ALLEN AND BENNER ISLANDS, Maine — The thrum of diesel engine shuddered the deck of the Otherworld, a scrubbed-up lobster boat, as it pulled away from the dock at Port Clyde. It was a late June morning, but the sky was steel-gray, early summer still sloughing off the damp chill of a Maine spring. On board were a pair of Colby College students, their professor, and Whitney King, cheery and Gore-Tex clad, with tousled hair. Here, amid the broken islands and black waters along the Gulf of Maine’s north shore, early summer doesn’t mean bright sun and warm days. Out on the water, anything can happen, King knows, and often does.
For a little more than five years, King, a chemistry professor at Colby, has been making the five-mile journey on the Otherworld to its sole destination: Allen and Benner islands, the offshore stronghold of Betsy and Andrew Wyeth, American art royalty, for nearly four decades. Andrew painted some of his final works there before his death in 2009; the boat’s name comes from one of them, a view of the islands from a low-flying plane.
Late last year, Colby took possession of them from the Wyeth Foundation, the culmination of a process that began while Betsy still lived on Benner, and continued after her death in 2020. King has been Colby’s hands-on manager of the islands from the start; now, he’s the steward of the Wyeth’s legacy here, too. “We spent about five years doing programs out here — science, and art, and history,” he said, hoisting a small backpack over his shoulder on the Allen Island dock. “I guess we didn’t screw it up, because here we are.”
Those programs led to a deal reached last fall: The islands, with an assessed value of $12 million, were sold to the college for just $2 million — $10 million was registered as an in-kind gift from the Wyeths’ Up East Foundation and the Wyeth Foundation for American Art, the college said — with the understanding that Colby would take on stewardship of not just the islands, but the vision they embodied.
Colby, a small private college landlocked in Waterville, had long been looking for a coastal foothold to serve its marine sciences department. The college got what it wanted — the day I was there, a class was studying the endangered blue mussel which lives on the islands’ shores — but with Allen and Benner, a storied legacy of American art is also now in their hands.
On Allen, the peaked roof of a gleaming white three-story wood building looms over the slim channel of ocean that cleaves the islands from one another; a white mansard-roofed house perches just above its stony shores with a broad view of the gulf. King walked me up to a barn high on a hilltop, next to a bright yellow farmhouse with a manicured lawn that looks back toward the mainland and its rolling shore. From there, we could see across the channel to Benner, where a cluster of low-slung sheds and houses, their cedar clapboard skins silvered by salt air, clung close to the water’s edge with the ghostly air of a half-held dream — otherworldly, as the painting would have it.
For Betsy Wyeth, that was always the plan. On Allen and Benner islands, she spent 40 years building a fantasy realm unstuck in time, where the landscape and her husband’s paintings would blend seamlessly into one. Inside the barn, antique planks wizened golden-brown have the surreal patina of Andrew’s gloomy interiors; along the shore, wind-whipped trees recall the simmering dread of his coastal scenes.
The islands, unnervingly, hew to his subdued palette — or maybe it to theirs? Not knowing is the point. “Betsy wasn’t creating a painting,” said Philip Conkling, an environmental consultant who worked with her for decades to develop the islands in a way that was sensitive both to the environment and the local community. “She created a landscape that would attract — or, as he would say, trap — Andy in her vision. And she was every bit as much an artist as Andy was, except her tools were a chainsaw, a skidder, and a dory.”
Betsy acquired Allen first, in the late 1970s, empty and barren, and slowly built it into an eerie, picture-perfect replica of a New England fishing village of a long-past era. The sail loft, that towering white building above the harbor, was a dilapidated 18th-century general store in Port Clyde scheduled to be torched as a fire department practice site; she bought it and had it taken apart, then transported and reassembled on Allen Island as a birthday present to her husband. The gesture endured: Andrew’s final painting, “Goodbye,” from 2008, is of the sail loft, its reflection quivering in the wake of a boat passing through the channel below. It was his gift to her, the last before he died.
