Island Profile: She created the mural you see at the Islander

CAROL GALLIGAN PHOTO | Catherine Brigham at the Islander restaurant with a detail of her Shelter Island mural in the background.

Anyone dropping into the Islander restaurant (formerly Pat and Steve’s) should, after placing their order, check out the new wall decor, the mural depicting Island scenes covering almost all of the four walls. It’s the work of Catherine Needham Brigham, 28, born and bred on Shelter Island, whose maiden and married names ring many local bells.

Her father is John Needham, who, with his brother Peter, owns and runs Coecles Harbor Marina and Boatyard. John is now married to Laura Tuthill of Hampshire Farms. Her mother is Stephanie Needham Sareyani, the art teacher at the Shelter Island School, now married to Dexter Sareyani, a local contractor. Catherine is married to Harry Brigham, whose parents are Walter and Barbara. Because Barbara is a Kilb, the family relationships now extend even further into the Island’s interwoven fabric.

They were married in the Sareyanis’ backyard in 2008. The guest list for the wedding at first stood at 150. By the time all friends and family were included, 326 guests attended, which is exactly how Catherine likes it. She jokes, “When we have children, they’ll never be able to date. They’ll be related to everyone.”

But it was exactly this familiarity with the Island that made the challenge of creating the mural, something she had never done before, an appealing opportunity. “But I never say no to a job!” she said, explaining she had gone on the Internet, learned as much as she could about murals, and realized in the process that she already had all the necessary materials. She made some sketches and Islander owners Chris Chobor and Ashley Knight liked what they saw.

Catherine was a little on edge when she was told that her “window” to complete the project would be the five days during which the restaurant was closed for renovations.

“But we did it,” she said. “I started on Monday and finished on Friday and it was a great time. I did a lot of learning, having to figure out the process. I’d never done anything on that scale and as we were going along they (Ashley and Chris) would be, ‘Oh, could we incorporate this?’ Then, ‘And the ferries?’

So I sat at the counter with a map and just kind of mentally imagined myself in the center of the Island and that’s how I figured out what to put where.” She added, “Having lived here 20 of my 28 years, I knew where things were. So that was fun.”

Islanders will find the North Ferry immediately on their right as they enter the restaurant and the South Ferry across the room where the counter ends. And they won’t have any trouble recognizing what’s in between.

Catherine attended Pratt Institute in Brooklyn after graduating from high school here in 2002 and began by majoring in painting. Midway through, she switched to art education, surprising herself, since she had never intended to follow in her mother’s footsteps, but discovered that it was exactly what she wanted to do. She graduated in 2008, “a little late,” having taken some time off for various interesting work opportunities.

One of these was a job as a teaching assistant at Rockefeller University Child and Family Center in its day care/preschool center.

She felt she learned a lot there, to think about her interactions with the children as having less to do with “lessons” and more with providing an opportunity for them to discover their own directions, making their own decisions with the use of different materials.

After she graduated from Pratt, she would have liked a full-time job teaching art somewhere in the city — she and Harry were living in Brooklyn. But jobs were scarce and largely short-term. Through temp agencies for teachers, she picked up time “subbing” in both private and charter schools. Harry was bartending as he had here on the Island at the Chequit. Together they were finding it difficult financially and returning to the Island looked like a better and better idea.

They came back in 2010. Harry began working at Gardiner’s Bay Country Club as a greenskeeper and Catherine began graduate school at Long Island University to upgrade her teaching credentials, securing her master’s degree in special education a year later. What she really wanted was a job that in some way related to her love of art. She was working in the Heights pharmacy when a conversation with a patron led to “an assistant position” with an Island artist and her husband, Denise Regan and John Picker.

In fact, Catherine didn’t really know what “an artist’s assistant” did but she took the job.

So she put grids and gesso on canvas, learned to wax and wrap and store paintings, to photograph them and keep an accurate data bank. She found the couple responsive to new directions. When they were approached for screen printing, they in turn approached Catherine, who said she indeed knew how to do it but didn’t have the equipment. Denise and John came up with what she needed.

Catherine took some classes. And the Shelter Island Clothing Company was born. “So we’re now in the silk screen business and I’m partners with them, designing shirts and sweatshirts” and hoping to make the business a success.

In addition, she’ll be working with her mother at their “Art in the Garden” summer camp on the Island, now opening for a ninth season, “just a labor of love.” This year the registration process will use software supplied by Catherine’s sister Emily, a salesperson employed in an East Hampton software company. The camp offers scholarships to Island children for whom the tuition might be steep and last summer they made up close to 30 percent of the participants.

“It’s something we love to do.” Catherine said. “We not only get to play with art supplies outside but to be with kids too. So we have more fun and bigger projects. We’ve really finally fallen into our groove in the last few years.”

She’s eager to see this summer begin and can be reached at