By Kathryn G. Menu
Farming and fishing are traditions often associated with the South Fork, but in the woodsy hamlet of Springs art is just as much an intrinsic part of the region’s cultural heritage — an institution children are steeped in at young age through openings at Ashawagh Hall, field trips to the home and studio of Lee Krasner and Jackson Pollock, and the emphasis placed on arts education and local history at Springs School. It’s at Springs School, in fact, where this story begins.
Twins Carly and Grant Haffner grew up in Springs in the 1980s and 90s under the wings of their parents, Nell and Philip, and their older sister Joni. Fine art was so much a part of their every day life it was almost a forgone conclusion that they would find themselves bound to the creative world. For the last decade, both painters committed themselves to creating more opportunities for local artists to display — and sell — their work, but also to document the landscapes of the region they have called home for more than three decades.
“Growing up we were exposed to Pollock, to Krasner, to [Willem] de Kooning — Springs School brought us to Pollock’s house, and I
think that helped me as an artist because I knew early on that these people were artists, that they painted, they made it as artists and they made it here in Springs. I knew it was possible because of that,” said Grant, perched on an Adirondack chair on the porch of Kristi Hood’s iconic Springs General Store. “We had this whole culture of art around us, especially at Springs School, which was just an amazing place to be a kid. We had Ms. [Jan] Collins as an art teacher, we had Hugh King teaching us History of Springs, and it is that lore that we have used to brand ourselves as an art collective.”
Bonac Tonic, the nickname for the green and yellow carton of iced tea originally produced by Schwenk’s Dairy in East Hampton, is the arts collective the Haffner twins and a group of friends began in 2005.
“Using that name was a way for us to really connect to the community,” said Grant. “As we grew, it became even more important to us because it ties us to the history of our hometown, which is changing a lot.”
The collective was formed by a core group of five artists who grew up in East Hampton — a reaction to the inability for many young artists to have their work shown locally. The collective has featured literally hundreds of local artists over the last decade, often at Ashawagh Hall, but also in exhibitions at Tonic Artspace, a home for Bonac Tonic at Kathryn Markel Fine Arts in Bridgehampton in the winter of 2014.
The collective’s last show, Bonac Tonic Rising, was in March and featured both Haffners, as well as Scott Gibbons and Oliver Peterson, and artists Christine Lidrbauch, Rossa Cole, Scott Bluedorn, Erick Osbaldo Segura, Justin Smith, and Hailey London, among others. The show was funded by collective co-founder Ben McHugh, the co-owner of Hampton Photo Arts in Bridgehampton and a friend of both Carly and Grant since kindergarten at Springs School. The show was a send-off for Grant, who along with his wife, Cassandra, and their two young children, has retreated to Massachusetts where he is working on paintings for his first international show, which will take place in Japan this October.
Of all the members of Bonac Tonic, Grant’s work has gained the most attention — his colorful landscapes of the East End now hang on the walls of several serious art collectors, as well as local residents who have flocked to purchase original work and prints of his modern roadscapes that have the feel and look of locations throughout the South Fork, in his own stylized way. That said, spending time with Grant and Gibbons on a spring afternoon at the General Store, he shrugs off any compliments about his work, focusing instead on people and places that have informed his artistic style. And growing up in Springs is central to that.
“We grew up outside, walking and biking everywhere,” he said. “There was this extreme freedom — as long as we were all home for 6 p.m. dinner, everything was okay. Kids would just congregate at each other’s houses — there would be these bike squads.”
“The other side of Springs was we were exposed to Pollock, to DeKooning. We were brought to Gardiner’s Island — I don’t think I understood at the time how lucky we were to have that in our lives,” said Grant.
“I’ll never forget that — going on that field trip to Jackson Pollock’s studio and seeing it as this incredible place,” said Carly in a separate interview in Sag Harbor, where she now lives and paints. “It made me realize that the South Fork is a place where artists are held in this high esteem. We were just raised to always respect art on this really high level — and there were all these professional artists around us, and they were our parent’s friends.”
“And then we became adults and said, ‘It’s now our turn to show our art here’,” said Carly of the founding of Bonac Tonic and its first show at the collective’s favorite space to exhibit — Ashawagh Hall, a place that has served as the beating heart of Springs for generations. Carly has recently joined the Springs Improvement Society board, which manages Ashawagh Hall.
“We were not told in Springs that the 9 to 5 job was the ideal,” said McHugh at his Bridgehampton business, which he runs with his father, David. “Artists and fishermen were the lifestyle choices we were steered towards.”
Peterson, who is the web editor at Dan’s Papers and now lives in Water Mill, moved to Springs from Manhattan when he was in fifth grade.
