Down East 2013 ©
“I dwell in the shadow of Katahdin — Maine’s superlative mountain . . . If the concept of wilderness can be reduced to any specific illustration, it is probably best typified by the impression of its lonely mountain, reached only by a long journey through the wilderness.”
— Myron Avery, Mount Katahdin in Maine, 1934
Because it rises abruptly from a mostly level countryside, Katahdin, at an elevation of 5,267 feet, can be seen from great distances and gives the impression of immense height. Viewed from surrounding lakes, ponds, rivers, hilltops, cliffs, meadows, and bogs, and through the occasional break in the wilderness canopy, the mountain’s classic ever-changing skyline silences one to wonder. Myron Avery, who helped spearhead efforts to create the 2,180-mile Appalachian Trail stretching from Georgia to Maine, once wrote, “From each cardinal direction, Katahdin’s aspect is utterly different,” noting that it is “not one but many mountains.”
Located in Piscataquis County, near the geographical center of the state, Katahdin is the landmark to which early travelers turned as they explored the North Woods or followed the traditional water routes leading northward to Canada. Today, the mountain forms the heart of Baxter State Park, a sprawling wilderness bordered by the East and West branches of the Penobscot River.
The park boasts forty-six mountain peaks (thirteen of them above three thousand feet), 225 miles of trails, and fifty-five lakes and ponds. Its outlying mountains are part of several ranges: the “Katahdinauguoh” (an Indian word meaning “mountains about Katahdin”), which lie northwest and north of the mountain; the Traveler and the Dead-Water mountains, to the north and east; and the Turner Range, due east.
The mountain offers a marvelous range of geological features, including glacial cirques, sub-alpine areas, a tableland, serrated ridges, basins, granite headwalls, moraines, avalanche tracks, and eskers.
The Katahdin experience of today encompasses much more than the popular goal of climbing to the summit or taking in the view from the overlook on Interstate 95. The rich cultural history of the region, its Native American heritage, the logging and sporting camp eras, the creation of the Appalachian Trail to its terminus at what is now Baxter Peak, and the story of 210,000-acre Baxter State Park are all part of its enchantment and allure.
Although much has been written about Mount Katahdin’s history and lore, the chapter on the artists of the mountain begins with one man: Myron Avery.
Born in Lubec in 1899, Avery attended Bowdoin College and Harvard Law School, served in the navy, and became a maritime attorney. He was a prolific writer, editor, bibliographer, collector, and correspondent, as well as an organizer and outdoorsman.
Avery may have been the first to tackle the subject of Katahdin and its artists. He may also be the subject’s finest art detective. During his twenty-two-year tenure with the Appalachian Trail Conference, he tracked down written and visual materials related to the most important photographers and artists of the Katahdin region in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.
In 1940 Avery published an article, “Artists and Katahdin,” that focused on the experiences of the great nineteenth-century painter Frederic Edwin Church in the region. In the course of the essay, he referenced the difficulty of piecing together a history. “A painting here and there, a chance reference in some forgotten book or article, photographs hidden away for half a century, and vague and disguised allusions,” Avery wrote, “are the sources from which are drawn this composite account of the artists who have visited Katahdin.
“What does impress,” he noted, was the fact that to a “group of artists who roamed the world over, this solitary peak in Maine created such an impression that to it they returned time and time again.” In the same article Avery asserted that the literature of Katahdin was “more extensive than any single mountain of the American continent” and that “more paintings of it exist than of any other mountain.”
In 1999, more than half a century after Avery’s article appeared, the L.C. Bates Museum in Hinckley hosted an exhibition highlighting the art inspired by Katahdin — the first of its kind ever mounted. “Looking at Katahdin: The Artist’s Inspiration” featured thirty-six works of art spanning 125 years in a show that placed old masters side by side with contemporary artists.
The essays for the exhibition catalog, written by Marius B. Péladeau and Christopher Huntington, questioned the idea of a “Katahdin Tradition” with a capital “T.” If there was a tradition, they argued, then why was it forgotten and ignored for so long? Why were there no exhibitions, books, or catalogs in the fifty years since Avery’s article?
The simplest answer to these questions may be a combination of timing and circumstances. At the height of the Hudson River School period, the Katahdin region was inaccessible and remote. Most painters worked either in the White Mountains of western Maine and New Hampshire or along the New England coast.
