The Winter Caretaker Of Star Island

Mar 13, 2015

Ever fantasized about living on a lush tropical island?  Would you settle for a long cold winter on a rugged rock 6 miles off the coast of Portsmouth?  For the last 18 years, photographer Alexandra De Steiguer has done just that as the lone winter caretaker of Star Island.  NHPR's Sean Hurley paid her a visit and sends us this.

On our first attempt to leave the harbor for Star Island, the muffler was frozen and the Miss Julie, a 29 foot lobster boat, wouldn't start.  

Miss Julie.
Credit Sean Hurley

On our second try, the impeller broke and the engine overheated.  Sailors are superstitious and if anything goes wrong this time, Brad Anderson jokes he might have to toss me overboard.

Brad Andersen as we leave Portsmouth on the Miss Julie.
Credit Sean Hurley

"You may be bad luck.
Is it me?
It might be you."

Anderson makes surfboards in York, Maine.  He's also the land-based half of Star Island's winter caretaking team. Every few weeks he makes this 9 mile journey to visit his partner, Alexandra De Steiguer. 

Road salt being unloaded from the enormous cargo ship, Ocean Freedom.
Credit Sean Hurley

"Bring supplies, water, food. But fundamentally she's out there by herself most of the time."

Anderson and De Steiguer met as tall ship crew mates - and Anderson recalls that even then she was taking pictures of the sea.

Captain Jack Farrell
Credit Sean Hurley

"She's been a photographer for 28 years - but she didn't do much on the business side of art to actually get seen more and get people to know her work."

De Steiguer's reticence and preference for solitude meant that her art went largely unseen for years. But after self-publishing "Small Island, Big Picture" a collection of her photographs in 2013, the world got its first real glimpse of her work.

"At some point someone's bound to notice and realize how remarkable what she's doing is."

"Looking Seaward"
Credit Alexandra De Steiguer

The book led to shows in Portsmouth, representation, and in Boston this summer, a show at the Pucker Gallery.

"It's kind of been a big year for her."

The islands.
Credit Sean Hurley

Around us, the sharp water crackles with light and the snow white islands seem to rise from the waves.

Alexandra De Steiguer on the dock.
Credit Sean Hurley

De Steiguer meets me on the ice clad dock in a green army jacket and blue jeans and leads me over the snow to her caretaker's house.

"It's got everything for me. It's surrounded by the sea. It's rocky and rugged. I feel like I'm a northern girl. I need to feel like I'm suffering somewhat. I just feel more alive that way."

"Emergent"
Credit Alexandra De Steiguer

She outlines the significant chapters of her life. First, as a girl wandering through the swamp beside her house.

"I remember some days the project for the day would be to pack a lunch and head out and try to get lost. That would be the big hope."

As she grew older, she wanted to get lost in something vaster.

"I just had this big romance with the sea. I always wanted to sail on a ship."

"Midnight Sail"
Credit Alexandra De Steiguer

When she turned 18 she signed up for a course of study on a tall ship.  She met Brad Andersen and for the next 9 years they were sailors. 

"Do you think you would've come to photography if you hadn't gone to sea?
I don't know. I don't know if I would've found my grand passion, the thing that I needed to express if I didn't go to sea."

De Steiguer took the winter caretaking job 18 years ago. While daily chores occupy some of her time - clearing snow and checking the 20 or so buildings - she spends most of the day doing what she likes.

"I call it mooning. You know someone once asked me aren't you out there just taking pictures all the time? And I'm like no I just really need to moon around. I need to sit for long periods of time and let my mind clear and just absorb the scene."

"Windblown #4"
Credit Alexandra De Steiguer

When she finally does see something, the camera comes out.

"I think for me it's the scene itself.  And with the photograph that I make of it I only hope that I can do that justice.
So you're really seeing it first with your eye?
Yeah. And my heart...If you have the great arch of the sky over a thing you can see how small that thing is. And that's sort of one of my themes is that I like that feeling of being tiny and feeling miniscule."

The more solitude, the greater the sky seems and the smaller she gets.

"If I could have solitude and be with Brad at the same time that's how I would improve it. But I can have one or the other."

With her naked eye, from her kitchen, De Steiguer can see the mountain in Farmington where she lives the rest of the year in a solar powered cabin.

"I'm a person I don't like as well on the mainland. But out here's it's like I'm a glass of water and I'm just filled right up and on the mainland I spill it all out."

Star Island
Credit Sean Hurley

We go for a walk around the island and I ask if she's ever met anyone who needed as much solitude as she does.

"My dad. He built a house on a mountain in Costa Rica and he just stays up there. And his parents moved to the desert and they built this little house out in the middle of nowhere and that's where my dad grew up.  I guess it runs in the family."

We hear the sound of Miss Julie's engine rumble to life and we head for the boat and say our goodbyes and begin to watch each other disappear.

Leaving Star Island.
Credit Sean Hurley

"You wouldn't think that you could become more connected to the world you live in by being isolated on an island but in fact that's what happens."

De Steiguer, a little dash now against the snow, gets smaller and smaller, alone once again on  her island. 

To see more De Steiguer's work, visit her website.