Tapping Creativity for Tradition: East End Hospice ‘Box Art Auction’ Returns for 20th Year

"Where I've been ...Where I am now" by Barbara Maslen.
On a recent Thursday afternoon, Arlene Bujese came home from a leisurely visit at LongHouse Reserve in East Hampton to find a delivery waiting on her doorstep.

She brought it inside and, seeing as it was from artist James Kennedy, wasted no time in opening it.

“Oh my gosh. It’s very big. This is fun, isn’t it?” she said giddily, wrestling with the wrapping as she pulled it off. “Oh my goodness. It is fantastic. It’s just fantastic — very architectonic, and very beautifully crafted. A lot of time has gone into it, I can see that.”

This box, much like 74 others — all one-of-a-kind creations by local artists that will be sold during the East End Hospice “Box Art Auction” on August 28 — represents more than meets the eye.

They each tell a story. They tie together an artistic community. And they carry on a 20-year tradition that has become an institution on the East End.

“For me, it’s a good thing to be doing,” explained Bujese, who has chaired the benefit and collected the boxes for nearly its entire run, which was interrupted by the COVID-19 pandemic last year. “The artists, they’re so generous and so wonderful and so enthusiastic — and that hasn’t diminished over these years. Just talking with them, they’re so relieved to be back.”

As is tradition, each artist is gifted a donated cigar or wine box — or sources one themselves — that they use as a canvas or base, inside and out, for their individual medium, from painting, collage, needlework and sculpture to assemblage, photography, mixed media and ceramics.

Then, eager bidders flock to Hoie Hall at St. Luke’s Church in East Hampton for a two-day preview — this year on August 25 and 26 — ahead of the silent and live auctions. All proceeds will benefit East End Hospice, which provides care for terminally ill patients, their families and loved ones living on the North and South Forks.

“Glove Box” by Claire Watson.

“Some of the artists just really knocked themselves out,” Bujese said. “David Slater’s is absolutely phenomenal. He put everything on there that ever crossed his path as an object. But it really works.”

Those who know Slater’s work should expect nothing less. The Sag Harbor artist — known for his detail-oriented, masterful use of bright color and busy imagery — has submitted a piece for the auction every year since its inception, and each one is unmistakably his.

“My view of art is you start working and the work takes over,” he said. “The work starts to tell you what to do.”

His piece, “The Friendship Box,” started as a discarded wine box that he found at the dump and transformed into one of his worlds, adorned with pieces of plastic and metal, toys and letters that he affixed to it.

“The ideas just keep flowing,” he said. “A lot of them are autobiographical and represent experiences that I’ve had. It’s hard to describe it, really, but I am very happy with that box that I have there — and the word ‘friend’ on the bottom is very important to it, also, because I see this whole venture as being associated with my friends. It’s the whole idea of a friend.”

Over the last six months, Slater found himself leaning into his art as a coping mechanism for a pair of recent health scares — first, prostate cancer and 28 sessions of radiation, and then, a hernia surgery. Now on the other side of both, the 80-year-old is in optimistic spirits but still reflecting on death, what he imagines as the afterlife, and friends he has lost over the past year, including artist Diane Mayo, whose box — which she made for last year’s event — will be auctioned posthumously.

“Pavilion” by James Kennedy.

“Diane I knew for years,” Slater said. “She was a beautiful potter. She was very shy and unobtrusive and very petite, but solidly beautiful. Some of the pottery she did reminds me of South American, Peruvian, Incan imagery. Very beautiful works.”

But with her final box — and, in a sense, her last words — Mayo wasn’t timid at all. And Bujese only noticed while she was wrapping up her piece, seemingly innocently decorated with woodpeckers, to move to Hoie Hall.

As it turns out, one of the aforementioned woodpeckers had tapped a series of holes into the box that spell out, “F–k Trump.”

“I just thought it was a great-looking box with woodpeckers on it,” Bujese said with a soft laugh. “It’s a quandary because she has a right to say it — free speech and all — but we don’t get into politics with Hospice. So it was a dilemma. I went ahead and wrapped it up for the event, and as someone said on the committee, if someone doesn’t like it, they can walk on by.”

Both the preview and auction will represent a certain return to normalcy, a theme that artist Grace Sutton tapped for her own box, “Gathering: The Easy Intimacy of Modest Objects,” which contains 12 drawings of everyday, inanimate items and the simple connection they share, such as a shelf of books, or a head of garlic.

“While I often do work abstractly, in this case, I decided I really wanted to make straight-forward representations of groups of objects that are so ordinary that we tend to not really see them — a jar of pencils, a bunch of bananas, a pair of shoes — things that still gather comfortably in spite of COVID,” she said.

The story behind Charles Yoder’s box also begins with what he had previously overlooked. One night, the abstract artist found himself standing outside his home in the Northwest Woods, snow blanketing the ground beneath his feet, a full moon shining overhead.

“And I thought, ‘I can do all kinds of art just using what I’ seeing right now,’” he recalled. “And it just went from there. That was over 20 years ago.”

He moved from nighttime snow scenes to all times of the day and year, using watercolors, then charcoals, then small paintings that got larger. When fireflies found their way into his landscapes, he knew he had his idea for the “Box Art Auction.”

“The lid is part of that same image, but without the fireflies,” he said. “So when you open it up, you turn the lights on.”

While Yoder has submitted a box every year for nearly a decade, this is the first time his piece will appear in the live auction — and the first time he has a direct connection to the cause.

“Recently, in my life, there’s been people in hospice — family members and friends,” he said. “I know through personal experience how hospice takes away a lot of that fear and anxiety, to see loved ones cared for properly. It’s almost impossible to do at home.”

This past May, Bujese sat by Marcel Bally’s side at the Kanas Center for Hospice Care in Westhampton Beach — the man she had called her partner for the last 30 years, and the facility where she had curated its permanent art collection.

“Marcel was there for his last days, which I never thought we would experience when I was putting the art collection together,” she said. “I remember one time, I stored the art in one of these suites because the construction men were still working on the building, and I was bringing the art in and storing it in closets.

“I remember sitting on one of the beds and looked out at the landscape and I thought, ‘I wonder how it will feel to be a patient here,’” she continued. “And there we were, five years later.”

Less than three months after his death, Bujese said she has a long road ahead of her. But just as Bally would have wanted, his box from last year will be auctioned off next week — “He always had his made by January,” she said fondly — raising funds for the place that provided him peace, grace and tranquility at the end of their life together.

“I feel like my brain isn’t quite back, so I’m doing my best,” Bujese said. “Working on the box art is good because I have artists bringing them in, I have almost all of them in now and packed up for delivery. I look forward to it every year, and I’m gonna keep going until I drop.”

East End Hospice will host its 20th annual “Box Art Auction” on Saturday, August 28, at St. Luke’s Church Hoie Hall, 18 James Lane, East Hampton. The silent auction and reception will begin at 4:30 p.m., followed by the live auction at 6 p.m. Admission is $100. Leading up to the benefit, the boxes can be previewed on Wednesday and Thursday, August 25 and 26, from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. A free “meet the artists” reception will be held Wednesday, August 25, from 5 to 7 p.m. For more information or to place an absentee bid, call 631-288-7080 or visit eeh.org.