by Sarah Teach
Gorgeous and nude, she stretches luxuriously and perfects her posture before taking a dive to the depths of the smooth body of water sparkling before her. The space between her ribs above her tummy is flat with her preparatory inhalation. She is ready. Emerald green and exquisite, she can be seen in a storefront in downtown Nantucket. The man behind the curtain is widely collected, world-renowned artist David Hostetler, an 86-year-old enigma and a forger of the female form.
Although he is primarily known for his sculpture, Hostetler has crafted an extensive body of paintings and does not prefer one method to the other. “I love it all,” he gushes with one exaggerated nod and a single condition: “As long as it’s women!” He admits that in his eightieth decade, it behooves him to perform the less taxing work of painting in lieu of standing for hours on end, pounding with a mallet and chisel. “Sculpting can really kick your ass, physically,” says Hostetler. But forget buns of steel; Hostetler chooses to sculpt his women from wood. “Before I even begin, wood possesses inherent beauty. Unlike writing or even painting, I’m already starting off with something beautiful.” Never one to be one-dimensional, Hostetler has also sculpted from polished bronze throughout the decades. “Sometimes,” he remarks with a raised brow, “the sculpture needs to durable.”
Rarely seen without his signature black bandana, Hostetler has been known to sit on the bench outside his Centre Street gallery and listen to passersby remark on his art. Hostetler reveals, “It causes quite a tittering. Humans are embarrassed by sexuality. You know, dads will joke about it; their kids will giggle.” But the artist has no apologies for his work. In fact, after 61 years of crafting the female figure, it seems as if Hostetler’s passion is just getting fired up.
Hostetler, a native of rural Ohio, has Amish roots that have served as groundwork for his core values. “I was drawn the ideas of simplicity and self-reliance,” says the artist. “Back then, they called it ‘having survivalist skills.’ So when the 60s came, I was ready, baby!” With the help of some like-minded gentle people, Hostetler built a working commune on his own 40-acre Ohio property. “I was in my forties by then, so I ended up being kind of Grandpa Hippie. We had gardens; we grew our food; we made art. At one point, I would guess we had a thousand people living there.” Hostetler is astonishingly casual about this number. “But of course,” he allows, tossing his hand in the direction of the ground, “It failed, as all of them did. Humans without some sort of guide tend to revert to selfishness.” Hostetler tells the tale of one woman in the commune who toiled hard to plant potatoes, though no one was keen to help her. Come harvest time, the former idlers were suddenly eager to help her eat the crops. With neither disdain nor veneration, Hostetler says: “I think of that as my most sophomoric and idealistic time period.”
When Hostetler ventured away from his Midwest home, he didn’t leave his values behind. “I got to Nantucket in 1970, when I was 44, with the first wave of hippies that came out here. We scared the hell out of the WASPS!” he recalls, guffawing. “Of course, it was a sweet young thing that brought me here. She just loved Nantucket; it was the only thing she ever talked about with enthusiasm.”
For the past 27 years, however, the leading lady in Hostetler’s life has been his wife, Susan Crehan-Hostetler, who runs the downtown Hostetler Gallery. “A lot of people have told me that she is the best thing that’s ever happened to me and to my art,” he says. Just a few minutes with Crehan-Hostetler in the gallery affirms this. She says, “I love David’s work because it’s not all fingers and toes; it’s interpretive. You have to craft your own story. The first summer when we were courting, I had this a-ha moment when I was looking at a piece of his work—a head—and I just realized, ‘Wow! This is really amazing.’ Now I’m always seeing new lines and new ways that the light hits the wood, and it’s just timeless.”
But even timeless art can undergo change. Hostetler believes quality art is always somewhat autobiographical. “As you go through life, your outlook is constantly changing. In the 50s I was really entranced by Americana folk art, and what they called pop realists,” he explains. “Then I got in with the Harper’s Bazaar models, and things took a sharp turn and became much more severely stylized; they were high fashion and slicker.” He points to a sculpture of a blindfolded woman and says, “This is from a period when I was really into expressing the suppression that women face.” It only takes the artist a second to choose his favorite piece of work. “Asherah with a crown of roots,” he says. “She’s the mother goddess, she represents so much of what I believe in. Women are the strong ones. Men,” he admits, “Are pretty wimpy. Asherah embodies a period when women were worshiped for their strength. In a way, a sculpture is like a time capsule.”
When Hostetler met and fell for Crehan-Hostetler, his art took yet another new turn. He recalls, “I started doing these sculptures of two people merging. It was all about partnering. When you partner, there’s a gain and there’s also loss. All that Gestalt theory stuff.” He waves one well-worn hand in the air. “It’s funny though, that no one has ever commented on the fact that [the sculpture subjects] are both women. People just assume that the bigger one is a male. If I were a woman, I would be a lesbian. There’s no question in my mind,” he says, shaking his head. “I’m a T&A man, that’s for sure. Anthropologically, it’s been proven that the hourglass figure is presold.” Demonstrating the shapes in the air with his fingers, he says, “Wide hips and large breasts signify childbearing ability.”
