Ocracoke's Artists' colony
November 29, 2008
"Is there an artists' colony on Ocracoke?" is a question I frequently hear.
"We do have a number of talented artists and musicians,"
I reply, "but, no, there is no formal or organized Artists' colony
on the island."
Ocracoke Island suits artistic types very well, and it is not
surprising that visitors wonder if an organized colony has ever been
established here. Although there is no artists' colony on the island
today, Ocracoke was the site of a small experimental community that
flourished here more than sixty years ago.
The worldwide movement that spawned the quintessential artists' colony
emerged in the mid to late 1800s and continued robustly through the
early twentieth century. It is estimated that thousands of artists
participated in nearly one hundred art communities in Europe,
Australia, and the Americas during that time.
Scholars point to urbanization and industrialization as factors that
influenced the movement. Romantic sentiments among many poets,
writers, painters, sculptors, and musicians led to a growing nostalgia
for rural life, country living, and peace and quiet. Artists, unlike
more conventional types, were less constrained by society's predominant
mores, and could afford to adopt bohemian behavior
and fashions suitable to their more unstructured lifestyles.
Because of the colonies' widespread embrace of pluralism and tolerance,
they appealed to many eccentric artists.
In the early twentieth century Ocracoke was especially remote from
cities, government interference in private affairs, and societal
expectations. Without paved roads or ferry service, Ocracoke's primary
link to the mainland was the four and a half hour trip by mail boat to
Atlantic, on the mainland of North Carolina. The island's isolation and
easy acceptance of strangers helps explain why a small group of
artists and writers established their "Island Workshop" here in 1940.
Unlike many counterparts in Europe and elsewhere in the United States,
the Island Workshop was neither a highly structured year-round
community, nor an independent and self-contained community of transient
artists and writers. Rather, it was a two-month long summer endeavor
that was somewhat integrated into the year-round and long-established
village of Ocracoke.
Sometime in the late 1930s a young man from eastern North Carolina,
Vernon Albert Ward, Jr., found his way to Ocracoke. He had graduated
from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill with a degree in
English, and a specialization in creative writing. Although more
educated than the local population, Ward quickly and easily settled
into the community and made many friends.
By all accounts, he was friendly, handsome, well-dressed, and polite.
He was exceptionally athletic, and especially enjoyed swimming.
In the summer of 1938 Vernon Ward procured a job as manager of Stanley Wahab's
three-year-old "Spanish Casino."
Stanley Wahab had built his inexpensive replica of a Spanish style
building on the island, near where the Back Porch Restaurant sits
today. Made of plywood strewn with gravel while the earth-colored paint
was still wet, the 400 square foot Spanish Casino mimicked an adobe
hacienda. The flat roofed structure had extended and crenelated
exterior walls with gently curving main sections. Windows were topped
with decorative trim, and crosses within circles painted near the roof
line suggested a southwestern theme. An open porch on the ocean-facing
side was supported by peeled cedar posts, adding to the Spanish motif.
The Spanish Casino:
The interior was one large room with a raised platform on the western wall to accommodate a piano and musicians. Benches were placed along the walls, leaving a sizable dance floor in the middle.
Island natives, Edgar and Walter Howard, brothers who had moved to New
York City to play vaudeville in the 1920s and 1930s, came home
periodically to entertain their fellow islanders. The popular music of
the day included cowboy and western songs and ballads. Once in a while
Edgar's banjo and Walter's guitar accompanied nationally popular
entertainers who followed the Howard brothers to Ocracoke. At times,
other island musicians played at the Spanish Casino. When live music
was unavailable a jukebox served nightly to provide tunes for round
dances, jitterbug, and traditional island square dances.
Stanley Wahab included a small canteen to serve his customers. Candy,
cigarettes, and soft drinks were popular items. Eventually the Spanish
Casino also offered hamburgers. Some years earlier, under the influence
of Mr.Shaw, one of the Methodist preachers, sales of alcoholic
beverages had been banned on Ocracoke Island. It was a rare night, however,
when homemade meal wine did not flow freely behind the building or on
the other side of the sand dunes.
The Spanish Casino was part of Stanley Wahab's larger operation which
included the Wahab Village Hotel (later renamed Blackbeard's Lodge),
and separate motel units dubbed the Green Apartments.
The manager, Vernon Ward,
was a budding poet who had made contacts with other writers and artists
from western North Carolina, New York, and Europe. Whether it was
originally his idea, or someone else's, the notion of an island
workshop for artists and writers took shape, and Vernon Ward, who had remained on the island throughout the year, became the
organizer and contact person. Soon a catalog was created, and
advertisements placed in regional and national magazines.
