Winter Harbor’s fictional Von Thistles inspire artwork

“Winslow, a Von Thistle cousin,” acrylic, Deborah Martin

WINTER HARBOR — The idea for Deborah Martin’s fictional Von Thistle family was first planted, interestingly enough, 20 years ago during friendly banter among staff in the psychiatric unit at Maine Medical Center in Portland.

“A nurse-friend called me ‘Devorah Von Thistle,” said Martin, a psychiatric nurse. “I called her the Red Devil.”

Both names stuck, but Von Thistle acquired a life of its own.

“Sarah, Megola and Cin,” Deborah Martin

The intergenerational tale involves five generations with the spotlight on three sisters, the contemporary family’s matriarchs. The Von Thistle drama does not include a cast of thousands, but it’s getting close.

To get to know the Von Thistles better, swing by the Littlefield Art Gallery, where Martin’s bold and playful artistic renderings of the fictional clan are on view starting Sept. 10 and running through Sept. 16. An artist’s reception will be held from 4 to 6 p.m. on Friday, Sept. 15.

Martin’s saga about the Von Thistles begins with a great-great-great-grandmother Matilda Von Thistle, who marries a wealthy banker from Wall Street. The two met while he was visiting friends in Winter Harbor, the town where she grew up as a Von Dillie.

The reigning Von Thistles are three daughters — Bula, Carla and Gillie. They have many talents, including singing, and at some point are featured on the now defunct “Ed Sullivan Show” on TV. The sisters continually bicker and seethe with resentments and envy, among other dramatic emotions.

Martin is familiar with intergenerational complexities. Her father emerged from a long line of Joys on the Schoodic Peninsula. His mother was a Sargent, another familiar name in the area. Martin grew up on Sargent Street in her great-grandfather’s home, which still stands. It is known among locals as Nate Sargent’s home.

“Matilda Von Thistle as a Young Woman,” Deborah Martin

“It was nice growing up here, but we were bored in the winter as teenagers,” said Martin. “We all wish we had known what else was out there.”

She had a bit of a glimpse of a larger world through a very good friend of her Dad’s, movie producer John Michael Hayes, who owned the sprawling mansion next door to the iconic “Far From the Wolf” on Grindstone Neck.

But it wasn’t until after Deborah married Wayne Martin that she really saw the world. His Army career took them and their soon-to-be two daughters to Georgia, Okinawa, Virginia, Hawaii, Louisiana, Germany and Watertown, N.Y., where Martin attended nursing school.

When Wayne retired from the military, the family settled in Portland, Maine, where Deborah began working at Maine Medical Center.

Several years ago she retired from the hospital and they relocated to her father’s home on Main Street in Winter Harbor, where they now spend summers with winters in Palm Beach.

Martin took art lessons as a teenager, but didn’t return to her easel until 10 years ago while recuperating from knee replacement surgery. She began with watercolors and pen-and-ink sketches and then graduated to acrylics with an occasional oil.

A passion rekindled, she began taking art classes wherever she could — from their winter home in Florida to Schoodic Arts for All workshops when she and her husband return to her hometown in the summer.

One painting she created as part of a benefit for Schoodic Arts for All caught the eye of seasoned artist Richard Kapral of Steuben. Trained at New York’s Cooper Union, Kapral has painted all of his life while earning a living as a desk manager in hotels and later selling antiques.

He has painted full time for about 20 years.

Richard Kapral and Deborah Martin PHOTO BY JACQUELINE WEAVER

The painting titled “Harvesting Melons” was inspired by a poem Martin was given as a creative prompt. Her bold acrylic colors depict Caribbean Island women harvesting fruit, their ebony skin reminiscent of the nurse colleagues she works with a day or two a week in Florida.

“I liked the colors,” said Kapral. “They were happy and well painted. She paints heavy, which I like. That was the only one in the show I really liked.”

That purchase two years ago was the beginning of a friendship. The two see each other often in the summer, meeting for lunch, dinner or a chat at his art-filled home in Steuben.

In the winter they write back and forth.

Asked what they talk about, Kapral said: “Art. What else?”

“We like road trips,” said Martin, who has accompanied him to his art openings at various locations in Maine. “His art is wonderful.”

“I love to pick Richard’s brain,” she said. “He tells me how it used to be — the artists he grew up with and went to school with in New York.”

Kapral said Martin’s paintings remind him of the Russian abstract expressionist Chaim Soutine, who immigrated to Paris and was drawn into the city’s rich artistic womb during the 1920s. He was known by his last name.

“Carla Drinking Wine After a Hellish Day,” Deborah Martin

Soutine, who was of Belarusian Jewish origin, made a major contribution to the Expressionist movement. His innovation was in the way he chose to represent his subjects: with a thick impasto of paint covering the surface of the canvas; his choice of palette and the visible brushwork and forms.

“The brush strokes, the whole thing, reminds me of Soutine,” Kapral said of Martin’s paintings.

Martin smiles. She had never heard of Soutine until Kapral pulled a book of the artists’ paintings from a nearby shelf at his home.

The Littlefield Gallery, which is mounting Martin’s September show called “50 Shades of the Von Thistles,” was founded nearly a decade ago by Jane and Kelly Littlefield.

Jane Littlefield said the show will be happy, colorful and fun as viewers try to deduce who some of the fictional Von Thistle characters might resemble. She stresses, however, that the characters are invented and compilations of many people, most of them drawn from Martin’s imagination.

“No one will be able to walk in without a smile on their face,” she said.

The Littlefields try to schedule one to two shows each year to benefit a local organization. In this case it will be the Winter Harbor Historical Society, of which Martin is vice president.

“Our contribution is the space,” said Jane. “The whole idea of the show is that the Joys and Sargents have a long history in Winter Harbor — seven generations. Deborah created this Von Thistle history. It all comes together and it’s fun.”

“It’s art you would hang in your home,” she added. “And just like the Von Thistles, it’s really colorful.”


The Littlefield Gallery is located at 145 Main St. in Winter Harbor. For more info, call 963-6005 and visit

Jacqueline Weaver

Jacqueline Weaver

Reporter at The Ellsworth American
Jacqueline's beat covers the eastern Hancock County towns of Lamoine through Gouldsboro as well as Steuben in Washington County. She was a reporter for the New York Times, United Press International and Reuters before moving to Maine. She also publicized medical research at Yale School of Medicine and scientific findings at Yale University for nine years.[email protected]
Jacqueline Weaver

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