Twenty Years of Painting for Their Supper

The Sag Harbor Express

by Annette Hinkle for Sag Harbor Express

When Colin Ambrose moved to the East End in the early 1990s and opened Estia restaurant in Amagansett, he not only made a commitment to his customers — he also vowed to be loyal to the region’s artists.

Paton Miller portrait by Mansell Ambrose

Paton Miller portrait by Mansell Ambrose

“The first week we are there, who do I meet other than Marvin Kuhn?” recalls Ambrose who, prior to moving to the East End, had read the book “Striper” by John Cole which was illustrated by Kuhn.

Ambrose told Kuhn, the cartoonist for the East Hampton Star, that he was interested in creating a décor in the restaurant that would be striped bass intensive. He asked Kuhn if he would do a painting of a striped bass.

And when Ambrose asked, “How much?” he recalls, Kuhn smiled and said, “Why not a couple hundred dollars and a couple hundred dollar tab and we’ll be even?”

And that’s how the tradition of artists “singing for the supper” so to speak began at Ambrose’s restaurant. More were to follow – and many of them were artists who hardly needed to work for food — artists like John Alexander, Dan Rizzie, Terry Elkins and Jim Gingerich.

Paton Miller at work by Mansell Ambrose

Paton Miller at work by Mansell Ambrose

And each time, Ambrose paid the artists for their work with a combination of cash and a food tab at Estia.

“I felt there should always be a quid pro quo with them getting paid,” says Ambrose. “But the restaurant tab would also justify them putting in their time in a way that respected them.”

More than 20 years later, Ambrose has remained loyal to the artists (and vice versa). Though Amagansett’s Estia is long gone and Marvin Kuhn has passed away, Ambrose still has Estia’s Little Kitchen on the Sag Harbor Turnpike (he also now has Estia’s American in Darien, Conn.).

Today, Ambrose’s art collection contains 75 works and each has a different story surrounding it. Ironically, one of the newest artists is Peter Spacek the cartoonist and illustrator who has taken over for Kuhn at the East Hampton Star.

“They add depth and I feel they add movement,” says Ambrose of the presence of the work at Estia. “Each of these relationships have involved some cheeseburgers and Greek salads. It means a lot to me.”

Mansell Ambrose, Colin Ambrose’s 18 year old daughter, literally grew up surrounded by art, both at home and in the restaurant. The backdrop to her childhood, while she was intimately familiar with the pieces, she didn’t know much about the artists who created them …. until this summer.

Dan Rizzie portrait by Mansell Ambrose

Dan Rizzie portrait by Mansell Ambrose

That’s when Ambrose gave his daughter, an accomplished photographer in her own right, an assignment (or internship, if you will) — to document the restaurant’s art collection through the artists’ perspective.

“I gave her a list of 20 artists and she got all their email contacts, communicated with them, secured interviews and photographed them,” says Ambrose.

On Monday, Mansell started her senior year at Millbrook School in upstate New York. Soon, she’ll apply to colleges and among the portfolio pieces she’ll submit is this summer’s collection of photographic portraits and profiles detailing the lives of the various artists whose work has hung on the walls of Ambrose’s restaurant over the years.

“I grew up knowing the artists, but not having a close relationships except for their work,” says Mansell. “When I started doing the project I wasn’t sure what to expect.”

“I met with Jim Gingrich to form questions and get more comfortable. Them I opened up his website and saw one of his paintings – I know exactly where his painting is in my house and I knew exactly who he was. It came together that their art was around my entire life — and it grew my eye to appreciate good artwork.”

Close up of Dan Rizzie at work by Mansell Ambrose.

Close up of Dan Rizzie at work by Mansell Ambrose.

Part of Mansell’s goal with the project was not just to shoot a portrait, but to also photograph a detail of their hands in close up — either holding a tool or working on a piece.

“Some of them are huge artists, but I had never thought of them in their professional world,” says Mansell. “I knew them as friends of my dad. It was so casual. When I went to their studio and saw how amazing their work was, it’s really cool to get that experience.”

As an example, she mentions artist John Alexander who lives in Amagansett in summer.

“He had eaten at my dad’s restaurant everyday,” says Mansell. “He told me stories about being in my dad’s restaurant and how he welcomed him in. A lot of them think of my dad as the coolest guy.”

Ultimately, however, this project really helped Mansell to see art in an entirely new light.

“When you’re looking at art, you usually don’t have any information about who the artist is,” she says. “That changed for me and made me have a connection with the work. I literally scootered by it 6,000 times and saw day in and day out growing up. It’s cool that I now have a larger meaning to what the art’s about.”

For the artists, as well, the friendship that has developed over food and art is one that has remained strong.

“I love to barter and over the years, I’ve had a great tab at Estia,” says Dan Rizzie who once created a “Lymanade” stand for Ambrose’s elder daughter, Lyman. “Mansell was very professional. I was impressed in her genuine interest and in what she was doing.”

“I remember when Lyman and Mansell were babies – we’ve known each other that long,” he adds. “It’s a mutually interesting situation and brings the idea of community to a whole other level.”

The notion of community is one that is echoed by artist Paton Miller and he has particularly come to appreciate his long friendship with Ambrose and, by extension, his family.

“Mansell was a bright and charming young woman,” says Miller. “We’ve all really enjoyed our relationship with Colin – he’s the quintessential good guy and it’s one of those relationships you get by living in the same place a long time.”

“I made this home when I was 21 years old,” he says. “I like that continuity and being part of the fabric of the community. Colin’s kids reflect that.”

Mansell Ambrose’s artist portraits are on view at Estia Little Kitchen, 1615 Sag Harbor/Bridgehampton Turnpike, through mid-October. Call 725-1045 for information.