“I knew I wanted to be an artist when I was a little kid,” said Peterson, who lived just a few doors down from the Pollock Krasner House on Springs Fireplace Road before his family moved to Southampton. He was in Pollock’s studio in the 1980s, after Krasner’s death, with his mother, Paula Peterson, a photographer with The East Hampton Star. The Stony Brook Foundation, which was willed the property by Krasner for preservation as a public museum and library, had the Masonite flooring in the studio removed, revealing the original barn floor splattered with Pollock’s paint — a treasure unearthed before Peterson’s young eyes.
“I don’t think I understood how amazing that was,” he said. “But it stayed with me. I remember I also had a friend who lived on Sandra Road whose mother worked for de Kooning. And these guys became my heroes.”
When Bonac Tonic first formed, Grant said it was critical that artists not have to pay to be a part of a show, and that 100-percent of the proceeds would benefit the artists themselves, a luxury the collective could offer thanks to benefactors like McHugh and Springs artist Trish Franey, the owner of Franey’s Wines & Liquors just a stone’s throw away from the Pollock Krasner House, who offered the collective break-neck deals on wine for their openings.
“A lot of times people want you to pay to put art on the wall, and who can do that? It costs enough to make the thing! So we said, bring your own art for free and we don’t care who you are,” said Grant. “It was received so well by the community that the dots just started connecting for people, and we were all introduced to members of the community that really want to support the arts and actually love local art.”
“After the second or third year, we had 120 artists that came to show their work,” said Gibbons. “I remember an older woman came up to me, almost in tears, and said, ‘This is my first show ever, and I have been painting for 40 years but no one has ever asked me to be a part of an art show in my life.’ And she sold a painting.”
De Kooning’s daughter, Lisa, came to the first Bonac Tonic show and purchased a number of Grant’s paintings. The group quickly expanded and began showing at least four times a year. Artists like Lidrbauch and Smith became regularly featured artists, among many, at Bonac Tonic shows, with Smith creating images for the group’s fliers, post cards and stickers, which would wallpaper parts of the South Fork just prior to show, and inundate social media sites like Facebook, and especially Instagram. And then Grant’s star in the art world began to rise.
Haffner credits not just Springs, but being raised by creative parents, as helping foster his passion for art. Landscapes, he said, came naturally to an artist raised in a land of the Plein Air painters, and surrounded by the natural beauty of Accabonac.
“Nature is a part of our upbringing, and so when I went to SVA [the School of Visual Arts in New York City] they made you say what you wanted to paint, and the whole room went silent when I said, ‘landscapes.’”
But Grant’s work is not your average landscape, employing color theory and lines that break up the scene and create emotion.
“I saw a lot of graffiti at school, and I love [Jean Michel] Basquiat, Banksy,” he said. “I love lines and I love stripes, so I just came to this idea that I could break up my landscapes in that way.”
Less landscapes and more streetscapes, Grant’s paintings are of recognizable roads and road ends — and the accompanying power lines — on the South Fork, scenes he chose to capture because of his own obsession with the road.
“I like driving. I like road trips. And I love the romantic idea of a spontaneous trip, night or day, and just looking out the window,” he said. “And I don’t need a radio. All that fell into road painting and the power lines you can’t ignore if you are painting what you see. The lines gave me a tool for movement and motion, and color theory an emotion value that everyone reacts too – it’s mathematical.”
“I’ve been doing this for 10 years now, and I am still working it out,” added Grant. “At this point, I know I have not yet created my best painting, but that is actually good because it helps me sell my work because I can constantly see the flaws.”
Grant doesn’t hide from the style he has discovered — a style that is his and only his.
“I have created a style that works for me, and I understand I am very stylized, but so was Jackson Pollock, and so are a lot of artists,” he said. “Carly has great style too — we both learned a lot from the abstract expressionists.”
Carly, like her twin, paints landscapes and paints on wood. She also works for the Dan Flavin Institute in Bridgehampton — in a position previously held by Grant.
“I am really inspired by American folk art painting,” she said. “I am painting in a primitive style and am inspired now by my local surroundings. My landscapes are a lot of historic buildings, the yard in the house where I live in Sag Harbor.”
Carly said recently she has been drawn to paint historic buildings, or even just structures that are known on the East End, that face potential demolition — wanting to preserve it in acrylic before it disappears forever.
“I am trying to capture these incredible, dilapidated buildings in the Hamptons — I call it the Hamps — before they are gone,” she said. “It’s all changing pretty fast.”
She is also drawn to the almost rural life lived by those who unapologetically refuse to live in the “Hamps,” but are living here for what the South Fork was, and can still be.
