Impact and Influence of Concept on Its Students
Maury Colton – The ‘60s
The late 60s was a period of educational upheaval. The Concept School of Visual Studies was part of the zeitgeist of that period. William Manning and Polly Brown were the founders of the Concept School in 1969. I had studied with Bill and Polly when I was at the Portland School of Fine and Applied Art from 1967–69. I was one of the first students to sign up for the Concept School in 1969 and was involved in that exciting endeavor.
Bill and Polly had introduced me to new ways of seeing, making, and understanding what painting could be, and I was dedicated to their approach. Experiment is not a word that frequently appears in the world of today. Concept was an experiment and a great success for those students who embraced the practice of self-direction. It was an invigorating episode not being part of an existing institution, but to be the institution itself as it grew.
Many memories and many friends were incubated in that time. It was a place of equality and promise. The revolution was not in some other time or city, but right in Portland, Maine.
The Concept School had a hidden magnetism, I believe. It is the only way I can rationalize how such a diverse set of talented people could have coalesced around that place, at that time. Hunger for Art and freedom of expression were the ingredients that launched the Concept School. I don’t believe there is a former student, teacher, or visitor, who was not affected by the existence of the Concept School.
Don Voisine – Concept: An Idea, a Place, a Time
Early on a September morning in 1970 I boarded a Greyhound bus in Fort Kent bound for Portland. I was headed to the Portland School of Fine and Applied Art, one of the last regional art schools in the country, where half of the faculty did watercolors of the Maine seashore. There were lots of figure-drawing classes, still-life painting, and many field trips to do plein-air watercolors of nature. During the 1972–73 school year, the art school began a process of academic accreditation. School officials brought in a new Director, Bill Collins, changed the name to the Portland School of Art, and kept the old administration on staff. Collins’s attempts to bring the school in line with the second half of the 20th century were met with great resistance by the old guard. This eventually led to a divisive atmosphere at the school in planning the future.
When I first arrived from Fort Kent, I knew very little about art; I’d only been to an art museum once before and was curious about all approaches—painting and drawing, printmaking, commercial art, sculpture, pottery, etc. By the fall of 1972, I had decided I wanted to focus on painting, but most class time was spent debating the direction of the school. The only place I felt I was still learning anything was in John Eide’s photography course. At the start of my third year’s second semester, I transferred to the Concept School of Visual Studies, just a few blocks away.
Concept was founded as an alternative to the conservative and traditional approach practiced at the Portland School of Art. It reflected new ideas in education that were being considered and explored at the time, the main one being a self-determined approach taken by the students in formulating the direction of their education. It was of its era—a hippie art school is how I often refer to it. Concept was located above a cosmetology school on Congress Street. The odor of hair products filled the corridors and mingled with the smell of paints. This left me with an indelible visceral memory of the place.
In contrast to the Portland School of Art, the faculty at Concept seemed attuned to what was going on in New York and encouraged us to experiment. Concept had no structured schedule of classes. You saw the faculty when you wanted to or had something to show them. As students we learned as much from each other as we did from the teachers. I am still friends with many of my fellow students, including Katherine Bradford, Susan Beth Smith, and Michael Maltby. We, along with Maury Colton, Polly Brown and William Manning, had many intense and passionate discussions about art. Following the highly structured and circumscribed approach at the Portland School of Art I consider Concept my unofficial graduate school. We were taught that one of the best ways to learn about art is to look and see what other artists have done. We learned how to look hard, seriously, and in an engaged critical manner, then to use the same standards when considering our own work.
Arriving at the school, most days one would find Polly sitting in the office, greeting everyone and inquiring about any exhibitions we might have seen the day before. The lack of a decent art supply store in Portland meant we took periodic trips to Boston, where we visited museums and galleries and stocked up on paint at the Utrecht store. A group of us pooled our money and ordered a large roll of canvas from New York. I ordered a five-gallon bucket of Rhoplex thinking I would make my own paint. This idea was ultimately defeated by the expense of dry pigments and my general lack of knowledge of the chemistry involved. Eventually the Rhoplex turned rancid and moldy.
Typical of many young art students, we quickly formed strong opinions of what constituted good or bad art. There were disagreements over minutiae, and cliques formed with like-minded folks. Our overbearing assertions masked our insecurities. The most important part of the school’s philosophy was to teach us to be self-directed in our work. While guidance would be provided, there were no assignments to fall back on. No one was going to tell us what to do or how to do something, or give us a starting point. The blank canvas was all we were given. Talk about feeling vulnerable. Bill Manning liked to say “the only thing holding you back from making really good art is yourself.” He was referring to our fears, our inhibitions, our caution, whatever other obstacles we allowed to get in our way. This was meant to challenge us and ultimately inspire self-confidence; in the end this may be the most important lesson any of us took from Concept.
I was always curious about why people chose to attend a small art school like this in Portland, especially the ones who came from New York or Boston. I was in Portland because I didn’t have too many options at the time but some of my schoolmates at the Portland School of Art and Concept transferred from the School of Visual Art In New York or the Massachusetts College of Art. I know those places had much better facilities and even nationally recognized faculty; for example, Chuck Gentry had attended lectures with Michael Fried at Harvard. Now I see that the camaraderie these smaller institutions provided was essential to what they were looking for. The best thing I got from those days were my peers; I learned a lot from all these city folks, and many continue to play an important part in my life.
I didn’t realize it at the time but once I boarded that southbound Greyhound bus out of Fort Kent there was no looking back.
Everything about Concept was unconventional—no grades, no classes, no requirements whatsoever. This suited me fine since I had never been to art school and had two little kids at home. It meant I could hire a babysitter and sign up for one day a week.
