Behind the Canvas
Come be a fly on the wall (or, perhaps, a tree) on this rare tour of homes and studios belonging to 11 celebrated Maine artists.
In the summer of 2018, photographer Walter Smalling Jr. traveled 5,856 miles, immortalizing places the public seldom gets to see: the private quarters of some of Maine’s most famous artists, as well as scenes that inspired them. Many of his images appear in At First Light: Two Centuries of Maine Artists, Their Homes and Studios by Bowdoin College Museum of Art co-directors Anne Collins Goodyear and Frank Goodyear III and Farnsworth Art Museum chief curator Michael Komanecky, who selected the 26 represented artists and compiled biographies on each. Smalling contributed passages too — a handful of which appear in this adapted excerpt — in the form of musings on his encounters with artists past and present. Of the former, he says, “Because I have often done work as a photographer in historic preservation, going to houses belonging to artists from the past felt very familiar. I have a system. I go in, sit down, and wait till the place speaks to me and I hear those voices from the past. I can see what eyes had seen sometimes 100 years, sometimes decades ago — what brought people here and what inspired them.”
Throne Room, Star of Hope, Robert Indiana, Vinalhaven, 2018
Robert Indiana’s Star of Hope on Vinalhaven, a former International Order of Odd Fellows lodge, was a Victorian construct of steep stairways, large ceremonial spaces, and rabbit warrens filled to the brim with 20th-century American art. A haze of Indiana’s cigar smoke filled the building. He lived there, across the street from Marsden Hartley’s 1940s studio. Indiana told me he felt a special attachment to this place because of Hartley’s presence. And he told me he had never thrown anything about himself away. He had the first newspaper story about him and the most recent one. Now Indiana has died, and the Star of Hope has been at least temporarily emptied out. The photos we took are some of the only records of one of Maine’s most amazing and strangest repositories.
Studio, Yvonne Jacquette, Searsmont, 2018
I had never seen an artist mix paints for each color in a painting and then put them in tubes to be used later. Yvonne Jacquette carefully mixed dozens of colors in this way. Her Searsmont studio was immaculately organized and very efficient. Sunlight streamed into the high space almost as though through windows in a church wall. In many ways, her farmhouse [which she had shared with her late husband, artist Rudy Burckhardt] was the same, colorful and carefully arranged for comfort. She, perhaps more than any other artist I visited, was eager to get on with her work, and I was careful not to intrude too long.
Studio in the Woods, David Driskell, Falmouth, 2018
When I went to the Falmouth house and studio where Georgia native David Driskell spent summers [until his death in April of this year], I discovered that a veritable Who’s Who in American Art had passed through. David had created a Georgia country hollow, complete with southern hospitality, in the Maine woods. His studio is itself a work of art, handmade by him, its parts collected from various places, including the windows from his childhood church. Inside, everywhere the eye settled was a perfect still life. Seldom have I felt more at home than being there with David and his wife, Thelma. I went back when the house and studio were closed up and realized that the life and warmth were absent without them.
“Eight Bells,” N.C. and Andrew Wyeth, Port Clyde, 2018
“Eight Bells,” named in honor of the Winslow Homer painting of the same name, is a practical and beautiful summerhouse in Port Clyde. In 1919, N.C. Wyeth bought it for his family. A reproduction of Eight Bells still hangs in the living room. N.C. built a studio on the shore where he could spend time painting the Maine coast and its people [and where this photo was taken]. He shared the studio at times with his daughters and Andrew. After N.C.’s untimely death [in a car accident], the house became the summer residence of Andrew Wyeth, his wife, and their two sons. Helga Testorf [the subject of hundreds of Andrew’s onetime secret paintings and drawings] also spent many summers there.
Studio, William Wegman, Loon Lake, Rangeley, 2018
William Wegman and his wife, Christine Burgin, own an old inn and a few cabins on Loon Lake in Rangeley. A man of no pretense and a droll sense of humor, William [known for his films and photographs starring his Weimaraners] has in many ways made a comfortable living by playing, but working very hard at it. It might have been tempting to try to imitate William’s photographs in some way, but I was more interested in how he interacted with his dogs [Flo and Topper] and how similar they were to Bill himself, curious and watchful. He said that when a strobe light popped and a shutter clicked, the dogs snapped to attention because they knew they were working.
Living Room, Big House, Eliot and Fairfield Porter, Great Spruce Head Island, 2018
I spent several weeks in the Big House [on Great Spruce Head Island, designed in 1913 by James Porter, Eliot and Fairfield’s father], sometimes staying in Fairfield’s childhood bedroom. It is still just exactly the same as when the family first lived there. Cooking is done on a large cast-iron stove. Ceramic pieces that appear in Fairfield’s paintings are still on kitchen shelves. Some of his pigments and brushes are in his bedroom closet. In the woods surrounding the house, Eliot found a rich world, much of it captured in his book, Summer Island. Nearby is his house, a Sears mail-order prefab shipped to the island and assembled. A century later, the family has grown like an inverted pyramid, and many members have spent every summer of their lives here.
Studio, Charles Woodbury, Perkins Cove, 2018
Charles Woodbury’s Ogunquit home/studio is now owned by Marcia Beal Brazer and has become a desirable summer rental property. I stayed there while photographing, but the first night I went to sleep wondering if I had made a terrible mistake [as the studio no longer looked like Woodbury’s]. Then an outrageous solution popped into my head. Take everything out of the room! Charles’s grandsons live nearby and own many items that had been in the studio. They arrived with two cars loaded down with easels, paintings, ship models, sculptures, carpets, all sorts of objects! The result is a photograph that may not be totally historically accurate, but which channels the studio of Charles Woodbury.
Dahlov Ipcar’s Childhood Bedroom, Marguerite and William Zorach, Georgetown, 2018
Leaving Route 1 and driving down the Georgetown peninsula, a visitor enters woods and crosses a small bridge and rushing stream [before arriving at Marguerite and William Zorach’s] long white farmhouse on Robinson Cove. The Zorachs decorated the house by hand, painting many of the interior rooms with animals and figures. Their daughter, Dahlov Ipcar, painted her own childhood bedroom and helped in the other rooms. Georgetown was a gathering spot for many artists. Photographers Clarence H. White, F. Holland Day, Gertrude Käsebier, and Paul Strand worked there, as did Marsden Hartley and Gaston Lachaise. One artist might spend a summer and return the next year with two or three friends. Word of a good thing spread quickly.
Excerpted from At First Light: Two Centuries of Maine Artists, Their Homes and Studios, published March 10 by Rizzoli Electa. A companion exhibit scheduled to open this month at the Bowdoin College Museum of Art has been postponed until June 2021 due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Visit bowdoin.edu/art-museum to view virtual collections and learn about future programming.