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

So you think you know Maine artists. They probably do, but do you know how many of their studios are still there, something when they left? A recently published coffee table book shows a collection of these magical places as used by 26 artists.

Cover courtesy of Rizzoli Electa

“At First Light” was put together by a triumvirate of professionals. Anne and Frank Goodyear are co-directors of the Bowdoin Art Museum. Michael Komanecky is the chief curator of the Farnsworth Museum. The book itself is the great product of a collaboration between the Bowdoin Museum and the Rizzoli Electa publishing house.

Stuart Kestenbaum (Maine’s Poet Laureate, who retired this month) sees the life of these houses and spaces as independent. Apart from the presence (or the ghosts) of the artists, everyone is a “haven from everyday life”. The Goodyears and Komanecky take turns introducing the rooms, providing a brief overview of the artist’s life and the various ways he or she was connected to Maine. Walter Smalling’s beautiful photos of the actual venues take care of the rest.

“At First Light” was conceived with the state’s bicentenary in mind and traces back to Jonathan Fisher, the polymath whose “Morning View of Blue Hill Village” is one of the jewels of the Farnsworth Museum. It gives as clear a glimpse of life in Maine as possible in 1824.

Actually, Fisher (1768-1847) is something of an outlier. Starting with Winslow Homer, the rest of the book’s artists lived through to the last century. They can be broadly summarized as American Impressionists (Frank Benson and Charles Woodbury), whose working years extended more or less equally to 1900, followed by early modernists (John Marin, Marsden Hartley, and Rockwell Kent), most of whom were best known in the first half of the 20th century was 20th century.

At this point, the authors’ thoughtful chronology is interrupted by the artistic phenomenon of the Wyeth family. NC, Andrew, and James each receive their own treatment, but they are difficult to separate geographically and artistically. Smalling, the photographer, called it “Wyeth World”. Another overlap, the Rockwell Kent home 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 family of artists who, like the Wyeths, have absorbed Maine’s unique local feel on Great Spruce Head Island from childhood. Inland, Berenice Abbott, another photographer, spent her final years at Monson.

Next, in his Portland Press Herald obituary for David Driskell, Bob Keyes named “a wave of postwar artists coming from New York, including Ashley Bryan, Alex Katz, Lois Dodd, and later Robert Indiana, with the landscape in a modernist way wrestle. “Some of them discovered Maine as students at the Skowhegan School of Painting and Sculpture. Her studios are all included in “At First Light”, as are those of Rudy Burkhardt and Yvonne Jacquette.

Another Skowhegan alumnus, Bernard Langlais, was born in Maine on the Indian island. His studio in Cushing is one of the few open to the public. (Winslow Homers on Prout’s Neck is another.)

Molly Neptune Parker has lived in Indian Township all her life, continuing the basket-making traditions of the Passamaquoddy tribe, evolving them from utility forms (weighing baskets for collecting fish scales and heads in processing plants) to the most exquisite forms.

After all, the two wild cards in the pack are Richard Tuttle and William Wegman. I don’t mean that in any derogatory sense, but they “wrestle with the landscape” in a completely different way than the other artists. Tuttle’s response to what he calls the “in between” landscape stands out from the rest with its ultra-minimalist approach, while Wegman and his Weimaraners offer a postmodern view of Rangeley Lake and its surroundings.

“The studio is waiting, a door opens in silence, shadow and light.” This is how Kestenbaum starts the reader on this aesthetic marathon (26 stops). The anticipated amusement is more than rewarded by Smalling’s lavish photographs. They are complemented by examples of the work of each artist. A particularly cheerful arrangement combines two flower pictures, a painting and a photo by Fairfield and Eliot Porter.

Unexpected details – a pair of long johns on the clothesline, the shadows of a man and a dog about to enter the house – reinforce the immediacy of some of the living artist’s rooms. Jonathan Fisher’s furniture, on the other hand, has the stately order of a monument. Other areas range from all kinds of busyness – toys, tools, junk – to the sprawling spaces of Alex Katz’s studio and the almost clinical order of Yvonne Jacquette. In contrast to the “artistic” singularity shown in some of the other studios, the warmth in Molly Neptune Parker’s living room reflects the all-important collaborative aspect of basket making.

Each location presented a different challenge to the photographer. Sometimes Smalling rearranged furniture. Once he emptied an entire room and then filled it with family items provided by the artist’s grandchildren.

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

Thomas Urquhart’s new book, Up for Grabs, a story from Maine’s Public Reserved Lands, will be published in May.

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