Maury Colton, Polly Brown, and Bill Manning were the faculty. When I told them I wanted to learn perspective and shading this was met with stern frowns. Drawing from a model was also considered not cool at all and Carlo Pittore never forgave me for never taking proper drawing lessons. Apparently, you could do anything you wanted and one of the faculty would come by and give you a critique. Manning always began his critique with (said gruffly) “Is this the stuff you want me to look at?”
I learned a lot. Jackson Pollock was God, Andrew Wyeth was suspect, and Helen Frankenthaler was interesting but a spoiled brat. If someone had excellent drawing skills they were “showing off.” If you dropped paint on your raw canvas on the floor “something interesting might begin to happen.” (Maury Colton)
Naturally, I started dropping paint on my roll of raw canvas. It sort of looked like art but you wouldn’t want to give it to your mother for Christmas.
One time I was getting ready to leave at the end of the day and I walked past the door of one of the open studios. I could see a young guy, one of the other students, sitting in a chair staring intently at the wall of canvases he had been working on that day. I looked over at the canvases. They were all green with different colored splotches of paint on them. I looked back at the guy in the chair. He hadn’t moved an inch. He was completely absorbed in looking at his work and stayed that way for a long time. “This is what I want” I thought, “I want that intensity. I want a life where I can sit and look at art, my own and others, for hours at a time.”
Quite fortunately, Maury and Don Voisine decided to take me on and teach me about the avant-garde. I was 30 years old at the time, Don was 20 and Maury also in his 20s. They were among the best teachers I’ve ever had in my life including Bryn Mawr College. I’ll give myself credit for having the good sense to listen to them.
Maury lent me his copy of Artforum that had an image of an Agnes Martin on the cover. “Any female artist should look at her” he said, “She’s a role model for women the way Jackson Pollock is for men.” More importantly, inside this Artforum was an article by Marcia Tucker on Joan Snyder’s ‘70s “stroke paintings.” I read it that night sitting up in bed after I’d put the kids to sleep. “This is it,” I thought, “all I want is to do stuff like this.”
When Snyder had a show in Boston I drove down and back from Maine in one day and actually met her and talked to her. She had on a sweatshirt…. at her art opening. Things were beginning to add up.
Mark Rockwood – Concept
Spring 1969. The smell of perm neutralizer was in the air wafting down the hall from the Golden School of Beauty Culture, Concept’s neighbor on the second floor of the Strand Theater building. The scent of neutralizer gave way to linseed oil, thinner, and oil paint after you made the right turn at the top of the stairs. Walking down the short hall you were surrounded by studios that had once been retail spaces, and the school’s office, all with windows facing in. I was away from Michigan for the first time, having arrived with a cheap footlocker of art supplies and a vision of creating. Many of the wonderful cast of characters (for whom this was not their first day making art) were in place in the bright shared studio spaces. Barbara Sullivan and Lee Frinsko were in the space I was allotted a table in. Michael Maltby was farther down the hall working on large canvases with a quiet hairy ferocity. Maury Colton was a seeming stable talent whose presence was felt as much as seen. There was a young woman in one of the back rooms that had a sink doing batik and staining sea shells. Ross Thompson flitted in and out but never seemed to leave much evidence of work behind. It was the first time I was ever in an art “environment.”
I was self-taught to that point, trying to paint and creating sculpture out of car parts. I didn’t even know anyone else who thought they might be artists. The immersion in Concept’s population was a shock to my system. I realized how clueless I was about art and art making. The faculty seemed more like much-revered, knowledgeable, older students than teachers, and in fact they were. They all made art and pushed and explored and argued. I remember Bill Manning loudly engaged with Polly Brown and Bill McCarthy in the office. “Fucking Motherwell!!” Manning’s voice echoed in the hall. Lionel Marcous ran a ceramics studio which, sadly for the polite patrons of the beauty school, had its entrance in the middle of the wide waiting room of Golden. A solid, muddy path led to a kiln and wheels and dust and joy. Concept’s freeform immersion into art making was a powerful experience that I never shed. The first tools I collected there for creative exploration and problem solving are largely still with me today, 50 years later. It remains one of my life’s best experiences and certainly one of the most affecting.
Barbara Sullivan – Time at Concept
As I think back about Concept, I realize how influential it was, because most of the students went on to become career artists.
In 1968, I was accepted at what is now MECA. My father, a physician, refused to send me; he thought I should get a liberal arts education. In those days if your family had any dough, it was impossible to get a scholarship or a loan. I went off to Belknap College, a small liberal arts College in New Hampshire, where I completed one year.
The next year, I apprenticed to a silversmith in Rockport, MA. I returned to Maine and heard about Concept. Could I go there? Could I afford the tuition? I now had metalsmithing skills. I am not sure where I got my confidence, but I went to Concept to have a meeting with Polly Kapteyn-Brown and Bill Manning, explaining that I wanted to attend Concept but that I had no money. I suggested teaching anyone who wanted to learn silversmithing to pay my way, and they agreed.
I was in what I call an “art shy” phase of life, very under-confident about my work and my ideas. I stayed in the back room, the one with the roof access where Lionel Marcous and Linda Brown worked on clay. I tinkered in silver and made drawings, feeling like I was getting ready to paint. I remember the office with Polly, Bill Manning, and Bill McCarthy, hearing heady conversations that held intrigue certainly, but that also terrified me. Overall, I loved the atmosphere and the critiques from Bill Manning and Polly. Their critiques always hit a knowing cord; in retrospect they knew I was “lost” but not a “lost cause.” Their respect and intuition somehow provided a subtle guidance for me, which ultimately made me more confident. I felt as though the students were really advanced and were getting ready for “something.”
