(David Lyon for the Boston Globe)
 If you go: Mohegan Island

Landscapes en plein air off Maine's midcoast

Email|Print| Text size + By Patricia Harris and David Lyon
Globe Correspondents / August 27, 2006

MONHEGAN ISLAND, Maine -- Around 9 most mornings, painters begin to converge outside the Carina, a grocery and wine shop more or less at the village center. When everyone who's coming has arrived, they weigh the mood of the day -- the weather, the light -- and decide where to set up their easels.

On this summer morning, red poppies have burst into promiscuous bloom in a backdoor plot at the home of the island's professional gardener, Kathie Iannicelli. So the group settles on ``Kathie's house," which, by no coincidence, is the title of several paintings at the Lupine Gallery.

Don Stone, Susan Gilbert, and Alice Boynton position themselves on the grass between Iannicelli's drying laundry and the poppy patch. Ted Tihansky and Alison Hill put a lot of body English into their work, so they stand on an adjoining lawn to get some elbow room and a different point of view.

``You could circle Kathie's house and paint for days," said Stone, who first came to Monhegan in 1958 and taught workshops on the island for 40 years. He won't say it himself, but he's the unofficial dean of the current generation of Monhegan painters.

``The challenge," said Stone, ``is to go somewhere on the island you've been before and paint like you're painting it for the first time."

There's probably no view on this 1 -square-mile island that has not been scrutinized by someone with a brush in hand. White Mountains landscape painter Aaron Draper Shattuck was the first on record, arriving by schooner for a sketching expedition in 1858, when fishing and flaking cod were the main occupations out here some 10 miles from Maine's midcoast. By the 1870s, locals had begun taking in artist lodgers. They've been coming ever since.

The Lupine Gallery represents about 60 of Monhegan's summer and year-round artists, a number that's ``only the tip of the iceberg," according to gallery co-owner Bill Boynton. Artists cherish both the distance from the distractions of the mainland as well as the easy give-and-take of a small, isolated community. The gallery provides a good overview of Monhegan's current painting scene. While abstract painters abounded in the 1950s and 1960s, the realism of plein air landscape painting dominates today. And not all of the canvases depict the wild headlands, some of the highest ocean cliffs on the Maine coast.

``Monhegan is known for its cliffs, but most of the artists like to paint the village," Boynton said. ``The buildings are real, humble. It's a working village -- not Camden."

About 60 people live year-round on the island, which has no street lights and no municipal water in the winter months. It does have a church, a library, a post office, a one-room schoolhouse, and a community bulletin board on the Rope Shed. Townspeople socialize when they bring their trash to the dock on Friday nights to be hauled off-island. The community's roughly 120 buildings are covered in low-maintenance gray shingles or higher-maintenance white paint, making the village a monochromatic jumble of cubes with peaked roofs tucked between dark spruces and gray rock.

Artists with easels are as common on Monhegan as seagulls, but unspoken island etiquette calls for leaving them alone while they work. There are plenty of chances to interact: About 20 artists encourage visitors to stop at their studios for one or more afternoons a week. Tihansky and Hill, who are husband and wife, open their studio and gallery off Lobster Cove Road every afternoon. Weather permitting, they're usually on the lawn still working on canvases they had begun in the morning.

Tihansky first came to Monhegan in 1989 to take a workshop with Stone. ``When you step off the boat, you enter into another world -- until your self catches up," he joked.

After owning his own gallery in Newport, R.I., Tihansky moved to Monhegan , where he has lived year-round for seven years. He worked two winters as a stern-man on a lobster boat. Fishing is still the island's principal industry, with the lobstering season in Monhegan waters limited to 180 days between December and June. During the winter, Tihansky and Hill, who has been a year-round resident for five years, work on portraits of the men and women who fish for lobster.

After their open studio hours, the couple head out with their ``traveling studios" -- wooden pull-carts on bicycle wheels -- to take advantage of the long summer days offshore. ``The light is unbelievable," Hill said. ``No matter where you look, you see something you want to paint."

Frances Kornbluth, who lives next door to Tihansky and Hill, started coming to Monhegan in the 1950s ``as a cheap vacation" and has missed only one summer since. She opens her studio twice a week. The self-described ``old-timer" belongs firmly in the abstract tradition of her mentor and fellow Monhegan artist, the late Reuben Tam. ``Artists -- we're all different even though we have the same scenery," Kornbluth said.

Given her history on the island, Kornbluth only wishes she could be exhibited at the Monhegan Museum. But, the octogenarian observed, ``You have to be dead to be shown there."

The museum occupies buildings around the working lighthouse above the village. The former keeper's house traces island history through artifacts from the fishing industry , maps and charts, historic photographs, and a number of paintings.

In 1998, the museum opened a replica of the original assistant keeper's house as a gallery. A replica storage shed holds an extensive collection of work by Monhegan artists. The museum draws on that cache for its annual summer exhibition. The 2006 exhibit focuses on 20th-century works on paper, including works by James Fitzgerald, Rockwell Kent, Tam, and Lawrence Goldsmith.

``For a rinky-dink island in the middle of nowhere," said museum volunteer John Harris, ``we have quite the art collection."

It's easy to explore some of the island's wilder scenery before seeing it laid on canvas. Nearly 80 percent of Monhegan is conservation land. It's crisscrossed by 17 miles of hiking trails, though two of those miles are especially favored by the cadre of hikers carrying easels and paint boxes.

From the top of steep Horn Hill, Burnthead Trail passes through meadows strewn with wildflowers to a headland 140 feet above the crashing surf. It's an even easier walk down a narrow, sometimes muddy trail at the south end of Main Road to Lobster Cove. When the seas are running, painters hasten to the broad boulder fields to capture the sheer drama of the giant breakers. At the mouth of adjacent Christmas Cove, the rocks are streaked red by the rusting remains of the tugboat D.T. Sheridan.

Perhaps the favorite scenic spot on the island, at least for the painters, is back in the village at Fish Beach, also a favorite for hunters of sea glass. Surrounded by weathered fish shacks, beached dories, and, now that the season's over, building-sized piles of lobster traps, the beach is a living definition of picturesque. It also faces west into the hazy afternoon sun.

``I paint on the beach at 4:15 p.m.," said Stone. ``I think John Singer Sargent would have given his right arm for this light."

Contact Patricia Harris and David Lyon, freelance writers based in Cambridge, at

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