An artist paints the coast of Maine, one island at a time
Matthew Russ plans to capture 20 islands along the Maine Island Trail and sell the paintings to benefit the organization.
If ever Matthew Russ needed a reason to escape to an island, the pandemic gave him a perfect one.Since early spring, the plein air painter from Waterville has been visiting Maine islands as part of a yearlong artistic journey that will take him to 20 of the nearly 250 wild islands that are part of the Maine Island Trail Association network that stretches from Kittery in southern Maine to Cobscook Bay in Washington County. As part of an ambitious painting initiative called “Project 20/20: An Artist’s Journey on the Maine Island Trail,” Russ, 46, will make a 20-inch square painting at each of the islands he visits with proceeds from the sale of those paintings benefiting the trail association.
“When this project was conceived, the pandemic was not even a glimmer. And yet, it seems the project lends itself to the unusual circumstances we are in right now,” Russ said. “Getting out onto a Maine island is perhaps one of the great forms of social distancing there is.”
The trail is a recreational water route that links 241 islands along the entire coast of Maine, covering nearly 400 miles. People explore it by boat, in any order they wish. There is no beginning or end, but instead a series of islands linked by handshake agreements between the Maine Island Trail Association and private and public landowners. Their common goals are access and stewardship.
Project 2020 is about raising awareness of the trail by presenting one artist’s interpretation of some of the islands that comprise it, said Madison Moran, communications manager for the association. Russ will discuss his work in a Zoom talk Thursday, and hopes to exhibit the complete series of island paintings in October at Portland Art Gallery, which is working with the Maine Island Trail Association to promote and sell the work. Each framed oil-on-canvas painting costs $5,000.
“The hope is we can have an actual event, where I can actually talk to the crowd about the project and the paintings, and so on,” said Russ, mindful of the risk of bringing people together during the pandemic. “So we will just have to see what happens.”
Russ is also keeping a journal of his adventure, posting updates in a diary-like fashion with photos of the places he has chosen to paint as well as the finished pieces. Portland Art Gallery also has created a web portal for the finished work.The artist’s unique perspective and interpretation inspired the association to take on this project, Moran said. It’s an opportunity for someone with a singular vision to experience the scope of the trail in a concentrated period of time, during a time in our history that is characterized by solitude, isolation and reflection. Individually and collectively, Russ’s paintings will present a visual narrative of the entire Maine coast that few artists have had the opportunity to tell.
Russ is a member of the Maine Island Trail Association and has contributed artwork to past fundraisers for the organization. But this project was far more ambitious and encompassing than anything he has tried before. It has taken him to places he has never been and reinforced in his mind the importance of the mission of the organization. “I never really appreciated the scope of the trail or the unique combination of private ownership and public ownership that gets folded into the larger trail of islands,” he said.
AN IDEA UNFURLS
The idea had been percolating for many years, and took full root in summer 2019 when Russ participated in an artist residency at the seasonal home of late artists and brothers Fairfield and Eliot Porter on Great Spruce Head Island, a private island in Penobscot Bay. Fairfield Porter was a representational painter, and Eliot one of America’s great nature photographers. Fairfield Porter’s niece, Anina Fuller Porter, runs an artist residency each summer for a dozen artists, who stay in the Porter family home on the island.
The residency served Russ and his plein-air painting habits exceptionally well. For years, he has painted strictly outdoors, in the open air and with the full force of nature around him.
“It’s something I love and something that for whatever reason, that mode of painting brings out the very best in me,” he said. “If I am left to spend a day in my studio, there is usually very little by way of creative energy. It is the getting outdoors that sparks my imagination and that make the paintings happen. I thrive on being outdoors, among the elements.”
On a coastal island, those elements tend to be dramatic and dynamic – quickly moving clouds, shifting light and other ever-changing and always evolving meteorological conditions and scenery, such as boats and birds that influence both how he views a scene or subject and how he renders it.
