By Henry John Steiner
Historian of Sleepy Hollow, New York
Native Tarrytown artist, Rockwell Kent, was both a productive artist and a talented writer. From time to time I enjoy dipping in to his wonderfully descriptive and often provocative prose. The other day I stumbled upon his short account of his first visit to Monhegan Island in Maine. It is taken from his 1955 autobiography, It’s Me O Lord. In it Rockwell Kent conveys the excitement and anticipation he felt as he stepped ashore and began to explore the island as a young artist in the summer of 1905. I have never been to Monhegan Island, but Rockwell Kent’s description coupled with his many paintings of the island makes his experience there startlingly vivid for me:
The Island, 1905
Monhegan! We’ve reached the harbor’s mouth; we’ve entered it; we’ve reached the wharf; we’re moored; I’ve jumped ashore. My bag in hand, I race up the hill, and race along the road to the old Brackett House. Two minutes in my room to get out of—what did Miss Libbey call it?—my “stylish suit,” and into an unstylish one; and like a puppy let out of his pen I’m off at a run to see, to climb, to touch and feel this wonder island that I’ve come to.
Hugging the harbor shore, I reached the island’s southwest end where the surf makes suds around the Washerwoman Rock or breaks on Norman’s Ledge; then o to the gully of Gull Rock, and over it to climb the smooth, bald, winter-surf-washed rock itself; and on to Burnt Head; and then down and over a broad waste of boulder-strewn, bare granite ledges to climb the headland, Whitehead, and from its hundred-and-fifty-foot height look far out to sea toward Africa and England. It was so vast, so beautiful that clear blue day, with the green grass and dandelions at my feet! And Blackhead, its twin headland seen from there in all its mass and dignity of form, Blackhead, its dark face splotched with gleaming guano! Then on again over the intervening minor headlands and the gullies tangled with the debris of fire and storm, and through such tangles up and over Blackhead; and down again—real climbing now to pass the rocky gorges—to the massive giant granite cube of Pulpit Rock. And then at last, like a quiet passage in a thunderous symphony, a sheltered harbor after storm, the gentle, grassy slopes of Green Point, still thickly starred with the blossoms of strawberries to be. And the seal ledges and their happy denizens—sunning themselves or slithering and diving off the rocks as though in sport, the water dotted with their almost human heads. Then on to Deadman’s Cove and its lone fish-house outpost of the settlement. And always, looking inland from the shore there was the dark spruce forest, another world, a deeply solemn world that I should come to know.
Unlike most New England villages, Monhegan had no plan, no straight, broad, elm-bordered avenue faced by the houses in their white-fenced yards; there was no avenue, there were no trees, there were no picket fences. No one had ever “laid out” Monhegan; it just grew. And past the random houses wandered a narrow road, a track first worn there by the oxen of other days and now kept open by the one-horse, drop-axle wagon that was the island’s sole conveyance.
The harbor of Monhegan was formed by an adjacent smaller island, stark, treeless, whale-back-shaped Manana, and lay open to the southwest wind and seas. On the Monhegan shore of the harbor, and mainly clustered around the wharf and two small beaches, stood the fish houses, most of them two-storied structures with runways leading to the lofts. Unpainted and weather-beaten, they proclaimed to eyes—and nose!—the island’s industry. So too did every foot of intervening ground occupied, as it was in summer, by the drying-flakes for cod, and by the pyramids of lobsters traps and heaps of painted buoys withdrawn for the season.
Monhegan: its rockbound shores, its towering headlands, the thundering surf with gleaming crests and emerald eddies, its forest and its flowering meadowlands; the village, quaint and picturesque; the fish houses, evoking in their dilapidation those sad thoughts on the passage of time and the transitoriness of all things human so dear to the artistic soul; and the people, those hardy fisherfolk, those men garbed in their sea boots and their black or yellow oilskins, those horny-handed sons of toil—shall I go on? No, that’s enough. It was enough for me, enough for all of my fellow artists, for all of us who sought “material” for art. It was enough to start me off to such feverish activity in painting as I had never known.
[From Rockwell Kent’s, It’s Me O Lord]