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For plein air painters, Monhegan is magical

Plein air painter David Lussier on Maine’s Monhegan Island. This summer, he and his wife, Pam, will mark their 20th year of leading workshops on the island.
Plein air painter David Lussier on Maine’s Monhegan Island. This summer, he and his wife, Pam, will mark their 20th year of leading workshops on the island.

In July, plein air painters Pam and David Lussier celebrate their 20th anniversary of workshops on Monhegan Island, situated 12 miles off Maine’s coast in Muscongus Bay. Not only do artists flock to this natural wonder to paint its rocky cliffs, infinite ocean, and windswept skies, but day-trippers also come to the island for its famed promise of spiritual fulfillment.

Both Pam and David grew up in woodsy New England landscapes — Pam in Massachusetts and David in Connecticut — influencing their artistic sensibilities. The couple now resides in southern New Hampshire, surrounded by a thriving plein air art community that also interacts with Cape Ann’s painters and those of greater New England. Both Monhegan and Cape Ann’s artists come from the region’s longest art-colony traditions. David’s strongest artistic influences were Gloucester’s Charles Movalli and Ogunquit, Maine’s George Carpenter, both of whom were influenced by Emile Gruppé (1896-1978), who established the Gloucester School of Painting in the 1930s. Winslow Homer became a marine painter after discovering Cape Ann in 1869, and to celebrate Homer’s legacy, the Cape Ann Museum is exhibiting 51 of his marine works this summer. “We’re also sponsoring a scholarly symposium to explore the 11 instrumental years of Homer’s life revolving around his key visits to Gloucester and Cape Ann,” says Oliver Barker, the museum’s new director.

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The local Homer celebration includes the Harvard Art Museums’ “Winslow Homer: Eyewitness” exhibition, opening in late August, and in downtown Gloucester, on Aug. 1, the Charles Fine Art Gallery opens “Contemporary Painters in the Tradition of Winslow Homer” to bring the continuum up to date. Jan Charles, the gallery’s owner and a painter herself, says the gallery has become “a home away from home for plein air painters. They often drop in for a show-and-tell session after a day of local painting.” Both Cape Ann and Monhegan share what Charles describes as “the pure Atlantic air and its unmistakable light” — sheer inspiration.

David Lussier’s “Uncle Henry’s”
David Lussier’s “Uncle Henry’s”

Monhegan’s art colony is more than 160 years old, with the Lussiers and others continuing its tradition. Last year, the Monhegan Museum of Art and History, located in the lightkeeper’s former house, published a 50-year anniversary book that tells the story of the island’s plein air eras: the 19th-century Hudson River School painters, beginning with Aaron Draper Shattuck; the early 20th-century Ash Can School painters, led by Robert Henri, teacher of Rockwell Kent, George Bellows, and Josephine Nivison (who later married Edward Hopper, who then also painted on Monhegan); the quieter World War periods; and finally the resurgent stream of contemporary artists — realist, impressionist, and abstract — from the later 20th century to the present day.

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In 1908, Rockwell Kent built a house on Monhegan’s magnificent southern promontory above Lobster Cove, which Jamie Wyeth now owns and paints from during the fall. Over the decades, many women artists have painted the island’s enchantment, the most famous being Alice Kent Stoddard, Mary King Longfellow, and Maud Briggs Knowlton, whose work is on exhibit at the museum this summer. Eminent sculptor Louise Nevelson also worked on Monhegan, perhaps discovering there that her passion lay with sculpting rather than painting, for in later life she said that it was a driftwood shack on Manana Island, which faces Monhegan’s harbor, that inspired her famous “found-wood” assemblages. She also said that the shack was more exciting than the art she had seen at the Louvre.

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Many of Monhegan’s early-20th-century artists returned every summer to paint, and some owned cottages. A few lived there year round, such as S.P. Rolt Triscott, Jay Hall Connaway, Andrew Winter, and Teco Slagboom. But today, most of the island’s artists come for just a few days of long-anticipated painting within in the island’s magical realm. Ed Deci, director of the Monhegan museum, says, “The critical factor is the price of either renting or purchasing housing. It’s now more difficult for artists — or many people — to return regularly.”

Pam Lussier’s “On Swim Beach”
Pam Lussier’s “On Swim Beach”

For David Lussier, an annual visit to Monhegan “feels like a personal homage to all the greats who have ever painted there. And so many of the people we’ve met on Monhegan have become friends, collectors, and fans.” For Pam, painting outdoors in communion with nature gives her a sense of total freedom. “I feel like a child finally let out to play after the rain,” she says. “I love being able to set up where I want, paint my view seeing the true, living color, hearing the sounds, feeling the wind. I don’t even mind that the light is changing. That gives me more options. The choices are endless, yet also definitive when I make them with my marks in my voice.” A decade ago, Pam was diagnosed with a deadly cancer that ultimately caused kidney failure. While waiting six years for a transplant, she insisted on continuing to go to Monhegan. “It was truly part of what inspired me to beat my illness,” she says. “There we were, doing home hemodialysis on an island that didn’t even have a drug store, let alone medical back up. But it was the island — its breathtaking power, the joy of painting its nature — that helped me heal.”

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The Lussiers’ annual workshop should inspire all of us to take up a brush and paint Monhegan’s wild and rustic landscapes, from rocky cliffs and crashing surf, to quaint village, wooded trails, and hilltop views. According to David, the workshop “balances demos, lectures, and personal instruction with community enjoyment and lots of laughter.” He says that Monhegan has a way of taking away stress, “of separating us from our normal, fast-paced life.” Both he and Pam sing, and David plays the guitar. “We always bring music to the evening fun at some point during the workshop. Sometimes we have a sing-along, and other times students share their music, poetry, or stand-up comedy. The island has a way of opening up creative channels and getting people to let down their guard.” Perhaps it’s the island’s down-to-earth lifestyle that works like a charm — dirt roads and paths, no outside vehicles, removal from the mainland’s “real life,” and pristine nature in every direction.

It’s inspiring just to know that plein air painting thrives on Monhegan Island and throughout New England. It’s a long and passion-filled tradition, a love for nature in every season and in every passing moment of weather and light over a landscape. When asked which New England painters stand out the most, David shakes his head — the talent’s too huge to pick from. He suggests some criteria that might define top grades in the field: painters who have made their mark in the plein air genre and also have a long history of painting New England. These artists, he says, “form the bedrock of what we might attempt to call a New England style. They’re either on the plein air event circuit, or they’ve been a steady part of reinventing the traditions of plein air painting in New England.”

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The future of Monhegan’s outdoor, nature-loving painters, as well as its devoted regulars and curious day-trippers, is as timeless as the island’s spellbinding scenery. Not much has changed at this fishing outpost over the centuries, or not since John Smith first wrote about it in 1614. Because of its relative isolation and land protection, intrusions to its quiet harmony, its ravaging storms, and its spiritual beauty are unlikely to occur. As the longtime island painter Eunice Agar once wrote, “The utter wildness and isolation — cascades of rocks, massive cliffs rising 140 feet from the sea, and screaming gulls — transport twentieth-century man to the origins of earth.”


Gail Spilsbury can be reached at gailspilsbury@gmail.com.