I vividly remember Maury Colton carving and painting sheetrock and Mike Maltby painting gigantic paintings, very active surfaces. These painting actions excited me and planted painting seeds in me. They also intimidated me, but honed my art curiosity into what later became the life of an artist. In that way, Concept as a place and an idea was pivotal.
I returned to Cape Ann in Massachusetts after leaving Concept and found Montserrat, another art school begun by teachers who broke away from Mass Art and the Museum School in Boston. In a sense Concept provided me with the courage to engage in another experimental art school. Thank you, Concept, for helping me to begin what has become a career.
Michael Maltby – Concept School Statement
I can’t remember how I first heard about Concept but as it turned out it was one of the most significant events in my life up to that point … and thereafter.
After years of obedience and lackluster performance in “education,” Concept offered me the opportunity to truly realize the ability and potential in me … doors opened.
Amazingly, there I was … in an environment of artists and like-minded individuals.
I’m forever indebted to Polly, Bill, Maury, Bill, Lionel, George, and many others for that experience.
Alice Spencer – Concept
I had heard about a “renegade” art school whose faculty had recently left the Portland School of Art. Their educational philosophy, in contrast to that of the PSA whose curriculum included a heavy dose of “foundation” courses, was that art students should begin by searching for the story they wanted to tell and, as part of that process, acquire the tools and techniques that would best tell it. In January of 1973, I had a new baby, was exhausted and lonely, and it was winter in Maine. Concept sounded like an interesting place to be as well as a good way to get out of the house.
If my memory serves me the school was just off Congress Street, sparsely furnished but with lots of winter light. I remember Maury’s warm presence and the smart, brisk Polly Brown who I got to know not just as a teacher but also a cousin.
I have little memory of the work I did but a photo taken then reminds me that at least at some point my subject matter was chairs. I remember being told to smush the too safe parts of a painting I was working on, to open it up to braver possibilities. To my astonishment, the speaker, wielding a paintbrush—or perhaps borrowing mine—reached in and scribbled out a section of the canvas.
One day while making his rounds Bill Manning called me a “Sunday painter.” I remember nothing else he said at the time—just that phrase. I felt mad and hurt and retreated to the bathroom to cry. I had been making art all through my life, seriously, since I was a child.
I went home that night and I’m not sure I ever went back to Concept. But in the following days, when the baby was asleep, I put aside the acrylics I had worked in since college and began to make watercolor sketches on notepads. It was a perfect medium to use in my small islands of quiet time, but it also forced me to work loosely and with no investment in the results. Throughout the next ten years I continued to find my way in this new medium, to broaden the scale of the paintings and eventually to exhibit and sell the work.
Watercolor eventually gave way to other ways of working, but I still wonder if, without Bill Manning’s disquieting and maddening push, I would have taken that first exploratory leap into the unknown.
Denis Boudreau – Concept Memories
In 1969, I had just returned from Vietnam, and I needed to feel as normal as possible. In wanting to shed the trappings of war, I also knew that I needed to focus on creating art. Most of all, painting was what inspired me and what I aspired to. My friend Jon Legere helped me find a studio in the Old Port where I could work and paint, and I had the luxury of using that space on Exchange Street at the price of $7.00 per month.
The memory of my decision to enroll in the Concept School of Visual Art eludes me, but memories of studying there remain vivid in my mind—classes with Bill Manning, Lionel Marcous, and Polly Brown. Each of these teachers stimulated the creative process in my psyche, while offering enough encouragement and criticism to push my pursuit further into the realm of abstraction and expressionism.
My most significant aspect of learning at Concept was the sense of freedom—not only from rules regarding attendance, but the freedom to create. In breaking away from memories of the war, the school shed new light on the future and gave me the hope that I had lost, and like my old studio, it was affordable.
Susan B. Smith
My mother died, uprooted from the city where she was born and had lived almost all of her life. She had attended art school in NYC in the early 1940s, studying the Ashcan School artists and her work reflected them, with her own raw talent forever put aside when she married. Affected by her passing, I wanted to be an artist like her (or perhaps a writer). My friends in New York were not pursuing much of anything at the time. After a bit of roaming, a Nantucket friend told me about time spent at this unusual art school in Maine … and off I went for an interview. I was not much more than a scribbler and pretty sure I had no talent (which was true), but Polly Kapteyn Brown took me in, and next thing I knew, I was living in Portland and trying to paint.
The talk of abstract expressionism swirled around me and infused me with something that I “got” in a deep and persistent, if inchoate way. Color spoke to me and led me via Concept’s studio immersion method of finding your own way. Provoked to explore art and artists, I consumed the Abstract Expressionist canon in its near entirety and it continues to illuminate my connection to the world.
Although I grew up a New York City museum-going child, Concept introduced me to and helped me with the deep dive into artists such as Jackson Pollock, Mark Rothko, Morris Louis, Helen Frankenthaler, Jean Dubuffet, Louise Nevelson, et al., and their powerful work, even as subsequent artists and newer forms of art have been added to my eye-opening art love and experiences. The independent spirit approach to learning in an unstructured way was great at the time. Over the years learning through a disciplined information intake has been a challenge. Surrounding myself with knowledgeable teachers and absorbing through an informed learning environment is ongoing for me. I swallow, absorb, digest, parse and add knowledge every day.
Polly Brown and Maury Colton influenced me. (I was terrified of Bill Manning.) I remember being asked what interested me (in the studio) about my own art and although I was tongue-tied, I responded that it was about light and how it affected shapes in my (terrible) paintings. But I loved color and design and continued to learn more about how those worked on my own after the initial Concept inspiration.