“I am a local, and there is a local scene that people don’t know about,” said Carly. “It gets squashed by the rest of it, but we are real people living in the country … we have the beauty, the landscapes, the lighting, the beaches, the foliage, the dunes, the water, the seasons.”
As for Bonac Tonic, as long as there is local art, Carly says it will exist, and she hopes more local artists will come out of the woodwork and show with the collective.
Gibbons, who met the Haffners, McHugh and Peterson in high school, wandered into his art form at the Haffner house, after being chased out of Grant’s studio space during a snow storm. Unable to leave, he joined Nell, who was mending the family curtains on a sewing machine.
“So Nell and I sat upstairs and she taught me how to sew,” he remembered.
What he created were monsters — big and lumpy at first, they were also cute and crafted with a lot of love, remembers Gibbons.
“I could have made anything — but at the time I was just drawn to the idea of these monsters. We grew up in the Muppet era with Jim Henson and ‘Where the Wild Things Are’ and I just started making them, at first just as Christmas presents, but then everyone liked them,” said Gibbons.
At the first Bonac Tonic show, he set up a merchandise table with 30 of his monsters — they sold out.
“My work doesn’t take itself too seriously,” said Gibbons, who also works for good water farms and for the Leiber Collection on Old Stone Highway in Springs. “It is all about fun.”
Peterson’s work is largely in collage — although he has been dabbling in photographing scenes depicting characters from his massive toy collection as well. Collage was something he gravitated towards at Southampton High School, nailing everything from paper to pieces of cardboard to even fried chicken and hamburgers to large wooden panels. Now, his art is more refined, inspired by artists like Robert Rauschenberg and Jasper Johns, often tying together pop culture icons, figures and moments into his work.
“I like objects,” said Peterson. “I like the idea of having this thing from life and putting it together to create something more valuable than the sum of its parts.”
“I also love super heroes, I love comic books, movies and television — it’s fun to play with all that stuff and work with labels, and tie it altogether into one piece.”
Like many members of Bonac Tonic, Peterson’s work has gained in popularity over the last 10 years, and he finds himself showing more and more often. While the South Fork can be tough for a struggling artist because of the high cost of studio space, Peterson says the cache of the East End can also work in your advantage.
“I have my day job and side jobs, and I do whatever I can to make money where I can, and this is a unique place that is incredibly expensive, but it is also an amazing place because if you can hustle, if you can market yourself, there are a lot of opportunities here that do not exist anywhere else,” he said. “You have to have initiative, but you can make it work.”
Working collectively is also key, says Peterson.
“I think other people are important, especially in art,” he said. “Being around artists or people that are into art helps inform you. Grant happens to be the whole package — he’s an artist, a good artist, but he is also a promoter and a curator. Working together has been important because it helps us get seen, but it’s also been nice to have this camaraderie with people I have known for a long time.”
McHugh has known the Haffners since kindergarten at Springs School. While not a fine artist in a traditional sense, framing in itself — the cornerstone of his Bridgehampton business — is an art in the eye it takes to understand the colors and shapes that best frame a work, and the craftsmanship to complete that project.
Hampton Photo Arts is a family business, and one all the artists interviewed said has been critical in providing opportunities for locals artists to share their work, through gallery shows, and by supporting openings like Bonac Tonic Rising this past March.
McHugh has worked in his family store since 1994, coming back full time from college in 2000 to help transition the business into the digital age.
“I didn’t necessarily want to be back, but I fell in love with this place again,” he said. “I spent a lot of time running to get a track scholarship to get away from here, but coming back, being in this place — it’s mine and it’s hard and it’s good.”
Supporting art — and in particular his friends in the art world — by hosting exhibitions at Ashawagh Hall or in his own store was an easy decision. While also connected to his business — many artists use Hampton Photo Arts to frame their work — for McHugh, it is also just a lot of fun.
“We are all friends and I want to encourage this,” he said. “Any excuse to have a good time I will invest in.”
The South Fork, now more than ever, he noted, is changing with fewer and fewer familiar faces as people leave in the face of the high cost of living and doing business.
“It is vanishing, but we are trying to keep a little heart in this place,” he said.
McHugh has continued to mount a show featuring children’s artwork every fall. The work is hung as it would be for an traditional show — like it is the work of an adult. Remembering back to his own childhood, McHugh knows that is what he and his friends would have wanted.
“It all funnels back and it’s a huge cycle,” said Grant. “When I was a kid I did spin art at the Fisherman’s Fair and then we can back and did spin art with kids for the next generation. Ben is showcasing kid’s art every year, and hanging them like they are adults, teaching them that there is great art out here, and they are a part of it.”