By Arthur Smith
A few years back I told an acquaintance about my favorite New England summer destination, Monhegan Island, a tiny, artist-infested rock nine miles from the Maine coast.
“Ugh!” was the quick response. “Mosquitoes, no place to eat, the residents act like they wish you weren’t there, and enough already with staring at the sea." Her one trip had been, it seemed, an unmitigated bummer.
I start with that less-than-ringing endorsement to make it clear that this spot—one that has captured a permanent place in my partner’s heart and mine—is emphatically not for everybody. But for art lovers with a taste for nature, and who don’t mind an ocean-sized dose of Down East quirky aloofness, it’s a blue jewel of a destination.
The island, which you get to by taking a ferry from one of three mid-coast harbors, earned its nickname, "The Artists' Island," early. For a least a century and a half, artists and art teachers have been making summer excursions there, a hardy few becoming year-around residents. The roll call is impressive: the first generation included Robert Henri (1865-1929), credited with inspiring the Ashcan School of urban realism in American art, though he was also drawn to natural vistas. Henri's student George Bellows (1882-1925) painted here, as did his contemporaries Edward Hopper (1882-1967) and Rockwell Kent (1882-1971). Kent not only painted on the island but taught and built a number of the island homes, including the one now occupied by Jamie Wyeth (b. 1946) current representative of the painting dynasty that began with another Monhegan painter,
N.C. Wyeth (1882-1945), familiar for his vivid illustrations of classic novels.
Later generations of painters were enticed as well. Some came as students of Henri's circle, and often worked in similar realistic styles. Others found the island on their own, and brought a diversity of approaches. Reuben Tam (1916-1991) painted here, perhaps finding echoes of his native Hawaii on the island, creating glowing expressionist images of the cliffs. New York portraitist and landscape painter Fairfield Porter (1907-1975) worked here, as did Lawrence Goldsmith (1916-2004), notable for his watercolor landscapes. James Fitzgerald (1899-1971), an iconic New England artist born in Milton and educated at Mass Art, returned every summer for nearly 30 years. Lynne Drexler (1928-1999) had a vibrantly colorful take on Monhegan, tapping a palette shaped by New York abstraction of the 1960s, adapted to Monhegan subjects and sensibilities. She wintered for many years on the island.
The current crop of artists on the island includes Frances Kornbluth (b. 1920), a visionary abstractionist and student of Tam’s who has open studios twice a week. Her latest works, a series began in her 90s, are large black-and-white paintings and assemblages, both fearsome and delicate. Others whose works have intrigued me include painters Elena Jahn, Joan Rappaport, Joanne Scott, Arline Simon, and sculptor Mike Stiler. These and many others offer open studios and most of them show at the island's Lupine Gallery. Each summer a residency brings a new artist to the island.
The Monhegan Museum keeps tabs on this remarkable legacy of painting, and is also connected to the current arts community on the island. Each year curator Emily Grey mounts a special exhibition; this year’s is A Sense of Place: Representational Painting on Monhegan, 1950-2000, opening July 1.
I spoke with her about the exhibition, which focuses on how realist painting continued on the island even as abstraction as a style came to Monhegan in a big way in the 1960s. She explained that an exhibit like this is a community endeavor: “One of the wonderful aspects of this show, and really all shows at the museum, is that nearly all of the works are lent by people from the community. And the community is such that some of the research for the show can literally be done while walking through the village since you can count on running into somebody who was either friends with or related to one of the artists in the show.”
You can also see the vistas, often unchanged, that these painters depicted. Emily sent me one such view - “Monhegan Harbor,” by Aldro T. Hibbard - as a preview of the show. Other artists include Jacqueline Hudson, Lee Winslow Court, and Fred Wiley, all of whom happen to have strong Cape Ann, MA, connections. Wiley is one of a number of painters who have never been shown before at the museum. These new discoveries will take their place beside the familiar names of Andrew Wyeth and Rockwell Kent. (Even more island art is up at Rockland's Farnsworth Art Museum, which has Jamie Wyeth, Rockwell Kent and Monhegan on display through December.)
The Monhegan Museum sits on the island's tallest point, next to the lighthouse. The view takes in the village, with artists, lobstermen, tourists, and other diverse species of endearingly cranky New Englanders moving about below. But beyond that is the reason that anybody–painter or no–is drawn to this place: the restorative rhythm of the sea, cycles of waves, the reassurance of sunrises, sunsets ("gin and tonic o'clock" in my book, and I bet in a few artists’ as well), and the dim beckoning of a coast you’ve left behind. So, book your ticket, grab a canvas, a camera, and a journal and head out. We will be doing so once again this year, and, with any luck, for many years to come.
More information about Monhegan Island: http://www.monheganwelcome.com/
Arthur Smith is the former editor of WGBHArts. Executive producer for digital education at WGBH, Arthur, an amateur pianist and singer, was previously a freelance classical music reviewer for the Washington Post for 9 years. He has also worked at an opera company, and ran the information service and publications programs for OPERA America, the national service organization for the art form. Since 1991, he has been the program annotator for Vocal Arts DC, a classical song recital series based at Washington's Kennedy Center.
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