A sumptuous guide to the studios of 26 Maine artists, living and dead

So you think you know the artists of Maine. You probably do, but do you know how many of their studios are still there, just as they left? A recent coffee table book highlights a collection of these magical pieces, as used by about 26 artists.

Cover courtesy of Rizzoli Electa

“At First Light” has been created by a triangle of professionals. Anne and Frank Goodyear are co-directors of the Bowdoin Museum of Art. Michael Komanecky is the curator of the Farnsworth Museum. The book itself is the wonderful product of a collaboration between the Bowdoin Museum and publisher Rizzoli Electa.

In his challenging forward, Stuart Kestenbaum (Maine’s Poet Laureate, who retired this month) considers the life of these houses and rooms on their own. Apart from the presence (or ghosts) of the artists, everyone is a “sanctuary of everyday life”. Goodyears and Komanecky present the sites in turn with a brief overview of the artist’s life and the various ways in which he connected with Maine. Walter Smalling’s beautiful photographs with the real spaces do the rest.

Perceiving the state’s twelve years, “At First Light” goes back to Jonathan Fisher, whose “Morning View of Blue Hill Village” is one of the jewels of the Farnsworth Museum. It gives such a clear view of Maine’s life in 1824 as it is possible to take it.

In fact, Fisher (1768-1847) is absolutely something. Starting with Winslow Homer, the other artists included in the book lived in the last century. They can be widely grouped as American Impressionists (Frank Benson and Charles Woodbury), whose working years were around 1900, followed by early modernists (John Marin, Marsden Hartley and Rockwell Kent) whose fame came in large part in first half of the 20th century.

At this point, the writers’ contemplative chronology is interrupted by the artistic phenomenon that is the Wyeth family. NC, Andrew and James receive their own treatment, but both geographically and artistically, they are difficult to separate. Smalling, the photographer, called it “Wyeth World”. As a further refill, the house built by Rockwell Kent on Monhegan Island is now Jamie Wyeth’s studio.

The modernists William and Margaret Zorach put us back on the chronological path. And then there are the Porters, Eliot and his younger brother, Fairfield, the other artistic family who, like the Wyeths, can be said to have inspired the unique Maine sense of childhood, in their case, the Great Spruce Head Island. Inland, Berenice Abbott, another photographer, spent her last years around Monson.

Next is what Bob Keyes, in the Portland Press Herald Cemetery for David Driskell, called “a wave of post-World War II artists coming from New York, including Ashley Bryan, Alex Katz, Lois Dodd and, later, Robert Indiana, struggle with the landscape with a modernism. Many of them discovered Maine as students at the Skowhegan School of Painting and Sculpture. All of their studios are included in “At First Light”, as are Rudy Burkhardt and Yvonne Jacquette.

Another Skowhegan graduate, Bernard Langlais, was already in Maine, born on the island of India. His studio in Cushing is one of the few open to the public. (Winslow Homer on Prout’s Neck is different.)

Molly Neptune Parker has lived in the City of India all her life, continuing the basket traditions of the Passamaquoddy Tribe and letting them evolve from useful forms (scale baskets for collecting fish scales and heads in processing plants) to the most exquisite forms.

Finally, the two jokers in the pack are Richard Tuttle and William Wegman. I mean this without a derogatory meaning, but they “fight with the landscape” in a completely different way from other artists. Tuttle’s response to what he calls the “intermediate” landscape stands out from all the others in its highly minimalist approach, while Wegman and the Weimaraners offer a postmodern version of Lake Rangeley and its surroundings.

“The studio is waiting, a door that opens in silence, shadow and light.” Thus, Kestenbaum starts the reader in this aesthetic marathon (26 stops). The expected joy is more rewarding than the luxurious photos of Smalling. They are reinforced with examples of works by each artist. A particularly cheerful composition combines two flower images, a painting and a photo respectively, by Fairfield and Eliot Porter.

Unexpected details – a pair of long sleeves on the wash line, the shadows of a man and a dog about to come indoors – enhance the immediacy of some of the living artists’ spaces. Jonathan Fisher’s furniture, on the other hand, has the imposing order of a monument. Other venues run the range from a variety of occupations – toys, tools, bric-a-brac – to the open space of Alex Katz’s studio and Yvonne Jacquette’s near-clinical classroom. In contrast to the “artistic” uniqueness displayed in some of the other studios, the warmth of the Molly Neptune Parker living room reflects the very important community aspect of creating baskets.

Each location offered the photographer a different challenge. Sometimes the small ones are rearranged furniture. Once, an entire room was emptied and then refilled with family pieces by the artist’s grandchildren.

“At First Light” was supposed to be accompanied by an exhibition at the Bowdoin Museum of Art last year, but it was “kind.” We must hope it was just a postponement. Until then, the book is an amazing consolation prize.

Thomas Urquhart’s new book, Up for Grabs, a History of Maine Public District, will be published in May.

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