Monday, July 24, 2017

Monhegan Meditations

Approaching Monhegan Island

 The tiny island of Monhegan, scarcely a mile across, gets a lot of attention from painters. Its fame is due to a hundred years of celebrity painters enjoying its charms. Rockwell Kent, Edward Hopper, Andrew Wyeth and his son, Jamie Wyeth, and many others have painted its cliffs and the rustic fish houses gathered along its harbor. Recently, thanks to a workshop I taught in Rockland, Maine, I was able to visit Monhegan to see if it deserves its legendary status. I was curious to see what the fuss is all about.

The Elizabeth Ann

We departed from Port Clyde in a wet fog on the "Elizabeth Ann," which delivers both mail and passsengers.  The ride out can be rough, I’m told, but the fog indicated it would be a relatively calm trip.  The boat bobbed and dipped its way across the Gulf of Maine for twelve lonely miles.  Lobster buoys got scarcer as we rolled over deepening water.  A pair of porpoises appeared, vanished.  Flocks of seabirds thinned out as we sailed farther from land.  Despite the calm, tourists staggered from railing to railing, seeking a better view or the head.  Finally, dark shapes loomed up in the fog:  Monhegan Island and its adjacent, even tinier companion, Manana Island.  We entered a harbor so small it seemed you could almost cup it in your hand.

Leaving the Ferry Dock
We wouldn’t have a lot of time to explore the island.  Due to logistics and schedules, we’d taken the 10:30 boat, arriving at 11:30 or so; the last boat left Monhegan at 4:30 p.m.  Knowing our stay would be short, our small group of painters, armed with maps, went directly from the dock, up the hill and then down to Fish Beach, where there is a nice view of Manana Island and the harbor.

If you do your research, you’ll read that there are no cars on Monhegan.  Here’s the first surprise.  There may be no cars, but there are pickup trucks and golf carts a-plenty.  A fleet of rusty pickups meets the mailboat to haul not just mail but also carts of cleaned laundry for the hotels, supplies for the shops, and the luggage of guests.  Once loaded, these trucks pay little heed to the tourists on foot who crowd the road from the dock, hauling heavy backpacks up the hill.  And then there are the golf carts driven by summer residents and vacationers.  Stealthy as the fog, the golf carts can sneak up on you.

The harbor road joins “Main Street,” which, like all roads on the island, is gravel and no wider than a pickup truck. Garden-edged houses, many of which have been turned into galleries, shops or vacation rentals, border it.  For the painter, some of these would make lovely, intimate cottage scenes were it not for the traffic, both foot and wheeled.  One might think of setting up on someone’s lawn, many of which are just big enough to park a golf cart on, but one should ask permission first.  However, with all those visiting painters, both hobbyist and professional, I think “no” would be a common answer.

Fish Beach is advertised as having many fish houses stacked with lobster gear, such as you might find in a working harbor.  Old paintings of harbor scenes often depict classic motifs, such as little groupings of rustic buildings with fishermen sucking on corncob pipes and repairing sails.  Second surprise: This romanticized past is not the present.  You’ll find toddlers playing in the water, colorful kayaks lined up and ready for the day tripper, plus a golf cart or two.  The buildings are still there, of course, one of which is the aptly-named Fish House, with recently-arrived passengers hungrily queued up out the door, waiting for fish sandwiches.   At the water’s edge, you’ll also find a surprising abundance of sea glass.  This sea glass hasn’t just gathered there over the last hundred years; no, the beach here has been “salted” with the glass, in the way a “pan your own gold” business out west will salt its streams with fool’s gold for the tourists.  (We were told this by a shop owner.)

We headed past the Fish House and found a quieter nook by some black ledges, where we set up.  The tattooed youngsters smoking cigarettes on the rocks behind us left, giving us more room.  The fog, which had been thinning since our arrival, retreated off the southern point of Manana Island but slinked overhead as a translucent veil.   While I demonstrated, a few curious tourists came over.  (The residents aren’t curious and left us alone; they’d been seeing painters for a hundred years on that beach.)  I didn’t pay much attention to the onlookers, but one of the students said that she felt crowded.  While I painted, I happened to notice the goats!  There were goats gamboling on Manana.  I found out later that these feisty creatures only summer there; winters, they live in Kennebunk.  They must be wealthy goats.