Unlike fellow Concept-ers, I did not pursue art. In the area of experience design (theme parks, museums and exhibits), I work with artists, illustrators, sculptors, designers, photographers, writers, fabricators, architects, installation and media artists— all of whose language I can speak and whose work I respect. Every moment spent in that Portland school has fed lifelong inspiration, passion, and admiration.
I need to add two things: that Polly Kapteyn Brown was a tremendous influence on me and encouraged me in a way that allowed me to discover and embrace the life I live today. Don Voisine was a good friend and I have followed his career over the years and am glad I kept one of his early paintings on paper, which I still love.
My own last canvas, which I threw out when my husband and I sold our house last year, was not dreadful. Small, square glowing light green with a sliver of pink, it was a tough call but out it went.
This is an interview with William Manning. It was conducted on October 3, 2019, at his home and studio in Falmouth, Maine. The discussion involves the origins and the mission of the Concept School of Visual Studies, in existence from 1969 to 1974. The discussion also includes art in general. Maury Colton initiates the questions and William Manning responds. The interview covers topics and subjects pertinent to the Concept School.
MC will be the initials for the questions, and WM will represent William Manning’s responses.
MC: How did the Concept School get its start?
WM: John Pancoast was director of the Portland Museum of Art at the time, and he wanted to have more rapport with the Portland School of Fine and Applied Art, rather than just having an art school exhibition every spring at the museum. He came over to have a meeting with the staff and Jim Elliot, the director of the art school at that time. It didn’t go well at first … didn’t go well at all … John Pancoast wanted more people of Portland involved with the Museum as well as the Art School. Jim didn’t want it, George DeLyra didn’t want it either. Norm Therrien, Ken Mike, other instructors, were against the idea also. After two years of talking, that was the end of that, and John Pancoast decided that it wasn’t going to go anywhere, and it just stopped. Then Polly Brown, a fellow instructor, and I got talking together “this is a damn business, and you can’t paint until you’re in your second or third year! You have to learn all these other things in your first year, and then when you do get to paint you don’t remember what you really learned in the first year!” So we decided to be more open in our classes … to have a color class and a painting class together. The public could also come into the art school in addition to just the people who were full time; the public could come in and print and study with some of the teachers and so forth. After we went through all that, we got Lionel Marcous, another instructor, involved and we went back to Jim Elliott and started talking about this idea. The answer was “there will be people fornicating all over the floor”… (laughter) … it didn’t go too well! “No, no, no,” I said, “there won’t be any of that, Jim.” He said it is “going to be so free that that is what is going to happen.” So we fought very hard for this. Jim Elliott was a very close friend of mine. As an aside, I actually got Jim the job as the director of the Portland Art School because Jack Muench, the former director, left. The Portland Society of Art did not know who to hire as a director. So I got to talking to the head of the Portland Society of Art, and said why don’t you get Jim Elliott? That’s how Jim became the director of the school. Then Jim Elliott fired me for fighting for this change in education. He said, “I don’t want that, and you’re out” … and then he fired Lionel Marcous, and then Polly Brown. Then after we were fired, John Pancoast resigned as director of the museum. Bill McCarthy, who was the director of education at the museum, then resigned, as did Patricia Pancoast who was the art history director at the Portland Art School. So, everybody except for the janitor, left the museum … (laughter) …
Then we tried to find a place that we could start our endeavor. We went to five or six places, and I don’t know how they knew, but the Portland Society of Art, got to these places before we did, and stopped the progress by telling those places “do not rent to this group.” We found a place eventually, on Congress Street near the Porteous store, (which is now the Maine College of Art) and near a beauty school. So that’s where we opened the Concept Art School. George Curtis, a sculptor, would on occasion come down and teach and basically raise hell. Lionel Marcous taught (but not for very long) but got involved in other stuff, and he left his teaching position at Concept early on. Around that time Fran Merritt, who was the director of the Haystack Mountain School, gave us an etching press which we used. I did make a few prints, several monotypes, which the Portland Museum has to this day.
MC: Wasn’t Fran Merritt on the board of directors?
WM: No, no, no,… I can’t really remember who was on the board of directors, except for Matthew Goldfarb. It was so long ago that I have forgotten.
MC: Well, it was fifty years ago. Juris Ubans was on the board of directors besides Matt Goldfarb and Sam Tucker. Six or seven directors on the board I do remember because I was one of the first students to sign up, and I was there to observe the early formation.
WM: Yes you were. This type of educational upheaval was happening throughout the country. That’s how Concept started at the very same time. It was a vibe going on through the whole country. Many students were upset at a lot of colleges and universities, and some of the Concept students did come from some of the Ivy League schools.
MC: Kathy Bradford from Bryn Mawr.
WM: Yes, and Kathy’s mother always wanted her to leave Concept. … (laughter) …
MC: Alice Spencer, another student, was already formally educated, correct?
MC: I have a list* of approximately 40 students who were involved in those days, though some of them are now deceased. Do you remember Larry Armstrong who played the sitar? He was a student and was tragically killed in a car accident.
WM: I do not remember Larry. However, some of those students didn’t stay very long. They stayed for a few weeks, they got the idea, and then instead of Concept, they went out on their own.
MC: That sort of answers one of my questions, the open studio concept, which is basically what I think is the reality of being an artist. It is called, “go to your studio and paint.” That was one of the basic ideas of the Concept School?
WM: Yes, yes.
MC: Who drew up the initial mission statement?
WM: Probably Polly Brown and myself. Basically Polly Brown, but I helped with it.
MC: The big draw to me about going to Concept, was that it was really in the forefront of experimentation. I was so excited, after my first year at the Portland School of Art, that I got involved with what you and Polly and Lionel were doing. Coming from my background, the idea of an artist for me was Norman Rockwell, and to come to the realization that expression could be an aspect of making art was a revelation. That art didn’t necessarily have to look like an onion, but it may have a brush stroke that looked like an onion.
