John Freeman Gill
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MAINE THROUGH ARTISTS' EYES
Maine

Sometimes New York can be so stifling that even a caterpillar will resort to extreme measures to get out of town. Weary of Manhattan's crowds and summer humidity, my old friend Paul Minden and I piled into my Volkswagen on a recent Sunday morning and headed north, far north, for a two-day sojourn on remote Monhegan Island, a rocky scrap of land and longtime artists' colony 10 miles off the tip of St. George Peninsula in Maine. We had not been on the road for more than three minutes before a fuzzy butterfly larva leapt acrobatically from an overhanging tree on 34th Street and landed on the hood of our car. This furry adventurer appeared to want in, so at the next red light, Paul dashed outside and scooped up our fellow traveler in a coffee cup. The road trip was on.

Six states and 10 hours later, the three of us arrived in time to watch the sun set in the placid fishing village of Port Clyde, Me., 100 miles northeast of Portland.

Tourist boats sail for Monhegan from two more southerly ports, Boothbay Harbor and New Harbor, but we'd chosen Port Clyde for the Laura B, a 65-foot converted Army transport that has carried the mail and freight, as well as passengers, to Monhegan year-round for half a century. "She's like a tramp steamer going up the Amazon," said our innkeeper at the 1830's Ocean House Hotel, and his characterization seemed apt as we boarded the Laura B at 7 the next morning, joining a handful of other passengers on a foredeck stacked with pallets of clementines, onions and window screens.

The Laura B's engine roared to life, and we headed into a sea of rippled slate, with hundreds of buoys marking lobster traps. Each marker was painted with a distinctive color scheme, a sort of lobsterman's coat of arms identifying its owner. And as we rumbled into the Gulf of Maine beneath a hazy morning sky, we passed a lone lobster boat, onto which a bearded man hauled a dripping trap.

Maine

Soon the gray-green bulk of Monhegan appeared up ahead, accompanied by her tiny neighbor, Manana, the pair of them riding the horizon like a breaching whale and her tag-along calf. Barely one square mile in area, Monhegan is a place of natural extremes, with formidable 160-foot headlands sloping down to a fishing village and quiet coves. Though it is one of Maine's smaller inhabited islands, it is interlaced with 17 miles of hiking trails.

The natural beauty of the place has drawn artists for more than a century, including Jamie Wyeth, Edward Hopper, George Bellows and Rockwell Kent, who first set out for Monhegan in 1905 at the urging of his New York painting teacher, Robert Henri. Kent later built a house and studio on "this wonder island," as he called it, and wrote in his autobiography that Monhegan "was enough to start me off to such feverish activity in painting as I have never known."

Although the island is year-round home to just 70 resilient souls, including 12 lobstermen and their families, artists and other seasonal residents swell the population to more than 600 in the warm-weather months.

Come spring each year, said Marcia Fortune, as she piloted the Laura B among the buoys and the glistening heads of harbor seals, the ferry's cargo begins to include some of the natural world's most attentive observers: bird-watchers and artists. "You can tell them by their luggage," she explained.

The Laura B glided into the narrow harbor between Monhegan and Manana, then docked at Monhegan's wharf, where we were greeted by a waft of fish and a row of rattletrap pickup trucks. One local wag, on seeing the battered red pickup the Island Inn had sent down to meet us, admired the truck's nonexistent tailgate, surmising that "it comes standard on all Monhegan vehicles."

Leaving our bags to ride uphill in the truck, Paul and I climbed the dirt path to the 1907 Island Inn, a grand cupola-capped beauty situated on a bluff overlooking the harbor. Our room was not yet ready, so we headed out to explore.

Maine

Glad to be aimless, we wandered the dirt roads of the drowsy village, which has few cars, a one-room schoolhouse, a couple of general stores, a church, a fog bell and an 1850 granite lighthouse.

At every turn, the unpretentious village was inadvertently dressed up with the tools of the lobsterman's trade. Coiled rope, yellow and blue and red, was draped picturesquely over the railings of shingled cottages. Haystack-shaped piles of bright buoys decorated overgrown yards. Green and yellow lobster traps, stacked as high as a man, stood at the edge of a lush green meadow.