“In recent years, my formula has been to pick a place and a specific view and explore that view on five different days within a fairly close time period. It enables me to really spend a lot of time looking and observing and absorbing that specific place, and it also enables me to see it in a wide range of conditions. Within a day or day to day, a view can vary greatly,” he said.
Being out on Great Spruce Head for an extended period enabled him to think broadly about his art and ambition. “After a while, I thought, ‘Wouldn’t it be great to take this series idea and expand it up and down the Maine coast, and explore islands on different parts of the coast?’ ”
The idea moved from root to bud with a conversation last fall with the association’s executive director, Doug Welch, who encouraged Russ to think broadly about the trail and what he might do to explore and interpret it. They agreed on 20 paintings, with two coming from each of the trail’s 10 unique geographic sections. This spring, the bud began flowering when Russ began exploring.
He started on Maine’s southern coast in late April. Unlike the rocky coast elsewhere in Maine, the southern coast consists largely of sandy beaches and marshes and offers fewer islands. He had hoped to paint Vaughn Island or Trott Island, both in Cape Porpoise Harbor, and was thwarted by a lack of convenient public access. He moved up the coast a bit to take advantage of the public land associated with the Rachel Carson National Wildlife Refuge, and found a rough trail leading from the road through a marsh. He followed the trail until land’s end, and set up his French easel near an archipelago to paint a view from the mainland of Cape Island.
“During this day of frustrated attempts to gain access to land, I’m reminded that MITA exists for this very reason. To provide access to special places like Cape Island that have the power to change us. To broaden our understanding of our environment so that, like Rachel Carson, we can’t help but strive to protect it,” he wrote in his online journal.
Later, he sought out a piece of shoreline that would place him close to Timber Island, off Goose Rocks Beach. He parked his car at the Timber Point parking area and walked with his painting gear along a dirt road through wetlands, fields and forest, conversing with bird watchers along the way, who told him that warblers had arrived from South America. At the shoreline, he was drawn to an uninhabited home that once belonged to Louise Parsons Ewing and her architect husband, Charles. These facts Russ learned from reading a historical marker in the front lawn. He also learned that the Ewings hosted many artists, including a personal hero of Russ’s, Rockwell Kent.
He took that as a sign that this was his painting place. He set up his easel on the lawn with a direct view of Timber Island. His composition includes the rocky mainland, a small bay of water and the island, with its soft low brush and storm clouds overhead. He writes, “The water reacts to changing colors in the sky. Lavender is the dominant color of the day, and it interplays with the pinks of early spring on the island. … As so many of my painting sessions do, this one ends with an overwhelming feeling of appreciation for the natural world and those who serve as its stewards. Like the warblers, I’m just passing through, but I’m able to find sanctuary here because of the foresight of conservationists, and many others who love wild places.”
In the months since, Russ has made paintings at Bangs and Raspberry islands in Casco Bay, Hodgsons and Perkins islands in the Damariscotta and Kennebec rivers, respectively, and Oar and Crow islands in Muscongus Bay. He will continue to work his way up the coast as the summer blends into fall. Some islands he has accessed by boat, others he has painted from the shoreline.
As his project has progressed, he has realized it’s as much about island people as the islands themselves. “The farther I travel along the trail, the more I interact with people who are passionate about the islands and willing to help with the project,” he said. He is especially grateful to landowners who have included their islands on the trail. “I’m impressed by the communication, camaraderie and collaborative spirit that exists in this special community. Island stewardship is truly a team effort,” he said.
Anne Wesson, whose parents bought Oar Island in 1962 and who now owns a portion of it, said allowing public access is a “win-win” because it allows people to enjoy an island that her family has loved for generations. In return, trail members become island stewards, leaving no trace of their presence while also taking the time to do regular maintenance work, like the removal of invasive species.
It goes without saying that no two islands are alike, Russ said, but he gives voice to that idea nonetheless because of what he has seen and experienced in just a few months of exploration. “Each one has its own twist or special element,” he said. “My job is to capture it.”
Bob Keyes, Portland Press Herald, September 6, 2020