WM: Basically, in the ten years that I taught, I really was not a teacher. I was a poor teacher. The only thing I think that I did, that I thought was really important, was that I made the students aware of what was happening in the art field in New York, and not just in Portland, Maine. Yes, I would criticize works if the students asked me to, but basically as a teacher, I never considered myself a teacher.
MC: Before we go on, I want to show you a picture of me in my first year at Concept, of you talking to me about the painting that I was working on. I still distinctly remember the first time you showed me a reproduction of a Robert Motherwell, and I was like, WHAT? But that opened the door to realizing that I had self-imposed boundaries of what was and wasn’t art. That was what you did, you exposed people to make their own judgments: “but look at this book, and look at this painting, and you can see there are many ways to make a painting.”
MC: In terms of students, of course you remember Denis Boudreau. Do you remember Don Brabble by any chance ?
MC: He actually worked as a commercial lithographer. The ones that you probably would remember would be those that were around for a year or two. I was of course there for two years.
WM: Yes, the ones that came for a month or two or three, I really don’t remember. That was such a long time ago.
MC: That’s why we’re doing this now. It was fifty years ago now, and that’s why we want to get all the memories we can. Because with the digital age, this will be part of history from now until forever.
MC: Couple of mundane questions. … How did the school advertise? How did the school make connections with people? Was it just word of mouth?
WM: Just word of mouth. In fact, I can’t remember an article in the newspaper at all.
MC: I don’t remember anything either but it is possible that Eddie Fitzpatrick, who was the editor at the Portland Evening Express, would have had a sympathetic ear in those days.
WM: Publicity would have come, ironically, from the students at the Portland School of Art. Their faculty were talking about Concept. That’s another reason why people came up to see what we were doing.
MC: I recall that the school had an open door policy. One could come in and see what people were doing. If you have sympathies, come on in and sign on the dotted line.
MC: What did it cost to go to Concept?
WM: I have no idea, and I’ll tell you why, I never got a salary ! … (laughter) …
MC: I will say this, not to be patronizing, but as you will recall, I came to teach at Concept in 1973. The reason I was able to do that was because of your generosity. You had gotten a National Endowment Grant, and you put up some of your grant money so I could get a stipend and carry on with teaching. Your generosity should be public knowledge. I don’t remember the amount but it is possible that it was $100 a week?
WM: It was so long ago I don’t remember.
MC: Well then let’s make it $10,000 a week and make it a big story! … (laughter) …
WM: It was at that time that I was given the largest grant ever to an individual artist in Maine.
MC: What was the value of the grant, do you remember?
WM: $16,000 .
MC: That was big money back then.
WM: Yes, it was! It was the first ever NEA grant given to a Maine native.
MC: We have already covered this, but do you recall certain students that may have impressed you, and seemed to be talented from the beginning? Or maybe others who irritated you like “Oh my god I don’t even want to go see what they’re doing”…?
WM: No, no, no, all the students were just people who wanted to paint, or to do sculpture, though there was very little sculpture. George Curtis the sculptor, would come down on occasion and raise hell for a while, and then leave, and everyone had a good time because he was quite a character. But to my memory I don’t recall any sculpture being done.
MC: The one I remember was Betty Heller doing sculpture. She worked with plaster on wire.
MC: You said there were remnants of the beauty school still there when we opened Concept, I do not remember that.
WM: I still have a remnant, a movable flat top stand that I use to move things around in the studio.
MC: Going back a bit, I have recollections of the early searches for places to establish the school, because I was in on some of these searches. At that time we looked at a large loft space on Commercial Street. It was the first time I’d heard the expression “you need an angel.”
WM: Also at that time, after Concept was up and running, Polly got very interested in seeing if she could get Paolo Soleri, the architect, involved. So she took a flight out to Arizona where Arcosanti was being developed. Paolo Soleri agreed with our philosophy, agreed with what we were doing, and he came to Portland in 1973 and gave a talk at Cape Elizabeth High School. It was mobbed with people, and every architect from north of Boston came. It was an incredible thing, because Soleri had done no buildings in this country except for the town he was building in Arizona. Strangely enough, in my opinion, that particular visit was the beginning of the end of Concept. His talk was not only to raise money, but to get people interested in The Concept School. His philosophy was so far out, that these architects and other students and attendees who were there, perhaps were interested, but we did not raise a dime, not a dime.
WM: From that point on, Concept started to go down financially. Kaput. Ironically because of that great architect’s visit, things started to go kaput.
MC: Didn’t we go as a group on a field trip to explore possible locations to build?
WM: Yes, an uncle of a student had land on a lake that he was going to donate to us. Soleri was going to build an art school that would house two hundred people. Studio and living area. We couldn’t raise the money so that was that. It was an exciting time though.
WM: I believe that the property eventually became the Camp Susan Curtis in Stoneham, Maine.
MC: Next question. In the beginning, in my memory, we were loosely modeled on the Bauhaus School. The idea of just go to your studio and do your work, as I have stated before.
MC: Theoretical question: at the time Concept was being formed, was the faculty envisioning that this would be a one-year or five-year or ten-year endeavor?
WM: We never thought about that. We just wanted to do the exact opposite of where we had been previously. There was no limit.
MC: Going back a bit. A few of us students at PSA were excited before the advent of Concept in the summer of 1969. We would bring our works by your place for critiques. I don’t know if you remember that. I had a feeling (you can fill me in on the background) that when Jim Elliott heard about this, he thought you were taking us away from his learning path which was the Monhegan influence and practice. By the way, Jim was a fantastic watercolorist, under the influence of Jay Conaway and the whole Monhegan approach.
