A painter with a fondness for Mount Katahdin, David Little comes to his passion for Maine’s sacred mountain through his lineage.
His uncle was William Kienbusch, a painter himself — and one of some note. Kienbusch paintings are in the collections of the Museum of Modern Art, the Whitney and the Metropolitan Museum of Art, all in New York.
Kienbusch is closely associated with Great Cranberry Island off the coast of Maine, but the mountain in the northern part of the state also held his imagination. He visited Katahdin for the first time in 1948, very likely, Little suspects, as a tribute to another Maine painter Kienbusch admired, the great Marsden Hartley. A Maine native, Hartley danced with Katahdin.
From Hartley and Kienbusch to Little, Katahdin-inspired works are part of a wide-ranging exhibition that has just opened at the University of New England Art Gallery in Portland.
“A Mountain Rises: The Art of Katahdin” is on view through Oct. 27. It includes about 80 paintings, drawings and ephemera associated with the mountain, and serves as a complement to Little’s book, “The Art of Katahdin,” published earlier this year by Down East and edited by his brother, Carl Little.
The mix of work in the UNE exhibition is impressive. Contemporary painters are well represented and make up the bulk of the show, but the exhibition also includes paintings by a large number of 19th- and early-20th century painters such as James Fitzgerald, Carl Sprinchorn, Maurice Day and George Hallowell.
There are glass renderings, comical drawings, photographs, views of the mountain from many vantage points, and scenes from across the Katahdin region in all seasons.
UNE gallery director Anne Zill describes Katahdin as a “natural wonder” because of its shape, size and grandeur. It dominates the landscape in the Baxter region, and has held allure for sportsmen, naturalists, artists and explorers for hundreds of years.
Henry David Thoreau wrote about it, and Frederic Church spent years painting it. It has inspired artistic endeavors for generations, and remains something of a conquest.
“Our native people got it right when they referred to it centuries ago as a sacred mountain,” Zill said. “It’s the grandeur of it all. I think that word encapsulates it. The word ‘majesty’ also comes to mind. It has a richness of detail, and it changes so much over the seasons.
“Different views from different locations bring different perspectives. It represents an endless pursuit for artists.”
Zill climbed Katahdin for the first time in 1970 with her twin daughters, who were 5 years old at the time.
They spent all day scrambling up the Abol trail, which is one of the more difficult hikes up the mountain, and returned on the Cathedral trail. It was dark when they made camp, and that night, they were visited by a black bear.
“We had the full Katahdin experience,” Zill said, noting that she had lunch with her daughters last week while the show was being installed. They reminisced about their adventure more than 40 years ago, and Zill said it has remained a bonding moment between them ever since.
That is part of the legacy of the mountain, she said.
Little, who co-curated the show with UNE professor emeritus Stephen Halpert, climbed Katahdin for the first time in 1978, and has done so many times since.
Each spring, he volunteers to clear trails associated with the mountain. He has flown around it in an airplane, and studied it from many vantage points.
Despite his familiarity with it, he said it remains a challenge to paint “because of its size, how you decide to paint it and how you choose to frame your subject. It’s different every time.”
Little’s first climb came at the urging of his uncle Bill. He dropped Kienbusch off at Great Cranberry, and his uncle asked him in passing, “Have you ever been to Katahdin?”
Impulsively, Little drove up to Baxter, bought a trail map and hiked up. He did little planning.
“I just went up there and lucked out with the weather,” he said. “It was a beautiful day. I just went in and did it, and I did it quite rapidly. All I remember is that it was extremely exciting and tiring.”
Kienbusch’s first experience with Katahdin was different. He tried to climb it in June 1948, but was turned back by the weather. He successfully hiked to the top that fall.
In a letter, Kienbusch described Katahdin as “a great black wave at its peak about to break over the landscape.” He also used the descriptive phrase “black triangle” to convey an image of the mountain.
That description shows up in his painting of the mountain from 1949, which is part of the UNE exhibition. It is a sharp, strong-edged series of triangles and geometric shapes, rising as one from the landscape and dominating the scene.
Curiously, Katahdin has not been the subject of many deep art exhibitions.
The L.C. Bates Museum at Good Will-Hinckley put a show together in 1999, and the Bates College Museum of Art in Lewiston hosted one a few years ago. Marsha Donahue, a painter from Millinocket, runs a gallery in town dedicated entirely to art from the Katahdin region.
But despite the volume of work completed over the past 150 years, Katahdin remains an elusive subject for museums. Little hopes the UNE exhibition inspires a larger museum in Maine to tackle the subject.
Because of its size, UNE lacked the ability to borrow certain paintings that Little would have loved to include.
Having said that, it is important to note that Zill secured loans from museums across Maine, as well as many private collectors and galleries.
Little includes two small Marsden Hartley drawings in the UNE show, but was unable to secure loans of paintings by Frederic Church, perhaps the most notable and famous painter to embrace the challenge of hiking and painting Katahdin.
Although he is best-known for his luminous paintings of the Hudson River and upstate New York, Church spent 40 years visiting Katahdin in the late 1800s, and owned a camp near the mountain.
Lacking a Church, Little was able to land a small oil sketch of Katahdin by Sanford Gifford, an associate of Church and fellow member of the Hudson River School of painters.
Indeed, Gifford made this sketch in the fall of 1877 during an excursion to the mountain with Church and fellow painters Lockwood de Forest and Horace Robbins.
It’s an elegant, clean look of the mountain, as seen from nearby Katahdin Lake. Its rock summit blanketed by a blue sky, the mountain rises from a forest of green, the lake below reflecting foliage that has yet to turn.
The Gifford sketch is perfectly representational. But Little chose work that reflects the diversity of approaches that artists have taken over the years.
There are abstract paintings, much like the Kienbusch view of the mountain and that of the late Vincent Hartgen, whose watercolors were inspired by features of the mountain but don’t necessarily reflect it.
Along with the historical paintings, “A Mountain Rises” features a large selection of contemporary work.
Little began by selecting artists who have been working the longest in the Katahdin region, and branched out from there.
Among those represented are Chris Huntington, who offers a long view of Katahdin in the winter, filling his scene with mostly blue and white; Michael Vermette, who shows camp caretaker Al Cooper fording Sandy Stream on horseback; Marsha Donahue, who painted Katahdin from the edge of Millinocket, with the city’s homes in full view; and Sam Cady, whose large, shaped canvas features in intricate detail the trees and rocks of the south basin from Chimney Pond to Knife Edge.
Cady’s piece is the first that visitors see when they enter the gallery, and it sets the tone for the unusual nature of this exhibition.
There are pieces by Abbott Meader, Evelyn Dunphy and a fabulously imaginative view of Katahdin at night by Milton Christianson showing the mountain blanketed by oversized planets looming just overhead. With its vast perspective and fanciful colors, Christianson’s “Katahdin and the Universe” presents a viewpoint that most artists in this exhibition most certainly share: Maine’s Mount Katahdin is a place unlike any other, alone in this universe in its magnetic appeal, and as close to heaven on Earth as we’re ever going to get.
Staff Writer Bob Keyes can be contacted at 791-6457 or: