Twelve nautical miles out to sea in the Muscongus Bay, part of the Gulf of Maine, lies a remote, mystical island exposed to extreme elements that has artists, dreamers and romantics drawn to it almost magnetically. It’s not just any island. Monhegan is a place for soul searching, inspiration, relaxation and rejuvenation. Accessible to non-boaters by mailboat ferry this island possesses unusual powers that even this realist has to admit to.
It keeps pulling me back as an artist as it has many other artists. Jamie Wyeth calls Monhegan his first love in his wonderful forward to the book entitled The Art of Monhegan. He bought Rockwell Kent’s home on the island and lived there and painted on the island for twenty-five years. Jealous of sharing “his love with so many suitors, so many painters” he moved to a neighboring island, Southern Island, keeping his home on Monhegan so that he could return to “work and bask in her beauty and power”.
Robert Henri, the leader of The Eight or the Ash Can School based in New York discovered Monhegan in 1903 at which point the island already had a flourishing art colony. He was the most important art teacher in America at the time and head of the New American Realists Movement. At roughly the same time one of the leaders of the American Impressionist Movement, Edward Willis Redfield visited Monhegan. Many notable artists followed producing a large body of wide ranging work from realism to the abstract.
I was aware on our first trip to Monhegan that it was a draw to many artists but I was naïve as to the rich art history and the power of Monhegan. In my first painting of Monhegan entitled Monhegan Harbor, I wanted to capture as much of the island as possible, looking down on the many village homes and harbor from high on the hilltop near Monhegan Light. From this location alone an artist could create a large body of work due to the ever changing light and weather conditions and the many subjects to focus in on; the protective barrier island named Manana Island, the boats in the harbor and the angular three dimensional shapes of the homes that lead you down the village roads.
My second Monhegan painting is one that I struggled with but it ended up bringing me the most acclaim as a painter, On Monhegan Island. It started out very traditional and predictable. Having spent a good bit of time on the island, I thought to myself “the water needs to almost sparkle with the late afternoon sun bouncing off the waves”. I wasn’t quite sure how to create it and at this point I had already put a good bit of time into painting the water. I started adding pinks and light blue dabs of paint over what one might consider a finished painting. It became a complete rework. The bouncing of warm and cool colors off each other created the brilliance in the water I was looking for. I created glazes of color and spread it over the landscape with a palette knife, minimizing the details that I already had spent hours on. This created an almost watercolor-like affect and gave the work an atmospheric feel. The cemetery in the foreground to me represents the tough life lived by the roughly 65 year round current residents and those before them and I went back and forth on whether to include it in the composition. The painting ended up being included in the Farnsworth Museum exhibition entitled On Island: A Century of Continuity and Change. Then it was in the running for the cover of the aforementioned book entitled The Art of Monhegan. Although it didn’t become the cover, I have the honor of having my painting included in this book along with many fine artists who share or have shared the love of Monhegan. On Monhegan Island was also featured in the Ocober 2000 issue of American Art Review magazine.
After my St. Michael’s weekend last week, wandering the idyllic coastal town, I came home wondering what direction I want to go artistically. Could it be that I was missing Maine, the coastal villages, the smell of salt water in the air, the rocky coastline? After painting scenes of Maine for many years I gradually branched off, specializing in painting the wonderful historic wooden schooners, then a few tall ships and most recently European landscapes.
I started going through my rather extensive collection of Maine photographs that I have taken over the years and for some reason Monhegan Island kept popping in my head. I came across my most recent 2004 photographs that I took while staying on the remote island. Then I had a flash back, remembering the long hike I took around the north-eastern side of the island, climbing over rocks and through woods to see the rocky coastline and capture it on film. It wasn’t at all what I was into painting at the time but I thought that the headlands were so dramatic that it would make for some nice photographs. Or was it the magnetic force of the rocks guiding me?
For years I have painted lighthouses, harbors, lobsterboats, villages etc… structures and objects representing life situated in the landscape that I found more interesting than just the landscape. Now, looking for new challenges and new inspiration, I found it in some of my photos of the pure, dramatic coastline of Monhegan Island. The elemental forms of nature, the pounding surf meeting jagged rocks, the ever-changing weather conditions that define Monhegan Island are leading me back to painting Maine.
I’ve chosen a scene of Black Head Rock on the Monhegan Headlands to paint next. It has reinvigorated me and given me new direction. It will be an Impressionistic piece and one that I will blog about step by step to try and give you insight into my painting process.
I’m excited to be back painting Monhegan after an extended time away, with fresh eyes and new interpretations. My art is hopefully evolving and it will be enjoyable to apply my most recent thoughts on style, techniques, color and contrasts to such a bold and dramatic subject, the mystical island of Monhegan Island.