Art and nature have long been entwined on Monhegan, yet we were surprised to discover the extent to which the painters have become part of the island's landscape: wherever we went in the village, the hills and byways and rocky perches were dotted with artists squinting into the middle distance and dabbing paint on canvas. So ubiquitous were these brush-wielding figures that one could almost imagine the birth of a new meta-art on the island, featuring Monhegan painters painting Monhegan painters painting Monhegan.

But with just two days on the island, we decided to steer clear of art the first day and head out into the "wild lands" outside the village to develop our own impressions.

Following a hiking map we'd picked up at the inn, we took a trail marked Black Head and quickly became happily lost on a side path. Beneath a vaulting canopy of balsam fir trees, we ascended from the island's shadowed interior to a grassy peak on its northern edge, below which great rocks tumbled down to a calm blue sea.

These were not the crashing waves for which Monhegan is known. But climbing down among the rocks, we discovered a dozen mangled lobster traps wedged deep into the narrow crevices between them, a feat of violence that only a ferocious surf could have achieved. Attached to each trap was an orange tag bearing its owner's name. I wrote down a couple: Cundy and Murdock.

Baked by the sun, we clambered up to the headlands.

For hours we encountered only a pair of other humans, until Paul spotted a pink-clad figure on a promontory. Following the trail, we hiked closer until the speck revealed itself to be a watercolorist, who introduced herself as Dena Edge. "I've been coming to Monhegan since the 60's," she said. "It's a magical place, exploding with creative juices."

By the time we got back to the Island Inn and checked into a supremely comfortable room with one double bed, one single bed and a private bath, the sun was descending toward the ocean, filling our chamber with a beneficent, buttery light. From our windows we enjoyed the best view on the Eastern Seaboard: a brilliant grassy slope descending to weathered gray cottages and the shingled freight shed on the wharf, where a father and small daughter sat fishing. Behind them, lobster boats bobbed gently in the harbor, with green-cloaked Manana as backdrop.

After sharing a sunset Heineken with our caterpillar on the lawn, we gorged on magnificent seafood in the art-filled dining room, including seafood paella with lobster, lobster empanadas and a fantastically fresh Maine lobster.

Later, as I drifted off to sleep, one of Rockwell Kent's paintings - of the Island Inn silhouetted against the day's last light - kept floating through my head, giving me the odd sensation of having climbed into a canvas.

No sooner had I nodded off than it was morning, and I was being nudged awake by the gradually thickening hubbub on the wharf below. I ambled down to the dock, where I spotted a pickup whose license plate read "Cundy," the very name I'd seen on one of the sea-battered lobster traps.

Donna Cundy, a warm young woman who was on the dock taking receipt of a long-haired pussycat from the Laura B, laughed when I told her of our find. "My dad calls those traps his kamikazes," she explained. "He takes his oldest, most beat-up traps, and he sets them out there real close to shore where the lobsters like to be in among the rocks."

After breakfast, a short walk up a hill brought us to the assistant light keeper's house, a replica of the original structure that is home to a marvelous exhibit called "Side by Side on Monhegan: The Henri Circle and the American Impressionists," through Sept. 30.

As noted by Edward L. Deci, president of the Monhegan Museum, in an illuminating catalog, the show juxtaposed paintings by accomplished realists such as Robert Henri, leader of the Ashcan School, and Impressionists like Edward Willis Redfield, who worked alongside one another during a two-decade span beginning in 1903, when Monhegan became a vibrant center of American art. Several canvases depicted dramatic panoramas of the Monhegan headlands, with foaming surf pounding the rocks we'd climbed among.

Today, Monhegan is still very much a place of artistic cross-germination, said Victoria Nelson, a local artist who collected our $3 suggested donations in a basket. Still, she added, plein air painting in such a capricious climate poses technical challenges. "Josh Mostel, Zero's son, has a house here," Victoria told us, "and every Wednesday we go and paint nudes there. One week the model said we could paint her outside, and one artist, Ted Tihansky, brought a huge canvas. But the wind kept lifting it up and throwing it into him until he had paint all over him."

Later, I made the rounds of the artists' studios. That of Mr. Tihansky and his wife, Alison Hill, looked as though it had been turned inside out, with every inch of its shingled exterior hung with oil paintings.

Ted, his hair and stubbled face speckled with scraps of metal leaf from a frame he was making, told me he had worked for two years as sternman on the lobster boat of Dan Murdock, whose wayward trap I'd found. Like Rockwell Kent, who worked as a fisherman and builder on Monhegan, Ted sought to integrate his art with the island's natural rhythms.

