March 18, 2010

Scaling Katahdin

BOB KEYES

— By

Staff Writer

At the opening for a painting exhibition about Mount Katahdin two weeks ago, a very wise man talked about nature's humbling ways.

Man does not stack up against nature, said Carl Straub, professor emeritus of philosophy and religion at Bates College in Lewiston.

In nature, the human scale fades away and becomes something different altogether. Being in nature gives us the chance to measure ourselves against ''the other,'' he said.

Since the mid-1800s, men and women of the arts have measured themselves against Maine's greatest mountain, Katahdin, trekking through the rugged backcountry in all seasons to paint remote views of the inspiring Knife Edge, Pamola and Baxter peaks.

Simultaneous exhibitions in Portland and Lewiston highlight a group of contemporary Maine artists who go with near-religious zeal to the mountain to paint.

''Taking Different Trails: The Artists' Journey to Katahdin Lake'' is on view through May 24 at the Bates College Museum of Art in Lewiston. ''Katahdin: The Lake and Her Artists'' is up through March 15 at Jameson Art Group in Portland.

Both exhibitions feature the same core group of 18 artists who flock to the mountain, the lake and the surrounding landscape. Their ranks include present-day Maine painters who take their cue from the early Modernists, who made Katahdin their muse -- painters such as Lewiston's Marsden Hartley.

All the artists whose works are part of the shows were involved in the Katahdin Lake Campaign, which helped raise $14 million to preserve almost 7,000 acres around the lake as public land.

For them, going to the lake and beholding the mountain is as much about making a painting as it is about finding inner peace.

''Being in nature will purify you,'' said Marsha Donahue, a painter and gallery owner from Millinocket.

''Emerson says in his writings that the wilderness is a kind of place where you can go out, and no matter what is troubling you or upsetting you or keeping you off-center, if you open yourself up to the wilderness or nature when you are out there, those feelings will dissipate. And what is reflected back is purifying.''

Artists with a sense of adventure seem to have known that about Katahdin since at least 1850, when Frederic Church, following just a few years after Thoreau, arrived at the mountain and made a painting to show the curious world what it looked like.

Then as now, painters who go to the mountain and the lake that bears its name face the challenge of a lengthy hike, hauling supplies on their backs, through thick woods and over steams until they arrive at the sandy shores of the aptly named Church's Beach.

Katahdin stretches across the horizon before them, rising as a sort of temple -- or at the very least as a reward for their efforts.

On a calm day, the lake reflects the mountain. On another kind of day, it may be shrouded in clouds, a rock amid the tempest.

Both exhibitions portray the many moods of Katahdin. On a single turn through either gallery, the viewer will see the mountain painted in purple, blue, black, orange, gray, white, brown or green.

With so many works about a single subject clustered together, it's interesting to see how different artists approach the same subject, and how each artist's expression can be both personal and universal at the same time.

Michael Vermette goes in all seasons. He has no preference, although his paintings seem to reflect a fondness for fall. Working in oils and watercolors, he fills his frames with brilliant autumn hues.

A signature painting in the Jameson show is Vermette's ''First Daylight Full Moon Katahdin Lake.'' In it, a white moon hangs in the morning sky. The mountain is on fire with sunlight, burning brilliant red. The lake below is completely still, offering a perfect reflection of the scene.

To appreciate the mountain, Vermette said, you have to be willing to face the elements, no matter what they are. That means painting in early-morning frost, in the middle of winter, in windstorms and rain, and during the pleasant days of fall.

''You have to be willing to pay the price,'' he said.

Donahue, who lives nearby in Millinocket, said her excursions to the lake are sometimes dangerous. Painting with two friends last fall, they were alarmed when a 1,000-pound bull moose came crashing through the woods.

''All of a sudden, you are in negotiation with the wild. Am I supposed to be here? What am I supposed to do? You realize you have no answers, no playbook,'' she said.

They stood their ground, the moose stood his. For 45 minutes, they painted while he munched.

And then he moved on.

''It reassures you that you're supposed to be here -- you're not really an intruder, and that it's OK to be there as long as you're respectful of where you are,'' she said.

Wes LaFountain, gallery director at Jameson, enjoys looking at the mountain from a distance, although his appreciation stems from his ability to climb it. He's been up Katahdin 40 times or more, beginning when he was 10. He climbed the mountain most recently last summer, at age 57.

And he plans to go again this summer.

''As many times as I go, it's always new,'' he said. ''It's a spiritually enriching place. It fills me up in ways that other places don't.''

In 2004, following the death of his mother, LaFountain and his family hiked to Basin Pond, about a mile from Katahdin's summit for a private memorial service. His mother, who was American Indian, always expressed a desire to be memorialized in the shadow of the mountain.

''It has that kind of richness about it. That's why the artists keep going back,'' he said.

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

bkeyes@pressherald.com

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