A Life Less Ordinary with David Slater at the Peter Marcelle Project

Ghost Ship by David Slater
Ghost Ship by David Slater


By Dawn Watson

It’s been 60 years since David Slater first picked up a paintbrush.

In that time, the Sag Harbor-based artist has lived a storied life, full of unusual experiences. He has travelled the country, frequently by thumb and boxcar. He’s met a coterie of unusual characters. He’s taught art, both here in the States and abroad. And he’s done his fair share of hard labor as well.

During his journeys, Slater has been shot at while hitching. He’s been arrested for trying to deliver food to protesters at Wounded Knee. And he’s even been forced to panhandle a time or two when it’s been absolutely necessary.

But no matter what has happened to him, Slater has always been driven to capture his experiences in his artwork.

“It’s been kind of a memoir,” he says of his painting.

Sitting in his apartment-slash-studio in the village, Slater, who started painting when he was 15 years old, recalled some of the most memorable events of his past while preparing for his future, his fourth one-man show at the Peter Marcelle Project in Southampton. “Something Old, Something New” kicks off Marcelle’s spring season, opening on Saturday, April 11. The exhibit—a virtual kaleidoscope of symbols, dreams, remembrances and religious iconography—will hang through Sunday, April 26.

Before settling down on the East End in the early 1980s, the artist earned a Masters Degree and then taught at the prestigious Rhode Island School of Design, as well as at a secondary school in London. But the self-described “seeker” yearned for the open road and the experiences that would come with it, so he tramped around “all the lower 48” while drawing, painting and working whatever odd jobs he could find.

When the tales of his journeys were compared to those of former Sag Harbor resident and author John Steinbeck, who famously wrote “Travels with Charley” about his life on the road, Slater was amused.

“Yeah. He had it easy. He had a car,” the artist laughed. “I hitched the whole way.”

Life was hard, but it was good, he said. And though he didn’t ever have much money, Slater always managed to get by, and still hang on to his most valuable possessions.

“Even when I was travelling and hitchhiking, I had sketchbooks with me,” he said. “That way I always had my studio with me.”

If sketchbooks were scarce, Slater would draw on just about anything he could get his hands on, he reported. He’d sit in the local Big Boy restaurant in whatever town he was in, sipping on a “bottomless cup of coffee” while sketching on receipts, cards, the backs of parking tickets, etc. Regardless of his circumstances, he was sure to carry one thing with him: a folded-up canvas of his latest idea.

“I’ve always liked the concept of the circus, which would come to town and unfold the tents,” he said. “I would do that with my paintings.”

The dozen or so pieces that will be shown in his newest exhibit, which a percentage of proceeds will benefit the Sag Harbor Whaling and Historical Museum’s restoration efforts, will be pure Slater. Bright colors, vivid images and repeated themes dominate his canvases.

Take “Ghost Ship,” a 60-by72-inch mixed media work on canvas that Slater painted in 2009, and which will be included in the show. The concept for the piece came to Slater in a dream, he said.

“I saw this derelict ship. The sails were all tattered, it was covered with salt and looked like it had been floating around the ocean for 100 years,” he recalled. “As the ship floated in, the only living thing on it was this cat. When it hit the shore, the cat [who wears an eye-patch, pirate style] jumped off onto Long Wharf and started to run up into this crowd of people who were partying. I ran to rescue it, and that was the end of the dream.”

The piece that eventually emerged, which didn’t start out as a pirate ship in Slater’s phantasmagoria but ended up representing one on his canvas, was modeled on explorer Sir Ernest Shackleton’s real-life schooner, Endurance, which was slowly crushed in 1915 after being trapped in pack ice during a crossing from the South Pole to Antarctica. The rest came from the artist’s imagination: two “yobs” from England, hobo signs, a representation of a seafaring route from Malta to Sag Harbor, skeletons, a scorpion to represent Slater’s birth sign, and a painter’s palate, among other symbols.

“Ghost Ship” was a mysterious image, even to the artist. But the believer in magical thinking, mysticism and shamanism said that he accepted that it was “beyond the world of facts,” as all his pieces tend to be.

“There’s something more. There’s a world beyond this world that we’re told exists,” he said. “Was this painting about the economy, which was tanking at the time? About my own death? I don’t know what it’s about. But I do know that I’m always seeking, both experience and understanding of the world. And feeling my way through what I believe is my destiny. To be an artist.”

David Slater’s “Something Old, Something New” opens at the Peter Marcelle Project in Southampton with a reception on Saturday, April 11, from 6 to 8 p.m. and hangs through Sunday, April 26. A percentage of the proceeds will benefit the Sag Harbor Whaling and Historical Museum’s restoration efforts. Gallery hours are Saturday and Sunday from 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. and by appointment. For more information, visit davidslaterart.com and petermarcelleproject.com.