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Retired publishing executive ecstatic with the idea of spending most of his time on the coast of Maine

Sunday, August 31, 2014

A Maine Gazetteer: Artists

Artists are thick on the ground. Ever since Frederic Church and Thomas Cole, painters have done more to romanticize and publicize the beauties of Maine than any other group. The famous ones are intimately identified with iconic parts of the state: Winslow Homer with Prouts Neck, Marsden Hartley, the self-described “painter from Maine” (he was born in Lewiston) with Mt. Katahdin, Rockwell Kent and George Bellows with Monhegan Island, Robert Indiana with Vinalhaven, Andrew Wyeth with Cushing, Jamie Wyeth with Monhegan and Tenants Harbor. The trouble with Maine art is that it takes a genius to overcome the very strong stereotypes. As with every art form, there is a huge range of talent and expression, but when looking in gallery windows I'm always struck by the strong and universal and repetitive need to capture our common icons of surf, lobster pot and pointed fir. The worst of the efforts are indeed like capture: trite phrases and brushstrokes, perspective angles set off like little cages. The best snap you out of the frame instantly and into the mind of the image. But at least the act of trying, in either case, makes even the most ordinary seascape speak out loud with allusions.
Andrew Wyeth represents the Maine art dilemma perfectly. The New York Times, upon his death in 2009, led off its story with “Andrew Wyeth, one of the most popular and also most lambasted artists in the history of American art….” The Olson house in Christina’s World is so famous that it is no longer real. It has gone beyond reality into some iconic State of Maine Mind, along with crashing surf and lobster dinners and the noble moose. Some of this has to do with Wyeth himself, who painted with a sentimentality that ranged from bracing to boring. The rest has to do with our worship of icons, living or otherwise. We seem to need physics to refresh spirits. Seeing and touching and photographing a house, even today, even when it’s institutionalized as part of the Farnsworth Museum, conjures up the faith in what that object meant to Wyeth, and by extension, to us.

So it's easy and comforting to confuse Christina's World and our world. And that is Wyeth's genius, whether you agree with it or not. He took the ordinary and made it iconic, he painted one place hundreds of times and made it universal. I don't particularly like the way he gets there, but the sanctity of the effort can make me weep. I am proud to worship in the house of commitment – and the way people are committed to the state represents Maine to me more than almost anything else.

Excerpted from Saving Maine: A Personal Gazetteer
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