West Bath artist Evelyn Dunphy paints at the Frederic Church camps near Katahdin last fall. Dunphy, who donated artwork to raise money for preservation, will participate in the symposium this week in Waterville. Photo courtesy of Evelyn Dunphy

When conservationists needed a final push to purchase Katahdin Lake adjacent to Baxter State Park, they turned to artists. Among them was West Bath painter Evelyn Dunphy, who donated several Katahdin paintings to help the Trust for Public Land raise the money to complete the sale and preserve a piece of remote Maine wilderness.

Since the late 1800s, when painter Frederic Church preserved his view of Mount Katahdin in the minds of admirers and patrons near and far, artists have played a critical role in shaping America’s consciousness about what beautiful places look like and why they should be preserved. A symposium this week organized by the Appalachian Trail Conservancy at Colby College explores the link between art and conservation and the advocacy role of early American painters like Church and Thomas Cole, who made luscious paintings of Niagara Falls because he was horrified by their commercialization, and the photographers Carleton Watkins and Ansel Adams, famous for their photographs of Yosemite Valley. Watkins’ photographs led to the creation of Yosemite National Park in 1890.

Co-sponsored by the National Park Service and the Maine Arts Commission, “Art and Land Conservation Symposium: Exploring the Role of Artists in American Land Conservation” is scheduled for Thursday and Friday in Waterville, and coincides with the exhibition “Marsden Hartley’s Maine” at the Colby College Museum of Art. One of the panel topics is the role of Modernist painters like Hartley in the conservation movement and how their interpretation of nature advanced the discussion.

Evelyn Dunphy of West Bath has made dozens of paintings of Mount Katahdin. This one, “Silent Grandeur,” was painted at the same camps where Frederic Church painted. Photo courtesy of Evelyn Dunphy

Several contemporary artists will participate, including Dunphy, Portland painter and writer David Little, New Hampshire painter Erik Koeppel, and the photographers John Orcutt of Kingfield and Xiomaro, a New York artist-in-residence with the New England National Scenic Trail in southern New England.

Dunphy has painted at Katahdin for more than a decade and leads painting workshops in the same wilderness camps where Church painted in the 1800s. Her ability to raise money for land conservation is a way of giving back and ensuring the views that she enjoys will be preserved for future generations, she said.

“It’s a huge privilege to paint there,” she said. “But you have to show up and do the work, and you have to find a way to make sure it doesn’t change.”

‘WHAT IS THIS NATURAL BEAUTY?’

David Little paints at Katahdin Lake, with Mount Katahdin in the background, during the campaign to preserve the land. Photo by Jerry Monkman

Noting the success of the campaign to save Katahdin Lake, as well as efforts to establish Katahdin Woods and Waters National Monument, Dunphy called this “a positive time for land conservation in Maine, and exciting and inspiring.” She’ll talk about her experiences as a painter and conservationist during a panel discussion Thursday afternoon.

Portland attorney William Plouffe, president of the Maine Appalachian Trail Land Trust, proposed the topic of the symposium after a 30-year career as a land-use attorney. Several years ago, while testifying before a legislative panel about a proposed wind farm in Maine, a legislator asked, “So what is this natural beauty you are trying to protect? What is it?”

After a moment’s thought, Plouffe replied, “Beauty is the brush of the artist or the lens of a photographer that brings all of it together.”

The subjective nature of both the question and answer led Plouffe to embark on many years of research into the topic of art and conservation. This week’s conversation at Colby culminates that research. Scholars in art, history, American studies and law will talk about how artists have influenced policymakers to embrace a land-protection ethic based on aesthetic values.

In addition to the contemporary artists, participants include art scholar and author John Wilmerding, professor emeritus in art and archaeology at Princeton University, Ron Tipton, executive director of the Appalachian Trail Conservancy, and Elizabeth Finch, a Colby College Museum of Art curator who worked on the Hartley exhibition.

They will talk about the inherent value of the natural world, how those values have changed over time and the value of aesthetic in the modern conservation movement.

TRACING ROLE IN CONSERVATION

Plouffe traces the involvement of artists in land conservation to the Hudson River School of painters, whose patriarch was Cole. In the early 1800s, Cole made deeply romantic images of an unspoiled Niagara Falls, even though the landscape wasn’t so wild at the time. Cole’s paintings didn’t show the factories, hotels and other development at the falls, but instead presented images of wild and untamed waters and lands.

David Little’s “View from Katahdin Lake,” painted from the north end of Katahdin Lake. Oil on canvas. Photo courtesy of David Little

He wanted to keep it that way as much as possible, Plouffe said.

“He was not just painting pretty pictures. He was appalled at what was happening and embedded in those pictures numerous messages, from theology to philosophy and early conservation,” Plouffe said. “In the history of our country, painters were hugely important in gaining support among the general population and people of influence for protecting natural beauty in places like Acadia National Park and elsewhere.”

AFFECTING MONUMENT DESIGNATION

From Church and Cole and other early American painters, the mantle of conservation passed to the photographers Watkins in the mid-1800s and later to Adams. Watkins’ photos were circulated in Washington, D.C., and New York City, presenting unimaginable images of the American West and planting the seed of an idea for what would become the national park system many years later, Plouffe said. Adams published beautiful pictures of the Yosemite Valley as a direct effort to save them.

“His books were pure advocacy,” Plouffe said.

Little, a Portland writer and painter who has raised money for preservation efforts at Katahdin and Acadia, will talk about the aesthetic of nature throughout American art and culture. During the effort to designate Katahdin Woods and Waters a national monument, philanthropist and conservationist Lucas St. Clair asked Little to contribute to a book touting the region’s natural beauty and making a case for its federal preservation.

It was a small publication, intended mostly for members of the Obama administration as they weighed their decision. When then-President Barack Obama announced the designation, he quoted directly from the book.

Little welled with pride.

“Knowing that the book was instrumental in helping them make up their minds in establishing a national monument was very gratifying,” he said.

Bob Keyes can be contacted at 791-6457 or at:

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