March 17, 2010

The life and art of John Marin

By BOB KEYES, Staff Writer

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This is the third film that Maglaras and Templeton have made about an American modernist with Maine roots. The first two explored the life and work of Marsden Hartley, a contemporary of Marin's.

"It seemed like a logical extension to move from Hartley to Marin," Maglaras said. "The two together are wonderful examples of Maine painters. Hartley was born here, and Marin adopted Maine.

"They also had a profound respect for each other and knew each other well. They had an influence on each other. Together, they were two of the most important fathers of American modernism, and both were devoted to the landscape of Maine."

But the film might not have happened had it not been for Norma Marin, who married the painter's son, John Jr., and controls the Marin estate. A Maine resident, Norma Marin spends much of the year in Cape Split, and she also had a condo in Portland's West End and an apartment in New York.

A few years ago, she was in New York and happened to see Maglaras' first film about Hartley, "Cleophas and His Own," released in 2005. She said the movie moved her to tears "because it made Marsden Hartley become a person." She felt compelled to stay after everybody else had left the theater to introduce herself to Maglaras.

They became friendly, and she invited him to a party in New York late last year. "I guess I had a couple of glasses of wine, maybe more, and I said to him, 'How I wish someone would find the time to do a film about John Marin,' " Norma Marin said.

She got her wish. Maglaras had already begun the process. But having her blessing allowed Maglaras and his crew access to the Marin home, which is something previous documentarians have not enjoyed.


Cape Split is one of those places not easily forgotten.

It is surrounded by water, with Pleasant Bay on one side, Wohoa Bay on the other and Cape Split Harbor providing a protected cove at the end of the road in between.

To get there, one passes through the flatlands and rolling hills of blueberry country before dipping down into the windswept wonder of a coastal peninsula bracketed by hills, low-lying brush, trees and marshland.

One can imagine Marin's reaction when he finally reached the place – with delight and relief very likely topping the list. Typically, he drove up from his New Jersey home – at least he did after 1922, when he bought his first car. He would take his time getting to Maine, bringing his family through upstate New York, and crossing through Vermont and New Hampshire before finally arriving. He would paint along the way.

So the journey to Maine would last weeks. But getting to Maine was only half the challenge. Once in the state, Marin would have to pick his way up the coast to Addison in Washington County, and then down the peninsula to tiny Cape Split.

Today, the drive takes four hours from Portland. As Maglaras says in the movie, "in 1933, (it) must've taken longer than forever."

The reward of the long drive is the view at the end, where land meets sea. There is one view, which will be featured in the movie, that likely cemented Marin's affection for the place.

Near the end of the Split Road, the roadway narrows and crosses over a tiny, curving causeway. Off to the right, in the bay, one can see a series of islands, including Sheep Island, that served as a natural model for many of Marin's paintings after 1933. On the left is Cape Split Harbor, which drains at low tide.

Beyond the other end of the causeway is a tiny cluster of homes, nestled among trees and largely out of view. They run right up against the rocks.

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