Ocracoke's first season for the artists' colony was scheduled for July
and August, 1940. Although the location was listed as Wahab Village,
many of the classes were held in the local schoolhouse. Entertainment included dances at the Spanish Casino. Accommodations
were arranged at the Wahab Village Hotel. The total cost for two months
(room, board, tuition, and entertainment) amounted to a mere $200.
Attractions included "swimming, boating, fishing, dancing, and
excursions." Ocracoke was hailed as the "world's widest and most
The Wahab Village Hotel:
Courses included painting, sculpture, art history, creative
writing, history of literature, Indian crafts, and physical education.
The Island Workshop attracted an impressive list of talented teachers.
Among them was Blanche C. Weill, a San Francisco native who studied in
Europe with educator Maria Montessori and psychoanalyst Alfred
Adler. She started the first Montessori school in Berkeley,
California. Weill earned a doctorate at Harvard, and practiced
child psychology in New York, Cambridge, and Boston. She was the author
of two books, The Behavior of Young Children of the Same Family, and Through Children's Eyes, the latter published by Island Workshop Press.
Robert Haven Schauffler, well known expert on the lives of Beethoven,
Brahms, and Schumann, also participated in the Island Workshop.
Schauffler, author, lecturer, singer, and cellist, was the son of
missionaries to Austria, and attended Northwestern University and
Princeton University where he earned a B.A. in 1902. He served in
WWI and was decorated with the Order of the Purple Heart. Schauffler
was a prolific writer, contributing poems and monographs to numerous
magazines and journals, including Collier's Weekly, and Atlantic. He wrote several travel books, as well as books and plays celebrating holidays and other observances.
Other presenters and teachers at the Workshop included Daniel Tilden, a
Cherokee Indian Chief, and Anita Wetzler, a nationally recognized
The most colorful of the Workshop organizers and teachers, however, was
Madame Helene Scheu-Riesz (pronounced Shoy-Reese). According to
islanders who knew her, she was very friendly and outgoing. She has
even been described as "bubbly." Mme Scheu-Riesz, as she preferred to
be addressed, was born in what is now the Czech Republic in 1880, but spent most of
her life in Austria. At age 38 she published her first novel, Der Revolutionär. Eine Lebensgeschichte (The Revolutionary, A Biography), which came out during the Bolshevik Revolution in Russia. However, she made a name for herself as a narrative writer,
poet, playwrite, editor, journalist, and translator. She was active in
the Austrian Women's Movement, and was especially interested in making
books available to children. She edited the "Sesambücher," a series of
classic works, in German, for young people, and translated Lewis Carroll's Alice in Wonderland to German.
Mme. Scheu-Riesz emigrated to the United States in 1937, after her
husband, Gustav Scheu, died. Even though she had been baptised as a
Protestant before leaving Europe, as a woman of Jewish heritage she
undoubetly felt threatened by the rise of National Socialism in
True to her old-world traditions, she continued to wear gathered
with laced bodices, and a small scarf or peasant's cap over her salt
and pepper hair. Earrings and red shoes highlighted her colorful dress.
Scheu-Riesz, short and thin, spoke with a thick German accent.
In Europe, Mme Scheu-Riesz and her lawyer husband moved in intellectual
and artistic circles. She was a major figure in pre-World War II
society, hosting dinners and salons that attracted artists, writers,
philosophers, and politicians. Well-known and well-connected literary
figures, composers, artists, actors, and architects frequented the
Scheu-Riesz home. It is not known how Mme. Scheu-Riesz came to know
Vernon Ward, but clearly they were moving in the same circles once she
arrived in America.
No record survives listing the Island Workshop students. Local sources
indicate that only a handful of people were ever enrolled in classes, maybe 8-12 people at any one time.
Dare Wright, popular 1950s photographer and author of children's books,
several set on Ocracoke, seems to have had a connection to Vernon Ward,
and may have participated in the Workshop. No doubt the extreme
isolation of Ocracoke contributed to the small number of students. In
1940 no ferries served the island, and the journey across Pamlico Sound
on the 42 foot wooden mail boat Aleta took four hours.
Island Workshop Advertisement:
No local islanders are known to have taken advantage of the courses offered.
Most of the teachers (Vernon Ward, Daniel Tilden, Miss Weill, and Miss
Wetzler) lived in two apartments in the Wahab Village Hotel. Mr.
Schauffler, whose wife and children accompanied him, rented a house on
the Point Road (now Lighthouse Road).
