August 4, 2013

Maine's magnetic mountain

A new exhibition in Portland illustrates the long-standing power of Katahdin to attract diverse artists.

By Bob Keyes
Staff Writer

(Continued from page 1)

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William Kienbusch, one of the artists in the exhibition at the University of New England Art Gallery in Portland, used a series of triangles and geometric shapes to capture the mountain in his “Mount Katahdin” from 1949.

Courtesy photos

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A Michael Vermette painting shows camp caretaker Al Cooper fording Sandy Stream on horseback.

Additional Photos Below


WHEN: Through Oct. 27

HOURS: 1 to 4 p.m. Wednesday, Friday, Saturday and Sunday; 1 to 7 p.m. Thursday

WHERE: University of New England Art Gallery, 716 Stevens Ave., Portland


INFO: 221-4499;

WHAT ELSE: Painter and co-curator David Little will discuss the exhibition from 5 to 6:30 p.m. Aug. 28 with John Neff and Howard Whitcomb, authors of "Baxter State Park" and "Katahdin, Images of America."

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:

Twitter: pphkeyes


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Additional Photos

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“Flying Shadows” by David Little.

Courtesy of North Light Gallery

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“Snow Falling on Katahdin” by Evelyn Dunphy.

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A small oil sketch of Katahdin by Sanford Gifford was made in the fall of 1877 during an excursion to the mountain with Frederic Church and other painters.

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