Betsy chose to live in the big house across the channel on little Benner. King, speculating, thinks her choice was obvious: “She lived on Benner because she wanted to sit in her living room and look at Allen,” he said. Allen was her masterpiece, though Andy — everyone who knew him called him Andy — was dubious to start. “He called it ‘Betsy’s folly,’” Conkling recalled, and refused to even set foot on the islands for nearly a decade. Eventually coaxed offshore, he and Betsy settled into the house on Benner, and he adopted one of the small nearby sheds as his studio.
The college is early in the process of determining what of the Wyeths’ personal effects will stay here, and what the foundation will claim. But for now, the feeling in the house is of a family who went to the grocery store and never came back. A bowl of Betsy’s knitting sits beside the sofa. The cupboards are stocked with their china, the drawers filled with their silverware. The beds are made, the living room just so. In Andy’s studio, a bowl of deep purple mussel shells stained with paint sit on a table next to an easel; Wyeth mixed his delicate egg tempera pigments in those shells, which lent them their preternatural tones. Brushes — his brushes — are piled nearby. It’s as though he’s gone outside for a closer look at something and could be back any minute to paint it.
Working with Conkling, Betsy founded the Island Institute in 1983, with a mission to preserve sensitive coastal ecosystems and the lives they sustained. “Allen Island had been a year-round community — it had a school, a chandlery, a grocery,” Conkling said. “Back then, the word ‘sustainable’ wasn’t being used, but she was really interested in developing the islands in such a way that the resources wouldn’t be depleted, that it would be in harmony in nature, but still a place people could use.”
On Allen, Betsy built a wharf for local fishermen to store gear as a waystation for deeper waters offshore, a gesture Colby continues to honor. In June, the wharf was stacked high with lobster traps tinging the breeze with the faint reek of their latest catch.
Jamie Wyeth, Andy and Betsy’s son and a renowned painter himself, encouraged his mother to buy Allen in 1979, and the smaller Benner in 1990. As he watched her transform them, he knew the day would come when he would have to make a choice: to try to take on the islands himself, or find a new owner that might honor what she had built.
For all their feeling of remoteness, Allen and Benner islands sit a half-hour offshore in an archipelago coveted by billionaires and would have been an easy sale to make. But Jamie wanted to find another way. “I knew I couldn’t afford to keep these things going myself,” Jamie said. “But I didn’t want them to end up with some summer person who was here 10 days a year. I wanted to keep the spirit of what my mother intended.”
Jamie and Betsy started consulting with Conkling in 2015 on a succession plan for the islands, and together they put together a list of potential suitors. He and Jamie brought a raft of potential partners to her attention, but the one that captured it was David Greene, then the newly installed president at Colby. With strengths in both environmental science and art, Colby was a perfect fit. The Lunder Institute for American Art, a boundary-pushing contemporary art organization, is tucked into the Colby Museum of Art; the museum has a show of previously unseen works by Andrew right now. It’s still early, but marine sciences isn’t the only department vying for island time; Allen has already been used as a writing retreat and open-air studio for art students.
Greene’s first trip to the island, in August 2015, was the clincher. Walking around with Jamie, Greene laughed and said, “My jaw was sort of down with the lobster traps somewhere. I think it took about 14 minutes before I said to Jamie: ‘I get it.’ Being there is a really powerful experience.”
Covenants to limit development ensure the islands will be preserved much as Betsy left them. The islands will surely have a much bigger human footprint — King estimates as many as 600 people will have set foot on them by the end of the summer for various programs and research ventures — but Jamie believes it’s as close to his mother’s wishes as he can get. “I knew she did not want the islands to be a museum — she wanted them to be active,” he said.
The rumble of diesel engine at the dock on Benner is the signal: Heavy clouds are bulking up on the horizon, and it’s time to go. King stays ashore as the Otherworld peels away, a thunderstorm chasing its wake all the way back to Port Clyde. As my foot hits the dock, the clouds break open and rain buckets down, thunder and lightning shattering the skies. Allen and Benner are nowhere to be seen. They’re somewhere out there beyond the dark curtain of rain and fog — another world, cracked open just a little more.
Murray Whyte can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @TheMurrayWhyte.