1940 was a time of upheaval in Europe. In 1933 Adolf Hitler, leader of
the National Socialist German Workers' Party [the Nazi Party] had
assumed power in Germany and was appointed Chancellor of the "Third
Reich." He repudiated the Treaty of Versailles two years later. In
1938 Germany annexed Austria. In September 1939 Germany invaded Poland.
The events in Europe were causing anxiety and concern throughout the
world, and Ocracoke Island was no exception.
Before the United States declared war on Japan and Germany in 1941(and
established a Navy base on the island in June of 1942) Ocracoke
had been one of the most isolated communities in the country. Few
outsiders visited the island, and most of them were anglers and
The artists and intellectuals who participated in the Island Workshop were viewed by some locals with curiosity, and
with a degree of suspicion. They were described as "Bohemian" and
"mysterious." Mme Scheu-Riesz's German accent and old-world costumes
especially set her apart. Rumors circulated throughout the village
suggesting that she and her fellow artists might be German spies.
Although only a handful of islanders held this view, those closest to
reported that they were secretive, and reluctant to socialize with
Workers at the hotel noticed that Workshop teachers and students
covered their books and poems, and turned
papers over whenever others approached them.
Most of the Workshop participants enjoyed spending their days on the
beach. Islander, Jake Alligood, had an old flat bed truck that he had converted to
an island taxi, and he often drove them across the tidal flats to the
ocean. It was not unusual for the teachers and students to walk to the
beach after dark. Mme Scheu-Riesz seemed especially interested in the
flashing beacons and other navigational aids, about which she asked
numerous questions. She was also observed making frequent calls, by
ship to shore radio, from the Coast Guard Station.
Several island teenagers, intrigued by the exotic artists and
intellectuals, and looking for adventure, decided to snoop around their
quarters. They had listened to adults as they discussed the artists'
unconventional behavior and different lifestyles. Connections to foreign countries, strange dress, and a degree of eccentricity had made them suspect. Could the artists really be undercover Nazi spies?
The "detectives" never discovered any incriminating evidence.
Mme. Scheu-Riesz's Jewish heritage points to something quite different
from a suspected German spy. Rather, she appears to have been a
committed progressive thinker. In Europe she hosted socialist salons,
worked with her husband to broaden the viewpoints of "dreadfully
nationalistic" Viennese primers, and was active in the burgeoning
"first wave" of the women's liberation movement. Mme Scheu-Riesz's name appears in 1921-1929 records of correspondence in the Quaker-affiliated Swarthmore College library's section on the
National Council for Prevention of War. She is pictured in a 1921 photo
of the Third International Congress of the Women's International League
for Peace and Freedom.
According to information from the Library of Congress, Mme. Scheu-Riesz
also had a connection with Sigmund Freud, with whom she carried on
correspondence in 1930. And she frequently combined her interest in art
with her passion for politics.
Vernon Ward seems also to have been a progressive thinker, for he
flirted with socialist and perhaps even communist ideologies. In a March 18,
1942 letter to his congressman, Herbert C. Bonner, he refers to
"certain [of his] letters rather friendly to Russia..." that were
published in the Raleigh newspaper, The News and Observer.
In the same letter he also acknowledges a rumor about his "personal
morality" which he claims is "no longer valid." According to
local sources, Ward was also a conscientious objector.
The Ocracoke "Artists' Colony" (the Island Workshop), operated for only
two summers (1940 and 1941). The December, 1941attack on Pearl Harbor
changed everything. In the next six months hundreds of merchant vessels
were torpedoed by German submarines off the Outer Banks. By the summer
of 1942 the US Navy had constructed an Amphibious Section
Base with as many as 600 personnel stationed on the island.
Ocracoke was no longer the quiet, isolated retreat suitable for an
Six months later, the Spanish Casino, which had already begun to
disintegrate, was closed on the recommendation of the Navy commander.
Shortly afterwards the building was demolished.
Although a rumor surfaced that Mme. Scheu-Riesz and several others from
the "colony" had been detained and/or deported in 1942, nothing
to some sources, Mme Scheu-Riesz operated an art gallery in New York
City after WWII. For more than ten years she was involved with the
Island Workshop Press there. In 1954 she returned to Vienna. She
devoted the rest of her life to school reform, writing numerous
adaptations of fairy
tales and translating children's books from English to German. She
died in 1970.
