gallery owner Zita Cousens said, “Her work was impeccable and there was nothing exhibited on Martha’s Vineyard like it. She is one of the most creative artists I have worked with. Each summer, I still get inquiries for her dolls.”
Frame is quick to credit the island for her successes. “If I had not chosen to become a part of the Vineyard community, I am uncertain that my work would have taken the directions it has,” she told me. “The support of a receptive community, along with the gift of sharing one’s culture, means everything.”
Frame’s latest body of work—now showing at the Vineyard’s Eisenhauer Gallery, in Edgartown—is a series of two-dimensional portraits, done in mixed media, representing African themes such as those depicted in Carol Beckwith’s and Angela Fisher’s book, “African Ceremonies.” To depict African tribal figures with face paint, jewelry or ceremonial ornamentation, she used pencil and dyes with flowers and fabrics, stickers or images of birds and beads, and shells. Her expressive faces were painted in acrylic and oil on beds of decorated paper and fabric, then covered in a deep, rich coating of resin, which allowed the work to pop and reflect in viewers eyes.
Frame’s portrait show has already drawn plenty of praise—in local Vineyard newspapers, and from the gallery’s cofounder and owner Elizabeth Eisenhauer (no relation to former president Eisenhower). Referring to Frame’s portraits, she said, “I am drawn to work that is saturated with color, soulful and thick spontaneous texture, and especially unexpected subjects.”
Because of the pandemic, the Eisenhauer gallery’s hours have been greatly limited since Janice’s show opened, in June of 2020, yet almost a dozen of the pieces already have sold, with more ordered. This was no surprise to Eisenhauer. “Janice Frame’s work is unexpected,” she says. “Ladened with shells and decorative paper, she captures the wildness and fragility of her subjects—qualities we often hide from the public, but emotions we all long to feel. Her paintings linger in your mind like the deep rhythm of a favorite song.”