WM: Well, Jim came from Monhegan, in that he was married to Ollie Eliott who worked on the island at the Trailing Yew, a restaurant and rooming house. I got to Monhegan because Jim said to me, “You should get out to Monhegan.” And by the way, I think Jim was one of the very best representational artists. I hate to use that word because I don’t believe in the use of that word. As an interesting aside, several years ago there was a gallery in Brunswick, the O’Farrell Gallery. I was having a show there and after the opening there was to be a party for myself and Barbara [Manning] and guests. After the opening we were going to this party and a man came out of the gallery and started walking towards me. I was looking at him, thinking this guy looks familiar, and when he got closer it was Jim Elliott. Now Jim and I had separated quite badly but we shook hands.
MC: Did he look the same?
WM: Oh yeah, he looked the same, and then we ended up sitting next to each other at the party. He never really came out and said so, but he more or less intimated that we were right in our endeavor. Though he never really said it, I think he meant he was sorry.
MC: A real Yankee … (laughter) …
MC: So you and Polly Brown had a close rapport?
WM: Yes, we were very close friends.
MC: Don Voisine is in touch with Polly’s children, Gillian and Jim, and they will be contributing to this article also.
WM: Interesting, because I had tried to get the papers from Polly’s archives. I spoke with Jimmy and he could not find them, so I spoke with her daughter Gillian and she said she would look into it, but nothing ever really came of it.
MC: I do have a few pictures from that time which I will show you later.
WM: A bit off topic, but just a note about the Maine College of Art and giving out degrees. I never got one, Barbara never got one either. I taught there for ten years and I was a student for five years.
MC: I never got one either. I asked about that. It was a retrospective degree and there was a small window of opportunity to receive the degree. If one did not pursue this during that window of opportunity a few years ago, then you were left out.
WM: I really didn’t care.
MC: I know what you’re saying, but I think after this article you should get a degree now.
WM: A number of years ago, the Art School director—I don’t recall his name—called me and we went to lunch. He had heard about Concept and wanted to meet to talk about it. I said okay, sure, though I have an entirely different philosophy, so we probably will not agree, but we can have the conversation. We were together for a couple of hours and we talked about everything and he said “you did this, and you did that!?” I said yes, we did all those things, and he said “at Concept you taught in an entirely different way?” Yes, and it worked very well. Then he said, “well I have to go, but I’m excited because I think we’re going to have 250 students in the senior year at PSA and will have so much more money coming in.” So the whole conversation didn’t amount to a thing. He also said that every studio should have a picture and bio of former teachers displayed there, that never happened either. That director was gone within four months, either fired or he left on his own. I also recall a photo of that director in which he is standing beside a John Raimondi sculpture called The Phoenix Rising. I can mention John because he and I had received grants at about the same time. He was teaching at Portland High School working with the students fabricating a sculpture. John pulled out his portfolio to show me photos of his work, and I asked him why are you doing this sculpture with the students that is already fabricated? He said to show the students the process, and it’s not the same as the public version; in this student version the metal is 1/8″ thinner … (laughter) …
MC: A bit off topic, but I remember the first time I saw John Raimondi. I was at the opening of the Portland School of Art student exhibition at the Portland Museum of Art, probably in the spring of 1968. John came to the opening carrying a painting of his under his arm. He was in the process of applying to the Portland School of Art for the following year. It stayed in my mind because I thought this guy’s got some kahunas … (laughter) …
MC: Last thoughts ?
WM: The art school, Maine College of Art, is now worse than what we were fighting back then. The only thing that I find slightly different now, than when students were graduating back then, is that they are just so much more confident in terms of making paintings.
MC: I would also agree in terms of making objects.
WM: The talent level is greater, but it stops right there.
MC: Recently, a fellow painter said that in terms of making paintings the way that I evolved is analogous to music: I am really painting jazz … it is not pop music. I find there is a smaller audience for appreciation. A lot of today’s art world is involved in the Marcel Duchamp school of thought … a fantastic hands-off approach … a big dose of “look Ma, no hands” … (laughter) …
MC: A lot of what passes for fine art is what I call karaoke art. The execution is confident, but it is someone else’s melody.
WM: I agree. I think Duchamp was the one who ruined the art field. He opened the door, and he closed the door. Everything is Art today.
MC: He could comment on society, because he came from a society that was being commented on. I break the last art century into three schools … Matisse: color, Picasso: expression, and Duchamp: conceptual. Alex Katz has said … hell, anybody eighteen years old is as good a conceptual artist as someone who is forty eight years old, if the idea is good; whereas the practice of painting takes time and is an evolution. If the idea is perfect, than conceptual art is always perfect.
WM: I saw one of the great conceptual pieces I’ve ever seen. It was at the Museum of Modern Art in New York, and it was in the corner of a gallery, a pile of wrapped candies. You could pick one up and eat it. I think it was the artist Felix Gonzalez-Torres. Anyway, I had that installation in my head for years! How can I beat that?
MC: As I said, it’s all karaoke to me. I get it, but that is the end of it. There’s nothing to take away from that, of course, but maybe that is what the candy was all about …(laughter) … A friend of mine often comments that no wonder people don’t pursue painting, it is too damn hard! It’s not going to be perfect, it is going to show its flaws. Like Concept School in its brief, exciting evolution, it showed its flaws. It was perhaps jazz to some, but it was music.
MC: As you said Bill, it was a very exciting time. I guess that wraps it up for today, thank you for your time.
