This story begins at Port Clyde, at the tip of the St. George Peninsula on the Maine Coast, a long way from our home in Utah. My wife and I drove here from Boston, to board the Elizabeth Ann and ride ten miles across the Gulf of Maine to Monhegan Island. We stepped off the boat on an August day into a village of seventy-five year-round residents, several hundred summer people (a good percentage of them artists), and small packs of day-tripping tourists disgorged from three excursion boats--classic New England.
We stashed our luggage in our room and wandered toward Lobster Cove, at the tip of the mile-square island. The late afternoon sun arced west toward the mainland, enough moisture remaining in the air from the morning fog to bathe every object in a warm yellow that seemed palpable, a light that gave each object a solidity and separateness quite different from the stunning light of the West.
We walked beyond the last signposted artist's studio, to the last house on the island just above high-tideline, bare rocks below, a meadow-moor on the landward side. That clapboard house, encountered by chance, captured my imagination. As a photographer, I felt an enormous need to take pictures of it--lots of pictures--without quite knowing where this compulsion came from. The house wasn't ostentatious, but its seasoned simplicity, its position between sea and land, between earth and sky, now makes me compare it to ancient Greek temples, to Anasazi cliff dwellings. This house captured the relationship between the local culture and its landscape.
The next day, I learned that this house belonged to Jamie Wyeth, son of Andrew Wyeth, grandson of N.C. Wyeth--three generations of painters who devoted their lives to paying extraordinary attention to the New England light--the light that I had seen playing about the house.
I have to tell you that I'm a bit of a Luddite. I watch little television. I read only as much of People Magazine as I can finish in the grocery store check-out line. I don't follow sports. Admitting to awe of celebrities makes me nervous.
So why was I thrilled to learn that this was Jamie Wyeth's summer home, and then to learn that he purchased the house from Rockwell Kent, another legendary Maine artist, who built the cottage here on Monhegan's outer coast fifty years ago? Why did this matter so much? Couldn't I simply enjoy the structure for what it was? Was I drawn to the celebrity of its owner?
It was the story that got me. Once I knew that this was an elegant perch for painters to watch the light on the waves, to attend to the changing textures of the land through the seasons, the relationship between the house and its landscape meant more. My pictures acquired context, told a story. I could explain my compulsion. I am a person of light, too. We kept returning to the point, and our experiences with the house kept changing. The first time it sat empty. The second time, we saw a young woman enter at dusk, open windows, tie back curtains, and switch on lights, evidently preparing it for visitors. The orange glow of the lights brought the house warmly to life. I kept photographing.
The next day, my wife and I sat in the rocks below the house, soaking up the sound and motion of the surf to take home with us to the desert. Suddenly we noticed a man on the porch of the Wyeth house, dancing. He was alone, skittering across the smooth planks behind the railing, swooping with his arms outstretched like a Pueblo Indian eagle dancer. We were too far away to hear music, if there was any. Perhaps he was silently paying tribute to the sunset, to the light.
Of course I believed the dancer was Jamie Wyeth. My wife, more pragmatic, wasn't so sure. I felt like a voyeur. I forced myself not to stare, sneaking glances of the dancer while trying to keep my eyes on the waves. It was a poignant moment, and I held it tight until the dancer disappeared.
The dancer animated the story of the house on Monhegan. Jamie Wyeth had returned to inhabit his story, to live his story. The structure was no longer an object, an idea, a story available for photography. It was Jamie Wyeth's home.
I realized that I could take no more photographs of that wonderful house. I had entered the moment and could no longer stand apart as an observer. I will never look at a Wyeth or Rockwell Kent painting again without a secret thrill, a sense of sharing.
Copyright © 1997 by Stephen Trimble, P.O. Box 1078, Salt Lake City, UT 84110-1078.