Art historian and author Martica Sawin at home in Harpswell. (AVERY HUNT PHOTO)
Though she keeps a low profile in Harpswell at her cottage compound on Middle Bay, off Basin Point Road, Martica “Tica” Sawin is a world-renowned art historian, teacher, curator and author who counts a host of high-profile artists and curators as friends. Today, at 92, she is still active with her work.
Tica has been connected to the art world for many years. Wolf Kahn, Will Barnet, John Heliker, Elaine de Kooning, Lee Krasner and Reuben Tam — all famous artists, many of whom painted in Maine — were all known to Tica, some as personal friends.
Tica has authored more than a dozen art books and countless articles, and has lectured on art and artists all over the world. She has curated art shows from New York to Washington to Madrid.
Several of her recent talks can be found on YouTube. These include a session on Gretna Campbell, an artist who did much of her painting on Cranberry Island. The video shows Campbell’s work and Tica’s interview with the artist’s daughter.
Tica was born in New York City in 1929. She graduated from Chatham Hall, a private school in Virginia that was also the alma mater of Georgia O’Keeffe. Tica earned high honors and, while she never considered herself an artist, she won a top prize for painting in a national high school contest. Her piece had been submitted, unbeknownst to her, by her art teacher.
She went on to Stanford, rooming next to Sandra Day O’Connor, the future Supreme Court justice. The East Coast native and the girl from an Arizona ranch remained lifelong friends.
Tica majored in history and art history. She spent her junior year in Paris studying at the Sorbonne and the Louvre. It was a heady time to be in postwar Europe, especially for artists. The dollar was top currency and Americans didn’t have to be rich to travel, which enabled Tica to visit museums in at least six other countries.
She never went back to Stanford. It was in Paris that she met and married artist David Sawin. They moved back to the States, where David used his GI benefits to study in the Master of Fine Arts program at Iowa State University. Tica, meanwhile, earned her Bachelor of Arts in art history from the University of Iowa in 1950.
Tica and David then moved to New York City. At first, they lived in a loft on the Lower East Side with a sausage factory in the basement. While Tica needed a job, she didn’t have any art contacts in the city. But armed with her degree, a ton of knowledge about art and artists, her experiences in Europe and a lot of chutzpah, she contacted the Museum of Modern Art.
Her father had taught her that a woman needed to have the tools to support herself, so she did have typing and shorthand skills.
Her approach to MoMA was simple. “I stepped into a phone booth and called,” she said. “When I was connected to the personnel director, I briefly introduced myself and added that I could type 40 words a minute.”
That clinched it. After an interview at the elegant home of Blanchette Rockefeller, she was offered a job as executive secretary to MoMA’s Junior Council. Blanchette, the wife of John D. Rockefeller III, chaired the council.
Tica’s duties demanded more than just secretarial skills. She organized major events and directed the museum’s extensive lending services, which allowed people to “borrow” art from the archives for a modest fee.
“It was the world’s greatest job,” she said, “and I was only 21!”
The council consisted of the offspring of New York’s rich and famous, with surnames like Rockefeller, Sulzberger, Berlin (as in Irving) and Strauss. It was created as a “training ground” for future trustees of the museum. Tica made contacts galore.
After the first of her three children was born, she had to leave the MoMA job. There was no affordable child care, so she was always looking for freelance work. She approached art galleries and began writing about and for them.
“New American art was just coming of age in the early ‘50s and there were lots of opportunities,” she said. For 10 years, she was a contributing editor to Arts Magazine, then New York correspondent for Art International.
Starting in 1963, she began a long career as a lecturer on art history at institutions that included Hunter College and Queens College.
She ultimately became chair of history and criticism of art at the Parsons School of Design, where she remained on the faculty until 1995. She founded Parsons in Paris, a popular summer program for art and design students that is still thriving today. Along the way there were lectures and curator stints, including summer sessions at the University of Maine at Augusta.
Her books include “Surrealism in Exile and the Beginning of the New York School” and, most recently, “Wolf Kahn: Paintings from the 1960s and New Work,” published in 2019.
Her first marriage ended in divorce in the late 1960s. In 1997 she married James Marston Fitch, an author, architect and well-known preservationist. He died in 2001.
Tica’s family has owned the cottages in Harpswell since 1967. She and her mother came to look at the property in the middle of a miserable winter.
“There was a foot of snow on the ground, the wind was howling and we really had no idea what we were buying. The cottages were rough at best,” she said. But they bought the property anyway and today, Crow’s Nest is a beloved summer sanctuary for Tica and her family.
To discover more, go to marticasawin.com.
Avery Hunt worked in publishing in New York City for 30 years, with Esquire, Newsday, Newsweek and others, before moving to Midcoast Maine in 2002. She is a contributing writer to Maine Seniors and Maine Women magazines, among others.