William Kienbusch and the Gift of Place

by Carl Little

above: Francis Hamabe
William Kienbusch Rowing, Stonington, late 1960s
Black-and-white photograph
Collection Little family

My uncle, the painter William Kienbusch (1914-1980) spent most his life in two places, New York City and Maine. Just about every May from the mid-1940s on, he would make his way north from the city. Late in life, he compared the stops he made to the stages in an ascent of Everest, his favorite mountain.

Bill’s relationship to Maine began in the 1930s when he attended Eliot O’Hara’s watercolor class at Goose Rocks Beach in Kennebunkport. After serving in the Army during World War II, he returned to Maine, staying in Stonington where his hero John Marin had spent time in the 1920s. He was soon making annual seasonal pilgrimages, exploring the islands and developing a repertoire of coastal subjects.

For a number of years Bill’s base of Maine operations was Trevett near Boothbay Harbor where his friend and fellow painter Dorothy Andrews (1918-2008) and her family lived. After he bought a house on Great Cranberry Island, he became a part of a remarkable group of modern artists, among them, John Heliker, Dorothy Eisner, Gretna Campbell, Robert LaHotan, and Charles Wadsworth, who found their muse there.

Bill established personal connections with a number of individuals in the Maine art world. He visited fellow painter Reuben Tam and his wife, Gerry, on Monhegan. He went on painting trips with Leni Mancuso and Tom Barrett from Castine (their correspondence with him is in the Archives of American Art).

William Kienbusch , Rowboat to Island #2, 1973, Casein on paper, 32¼ x 40½, Collection of the Farnsworth Art Museum, Rockland, Maine; Museum Purchase, 1996.11

Francis Hamabe (1917-2002) was like a brother; he and his first wife Sidney would host Bill for weeks on end at their home in Blue Hill. From there, he would make excursions to Stonington where he kept his rowboat EPO BID. The boat—its prow—served as the model for several paintings. (The children’s book author Robert McCloskey once referred to Bill as “the rowingest man in Maine.”)

William Kienbusch, My Boat, 1972, Craypas on paper, 6 x 8, Collection Carl Little & Margaret Beaulac, photo credit, Ken Woisard

Bill also became friends with Vincent Hartgen (1914-2002), painter and bravado art professor at the University of Maine. Sometime in the 1960s Hartgen invited his friend to spend a semester at the university, teaching and painting. The Northeast Film Archives collection includes an interview with Kienbusch conducted by Hartgen for Maine Public Television.

Uncle Bill once stated, “When I arrive in Maine, I start seeing again.” What he saw were subjects and places that set him to painting. He explored Hurricane Island quarries, wandered among Cranberry Island gardens after everyone was gone for the summer and hired a lobsterman to circle a bell buoy while he took pictures with his Brownie camera.

William Kienbusch, Bell Buoy, 1976, Casein and charcoal on paper, 34 x 42, Collection Margaret Beaulac & Carl Little, photo credit, Ken Woisard

I was thinking of Bill’s love of buoys when I gave him a copy of W.S. Merwin’s book The Drunk in the Furnace for his birthday in 1978. As he had done with me, I marked several poems that I thought he’d especially like, including “Bell Buoy” with its stunning evocation of that sailor’s guide in fog and storm:

Clearer

The dreaming bronze clangs over the lifting

Swell, through the fog-drift, clangs, not

On the sea-stroke but on the fifth second clangs,

Recalling something, out of some absence

We cannot fathom, with itself communing.

William Kienbusch, Sea Gate and Goldenrod, 1963, Casein on paper, 32¼ x 45¼, Collection of the Farnsworth Art Museum, Rockland, Maine; Museum Purchase, 1994.9

Among Bill’s last great subjects was goldenrod, fitting image for the final years of his life. In an elegy inspired by the painting Sea Gate and Goldenrod, poet Rosanna Warren, who had visited Bill on Great Cranberry Island on several occasions, describes the painter lying in his bed with “a patchwork map spread out” over his “failed legs.” She references “our island” where “alders shimmied in sunlight, deer/browsed through cranberry bogs,” but concludes:

…there are

other islands, and already, while we sat

here with you chatting of ours with its goldenrod

what you heard

was the other islands.

William Kienbusch, (1914-1980), Sunflower, 1977, Craypas on paper 11 x 14, Collection Margaret Beaulac & Carl Little

When Bill died in 1980, he left his home on Great Cranberry Island to my brother David and me. This gift shifted both of our lives. Up to then we had been oriented toward New York City and the South Fork of Long Island. Our parents’ home in Water Mill had been our refuge and retreat, but the landscape was changing drastically. Maine was a new world, a place where we might start seeing again. And that is where we are today, writing and painting.

Reuben and Geraldine Tam, William Kienbusch on Monhegan, 1944, From 35mm color slide, Collection Carl Little

Uncle Bill made us Mainers; he left us his home, his friends and his favorite landscape—not to mention the poetry of Abbie Huston Evans. I’ve told this story many times, and apologize if you’ve heard it before. Bill is the talisman and touchstone of my creative life. I owe him big time.

 

Carl Little is co-author with his brother David of the forthcoming Paintings of Portland (Down East Books). He has also contributed to monographs on Philip Frey and Joseph Fiore. 

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