After my demonstration, I went to the Fish House--the line was gone by then--and got my fish sandwich and returned to my seat.  It was a good sandwich, with the bun grilled on both sides on the outside, and a little sloppy, but tasty.  By this time, a couple of the students were sketching, but others had wandered off to explore.  We’d advertised the Monhegan trip as an “adventure” day, where you could paint a little and then play tourist if you wished.  I decided to extend my lunch break a little and walk, too.  I had no plans to haul my gear and paint elsewhere, given the time restraints, but if I were to paint on a future trip, I wanted to see where I might go.

After finding the island’s one set of public restrooms, hidden behind an ice cream shop, I wandered the paths.  I have to confess I didn’t go far--I was supposed to be teaching a workshop, after all, and there were a couple of students actually sketching that needed monitoring--so my scouting was limited.   By now the sun had begun to push its heat through the clouds, and the humidity intensified.  One thing I was looking for was a place where I could get a view of the chimneyed rooftops of the fish houses with Manana as a backdrop.  But I found the structures, as scenic as they were with their gardens and shingles and chimneys askew, were just too crowded to get a good view.

I wandered on up the hill away from the harbor and suddenly found myself alone.  It was if I had reached an elevation where tourists couldn’t survive, and they had all stayed safely down by the shops and galleries.  I came across one lawn that was large by Monhegan standards with three painters set up on a small knoll, painting the vista.  But the property seemed private.  Was this a workshop? Local painters enjoying the day together?  I didn’t ask, but the knoll was inviting, as it offered a fine view of the harbor, Manana and the rooftops below.  On another day with more time, I might have asked to paint there.

Beyond this point, the narrow gravel road petered out into a web of even narrower footpaths.  (You can purchase a map of the island and its paths for a donation of one dollar.)  Burnt Head was at the end of one of these paths.  I’ve seen many old paintings of its cliffs, and maybe a painter today could still find a place to set up his easel without fear of trucks and golf carts, without impeding the packs of tourists, or without annoying some resident.  If I get back to Monhegan, I’d like to explore Burnt Head and other trails.

My workshop - or what's left of it, what with the exploring and adventuring.
Whenever I'm on the Maine coast, a narrow, overgrown trail to me says "ticks."  It wasn’t long ago that Monhegan had a problem with deer ticks and Lyme disease.   In 1999, Monhegan killed the last of its deer population in an effort to get rid of the ticks.  As of 2016, according to an article written by an outdoorsman who helped in the project, the ticks are mostly now gone.  But there’s no guarantee.  Dogs and humans are as tasty as deer to the prolific tick.  This, and the fact that birds from the mainland can bring ticks to these remote parts, means that it’s possible a population could be re-established.  Narrow trails, such as the one on Monhegan, require vigilance on the part of the hiker.  (When I go out to paint or hike anywhere in Maine, I wear permethrin-treated pants and shoes, tuck my pants-legs into my socks, and spray everything below my knees with DEET.  Plus, I shower immediately after my adventure and do a “tick check.”)

I wandered back down the hill to my group.  The tide was starting to come back in, bringing in with it a new round of fog.  Another boat, not ours, left at three with many of the tourists; after that, the village was noticeably quieter, giving me a taste what Monhegan might be like in the off-season.  Our boat would be the last boat, at four-thirty.  It would take away the last of the day-trippers, leaving the trucks and golf-carts in peace.

As we left Monhegan and drifted into the fog, I decided that Monhegan, despite its rich artistic history, is today a better adventure for the photographer.  Painters, with all their gear and the time it takes to paint, would find Monhegan to be a good deal of trouble.  Photographers would have an easier time of it.  Yes, I do know that painters go out to the island, and some even teach workshops, but it's not for me.

When I returned home to Lubec and Campobello Island, I realized that where I live is a real treasure.  Although our artistic history is thin, this farthest point Downeast is uncrowded, unsullied and unbelievably beautiful.  And yes, I do paint here and even teach workshops here.  I hope you'll join me.  Details are at

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