Monhegan is a beacon for artists

     Monhegan, a rough, rock-armored forested island rising out of the sea ten miles or so off the coast of Maine, is only a mile wide and two miles long.  The first recorded Anglican service in the New World took place on Monhegan in 1608, and the island was an important early stepping stone for the European colonization of America.  It became a safe haven for explorers and fishermen — and artists. 

     It started in 1858, when Monhegan residents looked up from their work to watch the U.S. Schooner “Vigilant” drop anchor in the harbor.  Two young men came ashore.  Some thought they were government inspectors, but instead of going up Lighthouse Hill to inspect the lighthouse the men set off across the island, carrying sketchbooks.  Their names are listed as Aaron Draper Shattuck and Mr. Brown, and they were the first artists to visit the island.  They were on a sketching expedition and had persuaded Captain Bilby, master of the Vigilant, to let them go along on the schooner’s inspection trip of the Maine coast.

     Knowing they had to be ready to rejoin the captain when he finished his inspection of the lighthouse, they quickly left the village to find the cliffs they had seen from the schooner.  The artists managed to get a few hasty sketches before they returned to the Vigilant.  The visit to the island left an indelible impression on Shattuck.  He was excited by the scenery — the beautiful coves, and the huge cliffs that rose out of the sea.  The constant dashing of the surf on the rocky shore fascinated him.  He told his friends.

     Artists began to visit the island.  Soon an increasing number of painters were making the sometimes-rough voyage to the island, where friendly island families took them in.  One artist even found lodging in the lighthouse keeper’s cottage.  Finally one of the island ladies, Sarah Albee, realized there was a need for a boarding house to put up the visitors and their painting supplies.  Tourists also began to visit the island, so her boarding house quickly turned a profit.  She was so successful that she opened the island’s first hotel, the Albee House, now the Monhegan House. 

     Eventually a number of artists decided to make Monhegan Island their summer home.  In the early 1900s studios and summer cottages started to appear alongside the weathered homes of the island residents. 

     Although tourism has made its mark, the island still looks much as it did when Shattuck made his hasty sketches of the cliffs.  The light and the interaction of land and sea continue to lure artists from around the world — from Hawaii, Russia, Germany, Italy, and from all over the United States.  They come to work in a wide range of styles, using all sorts of mediums including lithographs, etchings, woodcuts, watercolors, oil paintings, and drawings.  It’s no surprise that Monhegan is sometimes called “The Artists’ Island.”

     The spell Monhegan casts on artists can be overwhelming.  Robert Henri, head of New York’s “Ashcan School” and an influential art teacher, visited the island in 1903 and his letter home to his family is almost incoherent:  “Great rocks — cant describe it — looks like foreign and don’t — looks like Monhegan…Its all there and builds down to the sea and surf in a mighty way.”

     Fifty years later Reuben Tam came to Monhegan from his native Hawaii.  “I like places where the forces of nature are in active operation,” he wrote, “Monhegan Island, Maine — the drowned coast, the region of fog, grandeur and intimacy, the edge of land and the sea.” 

     Jamie Wyeth, who seasonally lives on Monhegan in a house built by artist Rockwell Kent, said, “I could stay right on this point … and spend the rest of my life painting.”

By Kay Sluterbeck/AAPJ

Published by on May 2013. Filed under Bugle Section, Palette News Arts Network/PNAN. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0. Both comments and pings are currently closed.

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