Peter Falkenberg Brown – My Mother, Polly Kapteyn Brown
My mother, Polly Kapteyn Brown, was my best friend throughout my childhood. Although she was not a “huggy” type of person, she was someone whom I could trust and love and respect. My mother believed in my potential and gave me the vision, while I was still young, to try to think on a grand philosophical scale. Polly was an artist and art teacher, first at the Portland School of Fine and Applied Arts (the precursor to MECA, the Maine College of Art) and then at a school called Concept that she founded with some fellow artists, including the noted Maine artist Bill Manning.
In 1982, a year before she died from lung cancer, she earned a graduate degree from the Episcopal Divinity School in Cambridge, Massachusetts. She was also a writer, poet, and philosopher, perhaps inspired by her aunt, and my grandaunt, Olga Fröbe-Kapteyn, a Dutch spiritualist, theosophist, and scholar. Olga was the founder of the Eranos Foundation in Ascona, Switzerland, and was a friend of Carl Gustav Jung.
I left home in 1973 when I was eighteen (returning to Maine after thirty-four years). I took with me an abiding appreciation for my mother’s thoughtful way of looking at the world. My memory of her growing up was that she had depth, in her intellect, her soul, and her creative vision. She pushed envelopes, and was not intimidated by life or those who didn’t appreciate her talents. I’m sure those traits helped her tremendously when she co-founded Concept.
I loved her sense of humor—a rather broad and slightly bawdy humor that I found refreshing. I think that my brother, James, my sister, Gillian, and our father, Carl, were also frequently delighted by her sly wit and appreciation for the good things of life—including her gourmet cooking. Our mother was not stuffy at all. Her love of beauty informed me and gave me a heightened sense of its value in what can often be a drab world.
I have a number of her paintings hanging in our home. Even though I gravitate toward realism in art, her paintings and drawings are very precious to me. I tried to draw, growing up, and visited the halls of Concept with the vague hope that I might be an artist. But it was not to be. At least I inherited her gift of writing. Still, I found Concept fascinating, flushed as it was with the avant-garde spirit of the late sixties. I sat with Mum and her fellow artists and students, listening to Ravi Shankar play the sitar at Concept, and spent a summer camped in the woods of Standish, helping Concept staff and students build a geodesic dome.
Now Concept is gone, and my mother is, I hope, painting and drawing in the spirit world, perhaps chatting with Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, Leonardo da Vinci, and Paul Gaugin.
I’m looking forward to the day when we can sit and talk and laugh over many cups of tea.
December 1, 2019
Peter Falkenberg Brown is a writer, author, and speaker. He and his wife, Kimmy Sophia, live in Gray, Maine. He can be reached via email at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Memories and Musings about My Mum, Concept Co-Founder, Polly Kapteyn Brown
Gillian Kapteyn Comstock, December 2019
Oh my, what a great gift it is to have this magnificent soul, Polly, as mother. She certainly has been in life and even after death one of the greatest teachers of my life.
She offered a central teaching about uncertainty, that great wobbling state that is necessary for authentic creativity to flow.
As an avid student of quantum physics, her favorite books, many of which now live on my shelves, included writings from Heisenberg, Capra, and Bohm. Her powerfully astute mind embraced mathematics, theology, philosophy, religion, as well as the worn, sweet copies of art books about Klee, Kandinsky, and Chagall…and so many more. In fact, masses of penciled notes line the edges of these books. Her Dutch Kapteyn lineage is not to be forgotten as she lived in a fully resonant clan, who embraced the realms of science, art, and mystery. Her uncle, Jacobus Cornelius Kapteyn, was the great astronomer, and her aunt Olga Froebe-Kapteyn was the founder of Eranos, the gathering place for Jung and other exceptional, adventuring, frontier minds. Of course, Concept, an avant-garde, renegade art school, would be born from such impulses.
Endlessly curious about this principle of uncertainty, her intellectual brilliance was in a very essential way informed by her love for living in the moment, wild in her own way, and playful, even amidst significant life challenges stirring a great angst in her heart. This ability to stay in the presence of wonder continually was expressed in her most foundational way of knowing. Or rather than way of knowing, we should say that her way of unknowing each unfolding moment not only informed her teaching, but also became a most central mission of Concept. She often said to me as a young person, ‘the only permanent thing is change’…and ‘expect the unexpected’. And as we walked along the Maine beaches, she often called to me to watch the changing light, the color, the nuance of the luminous in the waves, the sand, the clouds, the bay leaves. I was completely with her always enthralled by this mother’s teaching to her daughter.
Her paintings, her writing, and her teaching quintessentially express this steady attraction to the mysteries of the unsteady state. She wanted her students to find the fresh and undiscovered in their studies and their art making. Consequently Concept really had no rules, no guidelines, but rather as so many other movements rising out of the sixties expressed, emerged in an era of revolution and a dismantling of conventionalism, materialism, and a deadly life in the box of suburbia. As a paradoxically good, but rebellious student of 17, I remember stopping at Concept after the dry and stultifying atmosphere of Portland HS, and floating into this field of freshness and excitement. These unusual students stirred my longing to be with them. I felt as if they were the true students, and as it is, I still feel great admiration for them half a century later. In a time of the free school movement, freedom to follow the inward pulse was completely actualized in these studios. The pedagogy of traditional art education seemed antithetical to the necessary edges of originality…the essence of art making. I felt and still feel so deeply grateful and intrigued to live so closely to the offerings of Polly and her cohorts. I sense that the Maine Arts community is enriched immeasurably beyond the space and time of Concept. Polly, thank you for your great contribution to this.
And in preparing to write this reflection, while delving into Polly’s notebooks, manuscripts, and drawings, I came across this stunningly simple piece. It beckons especially now, as we live in a time of climate emergency, extinction crisis, and a kind of Titanic experience. Polly’s essential teaching shines here.
THANKS FOR THE PARTY
When the world ended
And there was no universe anywhere
They sat at a table as they had the year before
Exactly as it was then.
