Friday, July 12, 2013

Monhegan Island, 1976

Monhegan Island sits about ten miles from the mainland off Mid-Coast Maine and has attracted artists to its rugged and rustic charm since the late 19th Century. Among them, Henri, Bellows, Bogdonov, Hudson, Hopper, Kent, the Wyeths and Wengenroth to name just a few. Its attraction for artists seems to grow stronger by the year, as it somehow etches itself into our life’s blood and creative spirit.

I first visited Monhegan in May of 1976 with a group of artists from the Rockport Art Association. We decided to make the trip during the last week of what is called the “off Season”. We made reservations at the Trailing Yew for the week and met up in Port Clyde, where we spent the night to catch the “Laura B”, a mail boat/ferry, to Monhegan early the next morning. Perfect weather for the end of May and calm waters made the trip pleasant and uneventful. We spent our time chatting amongst ourselves and watching for signs of the island.

As you approach the island, the first landmark you can pick out is the lighthouse, sitting atop Lighthouse Hill. Its focal height is 178 feet.
It’s not your typical white lighthouse, but an unadorned, rough hewn gray granite. It lends it a rustic substantiality and was our first clue that there are no frills here. 

As the boat ties up at the dock you notice two things. The first thing you notice is, that this place really is different. You get the sense that you’ve stepped back in time. The other thing you notice is that many people have come down to the dock to see what the mail boat has brought to the island. Aside from us and the mail, it is the lifeline to the mainland bringing food, news and other supplies, which is still the case today.  

Waiting on the dock was a jeep, a battered old pickup, a horse and a couple of hand carts. These were there to help move supplies up the dirt road that led from the dock to the village. Some of the older members of our party availed themselves of the transportation and the rest of us gathered our gear and started up the hill and down the main road to the Trailing Yew at the opposite end of the village. More surprises were to come.

There was a quiet on Monhegan that I can’t quite put into words. You would have to experience it to understand. There are the natural sounds of course, the air, the rustling leaves, the surf all have their sounds, but those are the natural sounds- the “Sounds of Silence”. Then there were the man made sounds of fishing boats, even the electric generators were apparent, but they all seemed more hushed, more respectful of your thoughts than on the mainland.

In 1976, the island as a whole was not yet on the electric grid. Except for the generators, the island had no power. The Trailing Yew was no exception. There was power generated for the kitchen and dining room in the main house, but out in the bunkhouse called Sea Gull Cottage (actually an old captains house) where I stayed, the rooms were then and are still lit by kerosene lamps.

If memory serves me right, the total cost for the 5 days at the Trailing Yew was $90.00 and included breakfast, a sit down or box lunch and a dinner served family style. Today, it’s $140.00 per night including breakfast and dinner, taxes and gratuities, making it still very reasonable.

Aside from the group of artists I was with, there were maybe, four other visitors on the island that I was aware of. Being “off season” the Trailing Yew was the only place serving dinner, so even people staying at the Monhegan House ended up there for meals. The Island Inn had not yet opened for the season. 

After signing in, getting settled, and enjoying our first lunch on the island, we set off in different directions to explore the island. 
Our plan was that everyday we would paint or draw what attracted us and then after dinner we would have a group discussion and critique of each others work, which was fun and instructive. At this time all my work was done in graphite, I didn’t start working in watercolor until later that year. I carried my sketch book and camera with me and just wanted to wander around soaking up as much of the atmosphere as I could. 
What I found was,  in fact, there are two Monhegans. The back side of the island could not be more different from the harbor side. Wild rocky headlands plunging to the crashing surf below buttressing
and protecting the serenity and the quite of the village side.

In my next entry, I will post more black and white photos of Monhegan from ‘76 and some of my earlier attempts at watercolor. The documentation of my work at that time was very spotty, so I don’t have a record of many examples. See you next time and get out to Monhegan, if you can for an experience you will not forget or regret.