Growing up northwest of Boston, my first intellectual community was Ralph Waldo Emerson, Louisa May Alcott, and the circle of Transcendentalists and abolitionists and suffragists tied into the Concord landscape, so that every stone wall, every reed of grass, every pathway, seemed to lead to the circle of ideas and growth and promise. I was there as a guide, historian, student, and disciple at the Ralph Waldo Emerson house for eleven years. I read everything I could get my hands on; in essence, I traveled with Henry David Thoreau to Maine, with Ralph Waldo Emerson to California, with Margaret Fuller to Rome, with Louisa May Alcott (and her artist sister May) to Paris. I saw, I gathered, I created, with confirmation that the individual and the community are united in a codependent relationship even when one wants to believe they are an island of unique thought. After many autumns of closing the house each October, I did not leave my historic house guide position until long after graduating college when I was urged by the director to find a “real” job. I was heartbroken, yet finally understood my state of penury and needing full-time work, and so, moved on.
Then for years I went on to find community after community, nostalgic for a past and hopeful for creating a future: from art museums to historic sites, from England to Salem to Oyster Bay, to the oyster-strewn coast of Mid-Coast to, now, the Farnsworth Art Museum.
In the galleries at the Farnsworth, the spirit of the individual as an integral part of a community is now very apparent to me. 19th-century paintings stand tall on the walls staking their claim to American Luminism and espouse Emerson’s and Thoreau’s and Fuller’s and Alcott’s promise of self-invention and self-creation. And then there is a crowd of paintings and sculptures that seem to want to assert their independence from the whole canon before them.
Paintings by Lois Dodd challenge the viewer to look beyond the real and invite in fantasy and challenge perception. Perhaps she would ask, “what is truth?” On my visit to her studio and home recently, where her bedroom is covered in murals of her own painted scenes of the outdoors beyond her walls, I was transported instantly to England’s Charleston House, where the Bloomsbury Group like Vanessa Bell and Duncan Grant painted on the walls and Virginia Woolf recited poetry, where these English modernist Transcendentalists coexisted in their uniqueness—collectively. A newly acquired painting at the Farnsworth by Ann Craven documents the moon, in a serial fashion, as it is one of dozens and dozens of homages Craven paints to honor the celestial beast in the sky. It is her documentation of nature, her universe in her hand, and her grasp of the Thoreauvian studio which allow her to study the moon, the birds, the trees in her backyard and invite nature in with vigor and understanding. And then at the Farnsworth one can see a work by Ashley Bryan, who survived WWII by carrying his art supplies in his gas mask, when his trench bunker was a studio, and his drawings, made of a music rehearsal in Prades, France by Pablo Casals, carried him through. Later on in life, Bryan would welcome in each child and adult with the warmest smile and a grilled cheese sandwich at his home and studio on the island of Little Cranberry.
The urge to create, to voice, to challenge, and then to invite, to go back to the past in order to learn and move into the future, to stand as one but then as many—to say, as Emerson would have said to his community, “Do you see the truth I see?” And to which Louisa May Alcott would have added, “I am not afraid of storms, for I am learning to sail my ship.” Maine’s community of artists would seem to agree: invite in new landscapes, new visions, and new artistic responses, allow them to be together and unite to chart a course forward together, and as individuals.
There is something steadfastly Maine about that.
Image at top: Ralph Waldo Emerson House.