Island Artist: Meet Illya Kagan


In honor of the upcoming holiday weekend- the undeniable launch of summer in my eyes- I’m sharing an interview with a favorite artist and long time friend of mine. Since the arts play a tremendous part in the culture of island life, Illya Kagan represents a part of my Nantucket. I recently came across this island artist painting plein air in his element on Orange Street. Kagan’s art has always struck me through his ability to capture the beauty of Nantucket in such a genuine way.

Greg McKechnie: For those who don’t already know you, please tell us a little bit about your background.

Illya Kagan: I grew up spending summers here, so I’ve been around here for some 20+ years as a ‘semi-native‘. Nantucket is one of those places that somehow chooses you. One starts as a Wash-ashore, then a “summer person”, and ends up getting hooked as a full timer! I feel like I know every corner of this Island, whether from Mountain-biking through the Moors, sailing in the harbor, or wandering through the maze of downtown streets. But somehow I always seem to find new subjects and hidden places. For me, I’m inspired by just being outside in such a great place, and as a painter, I get to capture that feeling for everyone else to see.

GM: I’ve always felt a draw to your art and its ability to show areas or moments in Nantucket that feel so private and powerful. What inspired you to paint on Orange Street today?

IK: I love this spot. These are some of the oldest row houses in New England. It’s a unique, classic view of quintessential Nantucket. I’m also working on a painting of the Unitarian church looking down Orange Street, with a little bit of spring and summer foliage surrounding.

GM: I have run into you across the island painting, including out in the middle of the Moors, but do you have a favorite place to paint?

IK: This is one of my favorites (referring to Orange street looking back on the Unitarian Church). In fact, the painting I’m working on is one of four or five I’ll do from this same spot. I always thought this would be a great night scene, when the stars are all behind the church, it’s incredible. There are plenty of views on Nantucket, it’s an endless source of inspiration.
Ilya Kagan, nantucket plein air, plein air artist
GM:  Are you showing in any local galleries at the moment? Are there other artists on the island that you’re inspired by?

IK: I have my annual exhibition at the Westmoor Club at the end of August each year- August 20th this year. It is a great feeling to be able to put a year’s work up in one big room, and see all the places I have painted. It takes on a different life when you see it in a big grouping. I look at all of my fellow island artists, and take little pieces of inspiration from them, whether it’s colors or subjects. There are so many. We have a thriving art community on Nantucket.

GM: How do you spend an ideal summer day, a day enjoying the island?

IK: There are so many activities to do here; an ideal summer day for me would include a little bit of both the North and South Shores – some time in the calm waters and then some time surfing. And the kids would be with me. When it comes to summer it is beach, beach, beach!

GM: My kids are beach bums as well. What do you like to do with your kids in the off season?

IK: This island is a very unique place. Nantucket offers different things in different seasons, so we’ve learned to adapt past the heavenly summers. The kids also like to be kept active; we spend all winter at the Ice Skating rink. Once we see signs of warmth, they spend spring and fall on the soccer and lacrosse fields.

GM: I love the fact that you are all about your girls. Are you excited for them to grow up here on the island? Can you tell me about one of your fondest memories growing up on Nantucket?

IK: I love making island memories with them daily. I think if I have to choose one of my favorite memories from my past, it would be a shared memory with my whole family. My parents used to wake us up early – 6 am – and go to Bartlett’s farm and get fresh vegetables and fruit before heading to the South Shore to Ladies Beach. We’d spend a few early morning hours by the ocean, enjoying the scene, and we’d be back in time for breakfast.

GM: If you had to describe #YourNantucket in three words, what would they be?

IK: Surf. Sail. Beach.

Illya Kagan is a renowned Nantucket-based plein air painter. Working in water soluble oils, he paints freely using bold colors and broad brushstrokes to evoke the mood of the landscape around him. As the son of artists Erica Wilson and Vladimir Kagan, Illya grew up with art as a major part of daily life. While Studying in the south of France, Illya became inspired by the rich history of French plein air painters from the Impressionists to The Fauves. Upon his return to Nantucket, he took the unique beauty of the Nantucket Landscape with its rolling moors, expansive windswept skies, and white capped blue waters, to create a modern impressionistic style that has become the recognizable hallmark of his landscape paintings today.  You can spot him painting his way around the island. Find out more about Illya and his work here.

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