A Creative Oasis
Off the beaten track but not quite off the map, Blue Hill has attracted and produced a community of artists and artisans.
- By: Kim Ridley
Photograph Courtesy Leighton Gallery
The arts are part of everyday life on the Blue Hill peninsula, where the genius loci, or spirit of place, seems to emanate from the iconic mountain, salty bays, and boulder-strewn forests and fields. Over the years, this energy has drawn more creative types to the area than you can shake a paintbrush at, powering a lively performing arts and summer gallery scene. No wonder the Boston Globe once called Blue Hill and its surrounding communities Maine’s “fertile crescent.”
Probably the earliest person to (literally) paint the town was Jonathan Fisher, Blue Hill’s first Congregational minister and a staggeringly prolific fellow. “He was called to be a minister, but his real passion was art,” says Judy Park, a docent at the Jonathan Fisher House. Although Fisher’s painting A Morning View of Blue Hill Village, 1824 now resides at the Farnsworth Museum in Rockland, you can see plenty of his art — including watercolors of birds and flowers, self-portraits, and his marvelous woodblock prints of Scripture Animals — at his historic home, which, of course, he designed and built himself.
A hotspot for contemporary art is the Leighton Gallery on Parker Point Road. Judith Leighton, the doyenne of the Blue Hill arts scene, is celebrating two birthdays this year: her own eightieth and the gallery’s thirtieth. A gallery group show running through October 24 features work by area artists like Libby Mitchell, Ragna Bruno, Bill Irvine, summer residents Rosaline Moore and Jennifer Whiting, and Blue Hill sculptor Ebenezer Wright, along with Leighton’s own bold, abstract landscapes. The sculpture court behind the gallery is a hidden gem.
Around the corner and a block or so down Main Street, Handworks Gallery is open from May to December. Run by Marcia Stremlau, the gallery spotlights local talent in a trove of fine crafts and art. Nature rules as muse here in jewelry, sculpture, pottery, textiles, carvings, and paintings. While Stremlau, Sarah Faragher, and other painters concentrate on the area’s landscape, Rebekah Raye paints its denizens. Her magical paintings, carvings, and sculptures capture the essence of the Blue Hill peninsula’s wildlife.
“I like to paint what I remember from my walks in the woods and along the shore,” says Raye, who has lived on the peninsula for more than thirty years and opens her studio gallery in East Blue Hill weekdays from noon to 4 p.m. and by appointment. “One day, I might get a glimpse of a fox leaping from the tall grass. Another day, I’m inspired by watching harbor seals hauled out on the rocks at low tide.”
The ground itself provides the raw material for a host of area potters, some of whom use local clay and pigments for glazes. Although the seventy-five-year-old Rowantrees Pottery closed last year, Peninsula Potters are keeping the craft alive in working studios sprinkled around the peninsula. Their work ranges from fun, functional dinnerware to the elegant and gorgeously glazed porcelain vases and bowls of Mark Bell, whose gallery on Route 15 in Blue Hill is open daily.
Along with visual artists, an impressive array of musicians and performers have flocked to Blue Hill. Among the first was the eminent conductor and violinist Franz Kneisel, who built a summer cottage on Parker Point in 1902. Kneisel invited his best students up to study with him, and one thing led to another — including the creation of the Kneisel Hall Chamber Music School on the south slope of Blue Hill Mountain in 1922.
Today, Kneisel Hall draws distinguished faculty and students from around the world, people who share their extraordinary talents in the acclaimed Kneisel Hall Chamber Music Festival. To listen to a performance of Dvorjak’s Piano Quintet, Opus 81 in the wood-paneled, lamp-lit concert hall with the doors open to the summer breeze is to experience one of the peninsula’s most sublime creative outpourings.
While the well-heeled rusticators marked the first tide of creative types to surge into Blue Hill around the turn of the last century, the back-to-the-land movement of the 1970s coincided with the second wave. In 1972, actor/director Bill Raiten moved to the area and launched the acclaimed and beloved New Surry Theatre and Performing Arts School. A year later über-folkie Noel Paul Stookey of Peter, Paul, and Mary fame set up a recording studio in a converted Blue Hill henhouse and has contributed for many years to the peninsula’s creative and cultural life.
Another of the area’s musical treasures is Mary Cheyney Gould, who founded the Bagaduce Chorale and the Bagaduce Music Lending Library in Blue Hill. What began thirty-five years ago as an evening of singing with a few friends in Gould’s home has grown in into powerhouse of more than ninety singers. The chorale’s two annual concerts are wildly popular and present everything from classic works to original, commissioned pieces like “River” by Brooklin resident Paul Sullivan.
Sullivan, a pianist and composer who won a Grammy for his work with the Paul Winter Consort, is among scores of creative people who have decided to make the peninsula their full-time home. It’s still happening, with artists, writers, and musicians in their twenties and thirties looking to make their home here.
Sullivan sums up the power of this place: “For me, it’s a fertile oasis — a restorative place where we are protected from careerism, and where we can do our work in peace. Here, we are all just people living in a quiet place of tremendous beauty with contented anonymity and abundant silence. What more could a composer ask for?”
Or anyone else, for that matter.
Kim Ridley, of Brooklin, is a freelance writer and the former editor of Hope magazine.
- By: Kim Ridley