One of his oil paintings depicted the winter bonfire Ted had used to char the haunting sculptured figures adorning his lawn. When I visited the nearby Lupine Gallery the next morning, its proprietors said they had watched from their window the previous winter as he created the figures in a spontaneous burst of creativity, using a chainsaw to cut a horse chestnut branch that had fallen in a winter storm.

The gallery offered a cross-section of Monhegan artwork, from the hokey to the sublime, and I soon found myself captivated by a small impressionistic painting of Manana, half lost in mist, with a single, smoke-trailing lobster boat sailing past. The tiny signature revealed that its painter was Ted. I bought it and tucked it into my satchel.

The painting was safely under my arm a few hours later as the ferry conveyed us back to the mainland on stormy seas.

But one of my traveling companions, at least, was to stay on. Before leaving, Paul and I had liberated our city caterpillar among some purple lupines. When last seen, our fuzzy friend was ambling southwest, so it was tempting to think that he was headed toward the wild lands, there to complete his transformation from a drab Manhattan caterpillar to a vivid Monhegan butterfly.

Visitor Information

Getting There

None of the ferries to Monhegan takes cars. The island has few cars.

Monhegan Boat Line, (207) 372-8848, www.monheganboat.com, makes the voyage from Port Clyde, Me., to Monhegan Island year round: three times daily from May 28 to Oct. 12 (except some Sundays, when it runs only two trips), and on an abbreviated schedule the rest of the year.

The trip on the Laura B takes an hour and 10 minutes; on the Elizabeth Ann, the trip takes 50 minutes. The fare is $27 roundtrip; $14 for children. Reservations are suggested.

Hardy Boat Cruises, (207) 677-2026 or (800) 278-3346, www.hardyboat.com, runs passenger ferries to Monhegan from New Harbor daily from May 15 to Oct. 3, then Oct. 6 and Columbus Day weekend ($27 round trip; children, $15).

Balmy Days Cruises, (207) 633-2284 or (800) 298-2284, www.balmydayscruises.com, makes the trip by passenger ferry to Monhegan from Boothbay Harbor daily from May 29 to Oct. 3 and Columbus Day weekend ($30 round trip; children, $18).

Where to Stay

The oceanfront Island Inn, (207) 596-0371, www.islandinnmonhegan.com, a turn-of-the-century shingled guest house that has been painted by Rockwell Kent, Andrew Wyeth and others, is open from Memorial Day weekend through Columbus Day. Thirty-three rooms are available in the inn and in the neighboring 1910 Pierce Cottage. From Sept. 13 to Oct. 10, rooms range from $75 for a one-person room with shared bath to $200 for an oceanfront two-person suite with private bath. From July 23 to Sept. 5 this year, the same rooms cost $110 and $295, respectively. Breakfast is included.

The 33-room Monhegan House, (207) 594-7983, www.monheganhouse.com, offers views of the ocean, a meadow or the lighthouse. It is open Memorial Day through Columbus Day. From Sept. 6 through Columbus Day, rates are $65 for a one-person single with twin bed and $99 for a two-person room with double bed; breakfast included. From July 2 to Sept. 5 this year, the same rooms rented for $75 to $79 and $119 to $125. No private baths.

Shining Sails Bed-and-Breakfast, (207) 596-0041, www.shiningsails.com, offers five efficiency apartments and two rooms in the ocean-view home of John and Winnie Murdock. All rooms have private baths, and the apartments have kitchens. The guest house is open year-round. From Sept. 11 through Columbus Day, apartment rates range from $100 a night (with garden view and double bed) to $145 (one-bedroom apartment with ocean view, gas fireplace and private deck). Call for high-season and off-season rates.

Where to View Art

Dozens of Monhegan artists open their studios to the public in the summer, and a small number do so in September and early October. A box of free leaflets listing artists' studios is available at the Rope Shed on Main Street.

The Lupine Gallery, at the corner of Wharf Hill Road and Main Street, (207) 594-8131, lupinegallery.com, is open daily from 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. mid-May to mid-October.

The Monhegan Museum, 1 Lighthouse Hill, (207) 596-7003, is open in September from 12:30 to 2:30 p.m. daily. Suggested donation, $3.





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