And they said, ‘How can this be, if the world ended?’
And then saw what they hadn’t seen before
That love never was the transient thing
They’d thought it was
And not a single thing was anything
But love ⎯ the chairs, the meal, the hands, the eyes ⎯
Coming together here ⎯
Or together anywhere
With all their loved ones without ceasing.
To think they thought it was too complex
For human understanding
When it turned out to be utterly simple.
What a silly thing to say
That the world ended, or the supper
When it so obviously was and is
And will be better
near the time of her death in July 1983
James Chantler Brown – Becoming Unconventional. What a Concept.
Concept was indeed a home-away-from-home for me. While I was not a student of Polly Kapteyn Brown, not in the traditional sense of the word anyway, I was an unknowing thirteen-year old sponge that learned more about art and the creative process than I ever realized at the time. I spent many days out of the week as a kid hanging out with my mother, the students, and all the hyper-creative adult sponges that were ever present in our lives, than I did my own peers. It was a very interesting childhood to say the least. For me, this constant exposure to the unconventional creative process that Polly instilled in so many of us was, and still is, the primary foundation of my becoming unconventional in my own approach to life. I did not have a conscious clue at that age that I was learning so many important lessons in a very indirect way. This revelation is of late, as I have actually just figured this out in the last few years.
When I was 13, I had made a pivotal decision with respect to what I wanted to be when I grew up. It was big. We were going for just another walk on one of our favorite Maine beaches and my plan was to work up the courage to break my really big news. I wanted to become a magician. Full stop. I really did not know how she would react, but my gut was cheering me on in real-time, while my heart was pounding, and the fear of the unknown was scratching at the surface—Polly talked a lot about the fear of the unknown. But I knew. I just knew from that day forward what I wanted to do in life. And much to my surprise and extreme jubilation, Mum (yes, my family said Mum not Mom and tuh-MAH-toh not tuh-MAY-toh), immediately embraced the idea, which was followed by hours, days, weeks, months, and years of unwavering, unconditional, and unconventional support, not to mention she was my primary audience as the art of magic became part of my DNA. Okay, there may have been a little “oh no, not another trick….” vibe going on, but that did not stop me. “Mum, pick a card, any card…don’t show me…”
We did not have a lot of money growing up. So in order to pursue this new found art form, I somehow instinctively knew that I had to teach myself and invent whatever magic I wanted to see happen. Polly loved my approach, which further inspired me to invent new ways of doing things. It’s pretty amazing, but not knowing how to do or approach something, and having to figure it out on the fly, has, in fact, been one of the many valuable life lessons I have learned.Watching Polly teach, paint, and mentor, definitely had very unintentional and great consequences for me. This common thread of “becoming unconventional” is a lot like magic. A few careers later, this is still at the very core of how I approach so much of what I do in life.
Thank you Polly, Concept, and all those who had their part. It’s full circle now, and going back around is definitely no less interesting.
Great teachers have great influence that reach well beyond the classroom.
December 3, 2019
Maury Colton’s List: recollection of students who attended Concept
Lisa Abrahms, Larry Armstrong, Mike Athearn, Dan Barry, Carole Bisgrove, Mark Bisgrove, Denis Boudreau, Don Brabble, Katherine Bradford, Kim Brown, Linda Brown, Steve Cauley, Maury Colton, Toni Correveau, Lee Frinsko, Bill Frost, Chuck Gentry, Alison Hildreth, Tom Kemp, David Kilpenen, Mel Laubauch, Mike Maltby, Sarah Mann, Butch Carl Minot, Coleen Mittila, Reggie Osborn, Jim Priestly, Mark Rockwood, Alice Spencer, Lee Stackpole, Barbara Sullivan, John Thaxter, John Thompson, Ross Thompson, Don Voisine, Jeff Vollers, Bobette Waddle, Cindy Williams, Brauna Yatski
William David Barry
I worked at the Portland Museum of Art as Curator of Research in the early 1970s and was asked to be a consultant by Bill Manning for Concept. I hung out at the school but was never officially consulted. In particular, two students stood out in my mind: Bill Frost, now living in Westbrook, and Mel Laubach (1946-2004), both just out of the Army, Frost from Massachusetts and Bach from Indiana. Bill, a Vietnam vet, was at Concept for the music and the fun, a talented artist with no interest in the Manning-Brown Concept ideas. However, he added much to the atmosphere. I recall that Bill Manning once criticized a Frost painting for its lack of unity. I suggested that Frost add a figure of a Civil War soldier with a banner inscribed “Unity” near the center. Bach then informed Manning that he thought Frost’s work did have “Unity.” Always serious, the instructor grumbled, took one look, said “Jesus Christ” and left.
Laubach took the values of Concept as well as any student. He was known for his remarkable line drawings, but quickly took to the abstract ideas of Manning, producing some top gestural paintings. He took ideas to heart and continued to the end of his career. He would later journey to New York, to San Francisco, where he earned a BFA in painting from the San Francisco Art Institute, and to Missoula, MT., where he received his MFA in painting from the University of Montana.
In the book Maine the Pine Tree State, from Prehistory to the Present (University of Maine Press, 1995), I wrote the following:
The appearance of Lewiston-born William Manning’s pure elegant, nonrepresentational canvases furthered the community’s growing interest in serious paintings. In 1969, Manning and painter Polly Brown established the short-lived but influential Concept School in Portland, and the rather traditional-oriented Portland School of Art (now the Maine College of Art) shortly after underwent a revolution of its own. By the 1970s, an economic boom in Portland, centered around the Old Port with its craft shops, cinemas and galleries, reestablished the city as an art center of note. (p. 577)