The crossroads where you make the turn towards Port Clyde is landmarked by the General Henry Knox Museum, a 1929 re-creation of the original 1794 Federal mansion. Its monumental façade comes into view almost simultaneously with the Dragon Cement Company, a large construction of chutes and appendages of the last functioning cement manufacturer in New England. The historic and the industrial languages blend to form an architectural hybrid landscape, suggestive of a Hieronymus Bosch painting or an assemblage constructed of disparate parts. What brought me to this juncture, and through the coastal villages past Tenants Harbor, to Port Clyde, was an invitation from Ron Crusan to visit his studio.
Upon my arrival we began by looking at a stack of paintings on heavily- textured watercolor paper that at first glance resembled etchings. The paintings are built up layers of dark washes with specks of brilliant color revealed in the intertwined black and gray marks. Ron is reading about Richard Serra’s drawing process and thinking about the marks as language. Perhaps it is Crusan’s experience as a museum director that also has him thinking about how to display the paintings. He considers hanging them low and paired towards each other in a corner. He hopes this will encourage an interaction with the viewer, questioning the placement, creating a dialogue, getting people thinking about how an object occupies space. He is thinking about how a work of art becomes a part of the architecture and defines the space around it.
Crusan has more time now to devote to making, thinking and talking about his artwork. For more than 25 years he was director at several regional museums, most recently the Ogunquit Museum. His move to Port Clyde from Southern Maine last year coincided with his current position as director of Linda Bean’s Maine Wyeth Gallery and collections.
Inside his home, Crusan’s sculptures and assemblages line the walls of the living room and dining room. He makes freestanding sculpture, and shadow box assemblages from old wood, rough wood, and driftwood, some from old furniture, some painted, and some cut and reassembled. The associations that come to mind are some of the familiar names of 20thcentury modernism. But those are not the first associations that Crusan wants you to have.
In 1953—the year that Ron Crusan was born—Joseph Cornell made a series of shadow boxes in homage to a collage work, “The Man at the Café,” by the cubist master, Juan Gris. A recent show at the Metropolitan Museum united those works. A pair of west Coast artists, Wallace Berman and George Herms, both contemporaries of Joseph Cornell, worked in a similar vein, as assemblage artists. Cornell feels like a figure from history, his work evokes an earlier era, but he traversed the 20thcentury, spanning the years from 1903-1972, he is on a continuum with George Herms, born in 1935, and who still lives and works in Los Angeles.
One of Crusan’s wall assemblages includes a door handle, another a rusty hinge, a key is inserted into one, while another has a small tin box inset into the wood. They evoke a sense of place. We talk a bit about realism, and what does it actually mean. Crusan pulls a book on Andrew Wyeth off his shelf. He flips through to the painting “Brown Swiss” and talks about the composition. A barn is on the left side with a partial reflection in a pond below, and the sloping horizontal lines of fields intersect in a myriad of textures in grays and browns. There are concentrated areas of activity that balance the space. There were windows in the original structure, Crusan said, but Wyeth left them out and so the wall becomes a slab of white. The painting is as much an observational assemblage with an underpinning of abstraction composed by Wyeth, as Crusan’s pieces are abstractions made of actual elements salvaged from a real place and composed in the studio.
Leaving the more formal rooms in Crusan’s home we enter into his workshop, which resembles a raw materials library. Piles of scrap wood are neatly organized, some are textured, or some with carving and joinery betray a previous function as chair, table, or banister. Stacks of clear storage boxes hold parts and potential projects, sorted by like items, or color. One drawer reveals stacks of old Bingo cards, another is full of Monopoly paraphernalia. One box is filled with yellow pieces of wood, another, orange. Stacks of toy blocks with cowboys, and the corresponding Indians are set up in a still life on the shelf. A ray of sun moved into the upper story window and illuminated the inside of an old doll’s head that sat with a cluster of other dolls on a high perch. “Did you catch that?” asks Ron, and I nod, holding my camera. Lids of Port Clyde sardines tins are stacked like a deck of playing cards, some rusty, some with the logo bright and fresh.
The worn blocks and iconic relics say something about the passage of cultural time: like toy diplomats they present a window into what an American childhood once was.
We walk through the snow to the two storage sheds behind Crusan’s house. There is evidence of a squirrel that sees the space as a refuge. Nature is at work on the materials, even as Crusan has plans for them as well. The aura of possibilities lingers in the space, open- ended by collecting, and arrangement, bounded only by the limits of the imagination and the changes within the culture itself.
As I prepare to leave I ask Ron if he knew of the Waldo County sculptor, and welder David McLaughlin. McLaughlin bought, and moved into a defunct factory, known as “The Cannery” in Liberty Maine, in 1972. McLaughlin was an avid salvage collector of scrap materials on an industrial scale, including the eight-foot tall pressure cookers that once processed vegetables in the Cannery, 500 gallons of steel rings, and as a delicate counterpoint, shelves filled with birds’ nests.
His assemblages of rusty and rustic constructions evoke a sense of nostalgia, fabricated from articles from the recent past which have never fully become a part of our own times. His estate includes 100 tons of assorted steel, iron and other materials, and is now in the care of Waterfall Arts in Belfast and the Town of Liberty.
Ron is eager to talk about art and to delve beneath the surface. He mentions some of the artists in the area, Jamie Wyeth, Wilder Oakes, and the late Richard Hamilton. Ron talks of future ideas involving all of his Monopoly pieces, arranged, or scattered perhaps, the boards set out on a gallery floor, an invitation to play or to reflect on the game itself.
Ron sees me to the door, and then calls me back in with another book in hand to show me an artist in his neighborhood, accomplished painter, and amateur astronomer, Greg Mort. Thumbing through the book, we enter Mort’s world of exquisite still life—delicate arrangements of shells and planets—assemblages of sorts.
Driving away I feel the potential from all those raw materials, seeds of the mind that might come to grow on fertile soil. I think about Ron Crusan reading, and working from the ideas of Richard Serra, making his own response to those works, his steady and patient collecting of objects, and the absorption of culture and ideas—incorporating the past through its marks and materials.
The search for ephemera through the chance findings of flea markets perhaps now joins the realm of beat poetry, part of an America that is closer to the world of pre-Interstate highway. Jack Kerouac’s novel, On the Road was written in the era of the two-lane highway, and published in 1951, two years before Ron Crusan was born, and five years before the Federal Highway Act of 1956. As I drive home through the networks of coastal and back roads, I think about how this landscape still has much in common with the roads that Kerouac traveled.