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Marin Island, Small Point Maine, by John Marin

One of my first memories of moving to the East Coast from a childhood in California was discovering Maine. My first 10 years as an expatriated West Coaster were spent in Manhattan, but almost every summer I made the trek Down East on my way to a friend’s island in Canada.

My love of that landscape was instantaneous. It felt familiar. Looking back, I think that was because it shared some of the ruggedness of Point Lobos near Monterey, a favorite childhood spot. (During a recent visit to Point Lobos, I discovered that a number of movies set in Maine and New England were actually filmed at Point Lobos. It was, after all, significantly closer to Hollywood.)

But my attachment to what is wild and yet welcoming is no surprise and actually rather predictable. Many artists have had a love affair with Maine: Winslow Homer at Prout’s Neck, Robert Henri, Rockwell Kent, George Bellows, Randall Davey and Leon Kroll at Monhegan Island; Edward Hopper, Marsden Hartley and Robert Laurent in Ogunquit, among many other artists and locations.

But what I didn’t realize is that there is also a rich history of artists in and around Small Point, the place I love most of all. Thanks to a fascinating show currently on view at the Portland Museum of Art, Maine Moderns: Art in Seguinland, 1900–1940, I can add the area around the Seguin Lighthouse—thus the name—that includes Phippsburg, Georgetown, Small Point and Robinhood Cove to the list of important early 20th century artist communities.

Many of the artists whose works were being shown at Alfred Stieglitz’s gallery (one time husband to Georgia O’Keefe) in New York ended up coming to the area along the coast outside of Bath. Some built homes, some were guests. But the list is impressive: John Marin, Mardsen Hartley, Max Weber, Marguerite and William Zorach, Gaston Lachaise, Gertrude Käsebier, Paul Strand, F. Holland Day, Clarence White. And who knew that the small island that sits in Small Point Harbor, an island I’ve looked at innumerable times, was actually the home of Marin at one point? Many of the houses built by these visiting artists during that period are still standing.

This show, along with John Marin: Modernism at Midcentury exhibit that highlights work from his later years living at Cape Split, Maine, solidifies the significant—and often understated—role the unique Maine landscape has played in the development of American modern art. One more reason for its special place in my life.

Small Point, Maine

What does it mean to be connected to a particular place on earth? I have felt a peculiar and personal pull at very specific locations all over the world, and I hold those landscapes as part of my distributed self.

Small Point Maine is one of those constellated identities for me. My own New England version of Yeats’ Innisfree*. I am grateful whenever I can be there, consumed into its very particular kind of unbridledness.

I’ll be back at the end of the week.


* For anyone who doesn’t know this legendary poem, it has been memorized and immortalized by millions, myself included.

The Lake Isle of Innisfree

I will arise and go now, and go to Innisfree,
And a small cabin build there, of clay and wattles made:
Nine bean-rows will I have there, a hive for the honey-bee;
And live alone in the bee-loud glade.

And I shall have some peace there, for peace comes dropping slow,
Dropping from the veils of the morning to where the cricket sings;
There midnight’s all a glimmer, and noon a purple glow,
And evening full of the linnet’s wings.

I will arise and go now, for always night and day
I hear lake water lapping with low sounds by the shore;
While I stand on the roadway, or on the pavements grey,
I hear it in the deep heart’s core.

–William Butler Yeats

Fix me, Small Point, fix me

Thirty of us are venturing up to our favorite remote corner of Maine for four days to celebrate the landmark birthdays for two of our group. This is a same tribe of friends who spent a wonderful holiday together at this very spot the weekend before 9/11. It became the signature experience for all of us, the most emblematic memory of the end of a very particular phase of our lives. Not wanting to let the memory of the halcyon days of yore steal our ability to make merry regardless of age or circumstances, we are returning to reclaim the hope and the sense of abandon. To sing, dance, and clambake our way back into the celebration of breath, flesh and beautiful beaches.

I’ll be back on Tuesday.

I just returned from three days in Maine. My friend Katie is part of a family that has been going to the same hidden spot–Maine’s largest stretch of undeveloped shoreline–for four generations, and it is through her that I came to know and love this exquisitely unpopulated, shimmeringly pristine beach.

Everything here revolves around the tide chart. When the tide is out, the beach is wide and long, like a moonscape that has no end. Walking along the water’s edge, it is easy to believe you and your friends are the last people left on the planet. But when the tide returns, everything disappears completely. The expanse of sand is swallowed whole. And no matter how many times I have watched this slow rhythmic flow of water in and then out, in and then out, I can’t quite believe something could change that drastically, right before my eyes.

It is a beach of extremes. And being a person who has a natural proclivity to excess, I bonded with this place immediately. It is the place I think of when I long for peace. It gets carried around inside me the way Yeats described the lake water at Innisfree, a sound he could always hear inside himself, “on the roadway, or on the pavements grey.”

The eternality of that stretch of beach–or my imagined concept of it–was altered this weekend when Katie told us about a new and unexpected development. Last season a storm ripped out an entire area of the shore that had always been covered with beach grass. That event, plus others that may have contributed to it, precipitated a major change in the placement of sand. Like water, sand has its own kind of fluidity. When existing patterns in stasis are disrupted, it can carve a new cliff or leave the old beach altogether, exposing an underbelly of rocks and boulders too heavy to choreograph a migration of their own.

Of course the children of the children of the children of the families that first began coming to this place are questioning what might causing this. No one remembers the beach being so disrupted this dramatically. Is it global warming, or nature’s own hand cycling through a larger arc the way fires can clear a forest and rejuvenate the ecosystem? Is it a beach retaining wall that inadvertently disturbed the esoteric sand flow? No one knows for sure, but the concern is palpable.

I kept thinking about this business of sand, flow, patterns, predictability. I once heard Frank Herbert speak about the genesis of his infamous Dune sci-fi series. In that lecture he said the entire epic storyline came to him when he was living on the Oregon coast and carefully studied the life of sand. He became mesmerized by the complexity of its existence. I was young at the time and I didn’t really understand how provocative that one concept could be. I’m older and wiser now, and it is possible for me now to imagine how a legendary series of novels could emerge from that seminal observation of nature at work.

I was also reminded of what Robert Smithson said in relation to his Spiral Jetty project:

Time is always there gnawing at us and corroding all our best intentions and all our most beautiful thoughts about where we think we’re at. It’s always there, like a plague creeping in, but occasionally we try to touch on some timeless moment and I suppose that’s what art’s about to a degree, lifting oneself out of that continuum.

Schooled by sand, indeed.