Vernon Ward went on to become a professor of English at East Carolina
University in Greenville, North Carolina. He published several books on
poetry. In the early 1960s he created and edited Tar River Poets,
a literary journal devoted to publishing poems by members of the Poetry
Forum in Greenville. At his retirement in 1978 the name of the journal
was changed to Tar River Poetry,
and submissions were opened to other poets. It has been listed as one
of the top ten poetry journals in the United States. Ward was married
and was survived by a daughter and son when he died in 2000.
After World War II Dr. Blanche C. Weill, dedicated child psychologist,
devoted her life to the care of troubled children. She died in
California in 1974.
Robert Haven Schauffler spent much of his adult life pursuing music and
poetry, although his career touched on many other topics, including
literature, travel, the military, and holidays. He died in 1964 at the
age of 85.
Nothing further is known about Daniel Tilden or Anita Wetzler.
Between 1940 and 1947 Island Workshop Press, an
outgrowth of the Ocracoke artists' colony, published a number of books
and pamphlets in New York City, including the following:
- Through Children's Eyes, by Barbara C. Weill (1940)
- Will You Marry Me?, edited by Helene Scheu-Riesz (1940)
- Fiddler's Luck : the Gay Adventures of a Musical Amateur, by Robert Haven Schauffler (1941)
- Stories of the Underground Railroad, by Anna L. Curtis (1941)
- The Quakers Take Stock, by Anna L. Curtis (1944)
- The Story of Liberty, by Louis Kaufman Anspacher (1944)
- Shakespeare as Poet and Lover, and the Enigma of the Sonnets, by Louis Kaufman Anspacher (1944)
- Democracy is Not Enough, by Scott Nearing (1945)
- The Soviet Union as a World Power, by Scott Nearing (1945)
- United World, the Road to International Peace, by Scott Nearing (1945)
- See Here, Private Enterprise!, by H. Sabin Bagger (1945)
- The Master Race Mentality, by Louis Kaufman Anspacher (1945)
- War or Peace?, by Scott Nearing, (1946)
- The Revolution of Our Time, by Scott Nearing (1947
A note about research: For years I had heard stories from islanders
about the Ocracoke Artists' Colony. The two central figures mentioned
were Vernon Ward and Madame Helene Scheu-Riesz. I was able to gather
some information about Vernon Ward, but was unable to learn anything
further about Madame Scheu-Riesz. No islander remembered how to spell
her name, and everyone pronounced it as "Shereese."
I searched the Internet using various spellings and finally found
information about a Helene Charisse. I discovered that she and her
family were profesional dancers. Her mother was a personal friend and
admirer of Isadora Duncan. The family (Helene's mother and her ten
children) danced in Europe, Africa, and the United States, including
twice at the White House during Calvin Coolidge's term.
When the children reached adulthood and went their separate ways Helene
continued dancing alone, and eventually founded a dance studion in
An article written by Helene's husband after her death in 1981 referred
to her mother as Madame Charisse. It was only a short leap to imagine
that Helene was also called Madame Charisse after her mother died.
I decided that Helene Charisse was the colorful woman who had
participated in the Ocracoke Artists' Colony. She was involved in the
arts as a professional dancer, and she was from Europe. Although
Helene Charisse was born in Paris I imagined that her family might have
been German-speaking, or perhaps Ocracokers had misidentified or
misremembered her French accent. Helene Charisse was born in 1909, so
she would have been about 31 years old in 1940. Islanders remembered
her as older, but I thought that time and memory might have conspired
to cause them to be mistaken. After all, I reasoned, how many Madame
Charisse's could there be? I was convinced that I had located the right
In October of 2008 a frequent visitor to Ocracoke showed me the Island
Workshop advertisement that she had purchased on Ebay (see image
above). It was the first time I had heard the official name of the
Artists' Colony. Back to the computer I went. Armed with the key
phrases, "Island Workshop," "Vernon Ward," and "Ocracoke" I stumbled
upon a December 30, 1940 Time magazine article mentioning Ocracoke Island and the book, Will You Marry Me?, published by the Island Workshop Press, and edited by Helene Scheu-Riesz.
Eureka! The woman who had lived on Ocracoke in 1940 and 1941 was Helene
Scheu-Riesz, not Helene Charisse. With this new information I searched
the Internet again and was rewarded with thousands of hits. It was only
a matter of patience and diligence until I was able to put together a
more comprehensive and more accurate picture of the Ocracoke Artists'
Madame Helene Scheu-Riesz was Austrian, as the islanders told me. And
she did speak with a German accent. Also, she was about sixty years old
when she arrived on the island, exactly as my sources remembered.
I learned a valuable lesson -- trust your local sources!