At the same time, Church’s Katahdin oeuvre, which spanned five decades, may well have been overshadowed by his canvases from trips to South America, Niagara Falls, the Arctic, the Near East, and Europe. Other factors — the Civil War, the westward movement of artists who joined expeditions, and the rise of the Barbizon and impressionist schools and their influence on the younger generation of artists studying abroad — all may have also played a role.
No sustained Katahdin movement or artists group materialized. In the first half of the twentieth century, most painters active in the area worked independently of each other; one thinks of George Hallowell, Maurice Day, James Fitzgerald, Marsden Hartley, and Carl Sprinchorn. The handful of artists who made major commitments to the area had styles as personal as they were different.
In the latter half of the twentieth century, the movement of artists to the region picked up steam. By the time the exhibition “Taking Different Trails: The Artist’s Journey to Katahdin Lake” was mounted at the Bates College Museum of Art in 2008, literally hundreds of artists and photographers had made the trek to Katahdin to take in the visuals.
Some of the artists were inspired to make the trip by their predecessors — Michael Vermette was drawn to the mountain by his admiration for James Fitzgerald. Easier access to Katahdin led to more artists heading north; and such organizations as the Millinocket Art Society contributed to the groundswell of artistic activity in the region.
Today, the North Light Gallery in Millinocket is devoted to showcasing contemporary works of artists in the Katahdin area. Painting workshops at Katahdin and Millinocket lakes take place every year, and Baxter State Park offers an artist-in-residence program. Katahdin has also inspired books, poetry, music, sculpture, crafts, photography, film, and performance — a true flowering of mountain arts.
Is there a vital “Katahdin Tradition” today? Is there an “ever-so-gradually developing School of Katahdin Painters,” as Huntington suggested in 1999? I dare say there is — and as more light is shed upon the art of Maine’s greatest mountain, this tradition and school will grow.
Excerpted from Art of Katahdin by David Little (Down East Books, Rockport, Maine; hardcover, 200 pages; $50).
IF YOU GO: The University of New England Art Gallery will present “A Mountain Rises: The Art of Katahdin” from July 31 through October 27. More than eighty works will be on view. For more information call 207-221-4499 or visit une.edu/gallery
Credits for Paintings in the order they appear:
Left: R. Scott Baltz. The Great One, 2003. Oil on linen, 32 x 52 in. (Collection of the artist.)
Frederic E. Church. Studies of Man Paddling Canoe on Millinocket River, October 4, 1878. Graphite on cream paper, 4 x 6 15⁄16 in. (Cooper-Hewitt, National Design Museum, Smithsonian Institution. Gift of Louis P. Church, 1917-4-972-a. Photo: Matt Flynn, © Smithsonian Institution.)
Frederic E. Church. Mount Ktaadn, 1853. Oil on canvas, 36 ¼ x 55 ¼ in. (Yale University Art Gallery, Stanley B. Resor, BA 1901, Fund.)
Maurice Day. Ed Werler and his Pack Donkeys on their way to Russell Pond, n.d. Watercolor on paper, 18 ¾ x 24 ¾ in. (Collections of Baxter State Park.)
Marsden Hartley. Mount Katahdin, Autumn No. 1, 1939-40. Oil on panel, 30 x 40 in. (University of Nebraska, Lincoln Art Galleries, Sheldon Museum of Art, F.M. Hall Collection.)
James Fitzgerald. Katahdin, Morning Light, n.d. Oil on paper, 11 x 14 ½ in. (Collection of Dick and Alice Spencer.
Howard Rackliffe. Evening Peak—Katahdin, 1967. Oil on board, 35 ½ x 23 ½ in. (Philip Matheson Janes Museum.)
John Marin. Katahdin’s Brother or Sister (Doubletop Mountain), 1941. Watercolor on paper, 11 5⁄8 x 15 7⁄8 in. (Portland Museum of Art, Maine. Gift of Owen W. and Anna H. Wells, 2010. 34.11. Estate of John Marin, © ARS.)
Terry Hilt. Katahdin Flight I, 2011. Watercolor, acrylic, and wax on paper, 21 x 28 in. (Collection of the artist.)