But Hostetler does not believe there is one specific ideal of a beautiful woman. His eyes dance with the exclamation: “There are so many women, all different!” One painting that hangs on a wall in his home seems to sum up his entire artistic theory: four stick figures, each with two small circles for breasts and a different shape for a torso. The first is a literal hourglass with sharp corners; the second is an upside-down triangle alongside its more curvaceous cousin, a strawberry shape; then finally, a circle. “This is a very key piece,” says the artist. “It came to me in a dream in the 90s. I keep a drawing pad by my bed since we forget our dreams so quickly, and I want to channel those subconscious thoughts. I saw these iconic images of women in a back field in the country, so I drew them. It was 3 a.m. Susan wakes up and sees me and says, “‘What are you doing?'” and I said, “‘I’m drawing.'” For me, real art comes from the subconscious.”
While many artists find their muse during the off-season on Nantucket, Hostetler bucks that trend, too. “Winter on Nantucket?” He says, “Whew! Tried that one. It was all the same people in all the same bars. And actually, back when I first came out here, some people actually had their own spots at the bar. If you were sitting in ‘their’ seat at Cy’s [Green Coffee Pot], and they showed up, you got up. I tried to make art out here, and I couldn’t do it.” But Hostetler remembers some good times from wintering on Nantucket, as well: “I was a Chicken Boxer. I played drums at the club, and I sold my sculptures there since I never had a gallery. My friend Larry [Silverstein, developer of the World Trade Center site], who had started buying my stuff in ’73, told me, “You’ve got to have a presence!” Fortunately, Hostetler heeded his friend’s advice and acquired a gallery location on Old South Wharf. Suddenly, his art started selling, though he says he didn’t pay much attention to the price or profits until Crehan-Hostetler entered his life a decade later. “I like to ask people what they thought of me back then,” says Hostetler. “I’ve heard stuff like, ‘Well, we thought you were a lot of fun, a little dangerous, not too hygienic.’ Hostetler, though beside himself with glee at such memories of years past, enjoys every moment of life in the present.
Hostetler says that art and its method of creation have changed in his lifetime. “Today, froth is more important. [Thomas] Kinkade and all that that? Obvious scam.” He shakes his head and discloses, “I see a loss of craftsmanship. Art school used to be like a trade school; it was that way for a long time.” He cites a lack of the hands-on work that he and his contemporaries took on during the years when he was earning his fine arts degrees. “But,” he says quietly yet confidently, “It’ll go back.” After spending some 38 years as an art professor at his alma mater, Ohio University, Hostetler offers some valuable nuggets for aspiring artists: “If you go into art for the money, you’re going in for the wrong reason. You need to create what makes you happy, not what is going to sell. I am very lucky that people happen to like what I do.” Hostetler squints and says, “I don’t think making art’s normal.” The artist’s eyes light up brilliantly as he mulls over this thought.
“I play jazz when I’m carving; I carve to the beat,” he says, reflecting on his relationship with music. “I see a lot of cross-references between carving on wood and drumming. I love rock and roll, but to me, jazz is a lot more intellectual. It’s a conversation. You can do improv; it’s not just a set beat going ‘two-four, two-four, two-four, two-four.” During the summer months when Hostetler and Crehan-Hostetler are on Nantucket, the artist sits down at his drum set alongside several local musicians. With Matt Hutchinson at the piano, Howard Bloom on the tenor sax, and Nigel Goss plucking the bass line, the only vibes emanating from the quartet are of creativity and good times. Hostetler takes great delight in gushing about his band mates: “Women just freak out over those guys!” But the group does not have any plans to record professionally. “Recording takes a whole different mindset. I just love the process of making music. That’s art, too.”
Never mind the lack of a recorded jazz album, Hostetler’s life is not completely free of media. In 2008 came The Last Dance, an hour-long documentary about Hostetler’s life and career, which won four Emmys and has been picked up by major networks. The film is available at Hostetler Gallery at 42 Centre Street, where Crehan-Hostetler’s handpicked selection of her husband’s work is on display. “I’m always intrigued when people buy something,” says the artist. “You’re taking something into your home, into your life. I’ve formed some enduring friendships with some of the people who buy my art.”
Hostetler Gallery is open daily from May through October. Drop by for a quick browse, a moment of reflection, a beautiful new addition to your collection, and maybe even a chance meeting with Nantucket’s ladies’ man himself.