Just Passing Through Monhegan Island
Far, far away, relatively untouched by commerce and the trampling of man, lies a remote island that is a haven for artists and fishermen alike. And if this sounds like the beginning of a modern-day fairy tale, then Monhegan Island will certainly feel like the shimmering isle of that tale.
Situated 12 miles off the coast of Maine — a state located in the northeastern-most corner of the USA and known for its rocky landscapes, maritime tales, stunning wildlife and, not to forget, some naughty stories of the Kennedy clan — this tiny island is little known. Its beauty was first extolled to me by a friend who made me swear I wouldn’t write about it for fear of tourists “mucking it up”. It was also mentioned in loving, hushed tones by another friend, who’d spent three months there one summer while recovering from a divorce: “A balm to the soul,” was how he had described it to me.
None of this, I discovered on my subsequent visit, was hyperbole. Following a six-hour drive from NYC, we hopped onto a ferry (there are only two ferries daily, so book well in advance). As we cut through the clear, cold water of the bay, we saw seals basking in the sun on rocky outcroppings, geese in flight, and multicoloured lobster traps bobbing in the water. Greeted by impressive 160-foot cliffs as the ferry pulled into the main harbour of the island, it was immediately evident how special this place is.
A few steps up a gravel path from the dock sits the majestic Island Inn, the largest hotel on the island, built in the classic, Northeast, summer-resort style. It is the best place to stay — beautifully situated on a gentle rolling bluff, overlooking the harbour and the neighbouring Manana Island. Its massive porch, with old-fashioned rocking chairs, looks out over the Atlantic — and the dramatic ocean light that streams in is the precise reason that this place is home to so many artists and has been for the past so many generations. Despite a permanent population of under 100 residents (year-round), it boasts multiple galleries, painting schools, artist-in-residence programmes and the actual homes of major American artists like Rockwell Kent, Edward Hopper, Alice A. Swett, Robert Henri and of course, the brilliant Andrew Wyeth. (One of the 20th century’s best-known American artists, his youngest son, Jamie Wyeth still has a home on the southern shore.)
To understand what has inspired so many artists to reside and paint on this island — just around two miles long and a mile wide — one has to start with nature. Monhegan is all dramatic rocks and lush cliffs, soaring birds and fields of flowers (with the Lupine Gallery even named after the purple lupine flower that blankets the landscape in early June), stacks of lobster traps in fading colours, weathered shingled homes and endless horizon lines. It also boasts a 350-acre natural reserve, which takes up about two-thirds of its total area, 12 miles of well-marked nature trails, as well as some of the most rewarding views. There are no cars here. The sky, the sea, the green, the grey of the windswept and sea-battered cliffs, is all that the eye can see. If every scene looks like a painting, it is because it has been painted.
Hopper and Wyeth created hundreds of landscapes here, and the endless vistas and magical light equally seduce every artist who visits or stays. The aforementioned Lupine Gallery exhibits many modern artists who paint on the island or paint the island and its surroundings, and scattered on every meadow, every hill, every beach cove are amateurs and pros, all with their easels — some visiting for the day, others renting one of the few dozen homes on the island and staying any number of weeks — drawing, sketching and admiring this vast bounty that nature has gifted them.
There are some beautiful buildings through-out the area…the iconic lighthouse, the jewel-like schoolhouse, the Monhegan Museum of Art & History, which, considering the size of this place, packs quite a punch. These are not spared the artist’s eye, as the 30 or so permanent summer resident artists can attest to. Everything is subject matter, and the lobster fishermen are a favourite. Generations of fishing families have lived on the island, and while the numbers are dwindling, in a surprising twist, the younger women in the families are taking over some of the fishing.
If you don’t know much about lobster fishing (and I didn’t either until I actually visited), here are a few interesting facts…. That firstly, one needs to be a licensed fisherman — the term “fisherman” applies to both men and women. That secondly, these fishermen are usually taught by their parents or grandparents. That thirdly, these fishermen know the sea, its rhythms, its moods, and its dangers like the backs of their hands. Also, that every family has its own traps and spots in the water. That these areas are marked by individually coloured buoys (most keep it simple with two colours). And that the ocean is awash with these pretty buoys bobbing around during the lobster season (with the peak season being from June to December, though the diehards fish all year round).
Pretty as it is in the summer, this is a harsh place to be in during the winters, and only the hardiest of its residents remain as the days grow shorter. However, like the many artists who have painted winter scapes — with crashing waves, steely skies, and foreboding clouds — I, too, find there to be a raw beauty that is rarely encountered elsewhere, and like the fairy tales of which I am fond, love that both, the elements of light and dark, co-exist on this island.
As we head back to the mainland after two days, we are handed a small bouquet of wildflowers, which are meant to be cast into the water from our boat…symbolising the hope of return. I fling all but one into the water, wanting to hold on to a small part of this magical place.