Unlike New Hampshire and Vermont, Maine is rarely in the mountains. Ranges and hills pop up where they please, and none more spectacularly than 5,268-foot Mount Katahdin.
Viewed in its many facets, it is the sacred mountain of the Penobscot Nation, the American wilderness proclaimed by 19th century transcendentalist Henry David Thoreau and captured in paint by his great contemporary, the luminist artist Frederic E. Church. Maine-born modernist Marsden Hartley reveled in the spot during his own vivid twilight.
Katahdin is the grand landmark at the end of the Appalachian Trail, the crown of Baxter State Park. It is the subject of Down East filmmaker Huey’s brilliant “Wilderness and Spirit: A Mountain Called Katahdin” (2000) and the exhibition “A Mountain Rises: The Art of Katahdin,” curated by David Little and Stephen Halpert (the exhibit is at the University of New England through Oct. 27).
It is however, co-curator David Little’s book, “Art of Katahdin: The Mountain, The Range, The Region,” that will endure beyond the show. While a library shelf worth of books have homed in on Katahdin’s prominence and its surroundings (Consider Myron Avery’s “Artists and Katahdin,” Maine Woods magazine, 1940, L.C. Bates Museum’s “Looking at Katahdin; The Artist Inspiration” and works focused on individual artists at work there) this is the first overview volume on the subject.
Little’s book is a splendid example of work that is solidly researched and elegantly presented. Having been a writer/curator/reviewer in the area of Maine cultural history since 1972, this observer stands amazed. Aside from the omission of Church’s archetypal landscape “Twilight In Wilderness,” Little’s illustrations are both necessary and revealing.
The author’s Maine connections run deep as well, being a summer resident since childhood with his brother, Carl, a noted writer about Maine art and artists who is editor of this book. A painter, David Little attended the Skowhegan School of Painting and Sculpture, settled permanently in the state and in 2007 co-curated “Taking Different Trails: The Artists’ Journey to Katahdin Lake” at Bates College. Little first climbed Maine’s highest peak in 1978 and has come to know Katahdin both physically and archivally as few have.
Here is an author who enjoys his subject, understands it and, best of all, is able to share both with his readers. Orienteering and excellent writing are neatly blended. The author’s grandfather, Carl Otto Von Kienbusch, came to Katahdin in 1924 with Portland painter F.O. Libby , and was followed by the formers son, painter William Kienbusch, one of the state’s key modernists. Arial maps of mountain range and region, not just the usual profiling, aid the readers understanding.
The book is divided into three parts and 11 chapters and includes Native art as well as work by Church, George Hallowell, Jake Day, Cecil Palmer, Charles Hubbard , Carl Sprinchorn, James Fitzgerald and Marsden Hartley. The final section will amaze and no doubt stir controversy arising from by who or what is not represented. I was very pleased to see Charles E. Teft’s sculpture “The Last Drive” (1925), for both aesthetic and historical reasons. There follows an afterword, portrait gallery of key figures, bibliography, but sadly no index. The latter is one of the few laments.
“Art Of Katahdin” presents as a coffee table book, reads easily and well, and ends up as the ultimate source book on its proclaimed subject. Every library in Maine needs one.
William David Barry is a local historian who has authored/co-authored seven books, including “Maine: The Wilder Side of New England” and “Deering: A Social and Architectural History.” He lives in Portland.