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Chester County Press

Jamie Wyeth's island life

06/25/2013 06:34PM ● By Acl

Sea by Jamie Wyeth

By John Chambless

Staff Writer

This week, Jamie Wyeth is once again surrounded by the sea.

He spends the summers on an island near Monhegan, off the coast of Maine. On Monhegan, a wild speck of land barely a mile wide, he has followed in the footsteps of American artist Rockwell Kent and created a body of work that captures the stark beauty of the island and the determination of its handful of year-round residents.

The two artists -- who never met -- are shown side by side in "Jamie Wyeth, Rockwell Kent and Monhegan," an exhibit which opened at the Brandywine River Museum on June 15, after opening last year at the Farnsworth Art Museum in Rockland, Maine.

Wyeth was at the Brandywine for a catalogue signing on June 15, and he has a home nearby, just over the state line in Delaware. Speaking by phone from his studio last week, Wyeth was upbeat and still enthusiastic about the exhibit he's been discussing for well over a year.

Monhegan is 10 miles from the mainland, accessible only by boat. The island remains much as Kent first depicted it in the early 1900s. There are still no cars allowed, no paved roads and no streetlights. Visitors are welcome, but they are basically on their own while hiking the nature trails and surveying the dazzling overlooks and sheer cliffs. There are about 65 year-round inhabitants.

Kent was drawn to the island in 1905, awed by its dramatic coastline and its hardy people who made ideal subjects for his paintings. There are a few B&B inns now, but Monhegan retains its wild, wide-open spaces.

"That's largely due to the fact that, years ago, Thomas Edison spent some time there and his son, Ted Edison, returned years later and realized that the island could be ruined," Wyeth said. "So he bought a large part of the island and turned it over to the residents. They formed a conservancy, which was very rare in those days.

"He also strongly urged that there never be electricity on the island," Wyeth said. "Which is an odd thing for the son of Thomas Edison to do."

Kent lived and painted there from 1905 until 1910, and then returned in 1947 to work until 1953. In 1920, the artist N.C. Wyeth had a home in Port Clyde, Maine, that served as a departure point for a ferry that went to Monhegan. In the late 1950s, N.C.'s son Andrew Wyeth and his young son, Jamie, visited Monhegan. The impression that it left on them led Jamie, in 1968, to purchase a home built there by Kent. The island has long been a prime destination for painters.

"That's one of the problems," Wyeth said. "There's an awful lot of painters who go out there. I wish it were more of a destination for dentists or something. I don't spend as much time there as I used to. I moved to another island. I go there in the winters, when there are fewer people."

If Kent's name is unfamiliar today, it stems from accusations made during the red scare of the 1950s, Wyeth said. "The House Un-American Activities Committee charged him with being a Communist, which he wasn't. But it had the same consequence on him. It finished his work. All the museums took down his paintings. Now, it's sort of a benign neglect. If you mention Rockwell Kent today, people think you're talking about Norman Rockwell. He's sort of unknown."

Wyeth bought his first Rockwell Kent painting with the proceeds from his first one-man show in New York. He has since amassed a large collection, and many of the paintings in the show at the Brandywine are owned by him.

"I keep a lot of them in the house in Monhegan," he said. "A lot of his paintings of Monhegan are now in Russia, so there are not many around."

Wyeth has continually crossed paths with Kent in one way or another.

"I was invited to the Soviet Union in 1975 or '76, to give a big speech at the University of Moscow," he said. "The State Department said they had to review my speech. Most of it was about Kent, how he had been shunned by his own country. The State Department said it was inappropriate and that I should remove part of it.

"Well, Senator Kennedy was a friend of mine, and he said, 'The hell with them. Tell them you'll go over and give your speech.'  Pravda printed the whole speech in the next day's paper. They took me to the Pushkin, which is a big art museum, and there was a whole room of Monhegan paintings by Kent. The State Department revoked his passport, so to spite them, Kent gave his collection to the Soviets."

While they have Monhegan in common, Kent and Wyeth are quite different stylistically.

"If you look at our work, we're really quite divergent," Wyeth said. "But he showed that one could live on this remote island and not just paint the pounding surf and the fishermen and the lobster pots. There's a sort of primeval quality to the place. That's been a focus of my work. I turned my back on the sea and painted the people, the children, the houses of the island."

Wyeth said that Kent gained much of his social awareness on Monhegan. "Most of the paintings were done when he was quite young," he said. "He was excited to be out there, painting the landscape every day. When he started painting fishermen, he decided that to really paint them, he should be a fisherman himself. That started him on a path of social consciousness. He became a man of the world after he left Monhegan. He went to Newfoundland, Alaska, all over. But his work doesn't interest me as much after he left. He became very self-aware."

Kent's life is represented on Monhegan by the house he built there, which is now owned by Wyeth, and by a few paintings Wyeth gave for display in the island's small lighthouse museum.

The Wyeth family has a long tradition of strongly identifying with specific areas of the country. N.C. Wyeth lived and worked in the Chadds Ford area, but had a house in Maine. His son Andrew did the same. And now Andrew's son, Jamie, lives near Chadds Ford but lives and works on islands off the coast of Maine.

"We've gone from island to island, psychologically," Wyeth said. "Particularly in this day and age, I want to go see every movie, every theater thing, but to paint, you have to focus yourself. I certainly do. And an island certainly does that. It gives me focus."