Students sing at Haystack Mountain School of Crafts. Image courtesy of Haystack Mountain School of Crafts

For two centuries, artists from across America have made the journey to Maine in search of inspiration from nature and camaraderie among each other. They came in bunches, establishing art colonies famously in Ogunquit and Monhegan, and trekking inland to Mount Katahdin.

This spring, two museums in Maine will originate exhibitions that expand on the art legacies of two lesser-known but influential art communities that grew out of the possibilities and hope of post-World War II America: Haystack, the crafts school in Deer Isle, and Lincolnville, the midcoast community that is the seasonal home of Alex Katz and other artists.

BLURRING THE BOUNDARIES

On May 24, the Portland Museum of Art opens an exhibition about the early days of the Haystack Mountain School of Crafts, exploring the roots of the Deer Isle school and what co-curator Diana Greenwold calls “the pivotal imprint” of Haystack on mid-century American culture. “In the Vanguard: Haystack Mountain School of Crafts, 1950-1969” will be the first major museum exhibition that focuses on the school and its influence, and will make the case that Haystack and the artists associated with it have been central to blurring the boundaries between art and craft, as well as key players in the national discussion about the topic.

An early sign for Haystack Mountain School of Crafts, part of an exhibition at the Portland Museum of Art opening in May. Image courtesy of Haystack Mountain School of Crafts.

The exhibition will include works of art by leaders of the mid-century studio craft movement like glass artist Dale Chihuly, metalsmith Robert Ebendorf and textile artist Anni Albers, who came to Maine in Haystack’s early years and helped establish the attitude and culture that enabled Haystack to become an influential art school. Haystack is distinguished because of the experimental nature of the art that’s made there, the communal living environment of the artists and teachers, and its setting on the Maine coast.

The exhibition will include textiles, ceramics, glass, metalwork, paintings and prints, and will travel to Cranbook Art Museum in Michigan after closing in Portland on Sept. 8.

The exhibition tells the Haystack story with art that demonstrates the collaborative nature of the school, which began inland in Montville in 1950 and relocated to its current and remote home in the community known as Sunshine on Deer Isle in 1961. Also on view as part of “In the Vanguard” will be a trove of archival material, including correspondence, photographs and early brochures that chronicle the school’s growth and development. Most of that material has never been gathered together, and will be published in a catalog that will help tell the Haystack story, Greenwold said.

FROM NEW YORK TO MAINE

In Rockland, the Farnsworth Art Museum just opened one of its seasonal shows, “Slab City Rendezvous,” which also explores a post-World War II moment when artists from New York began coming to Maine to find their artistic voice. This exhibition tells the story of the restless artists who led the wave to the midcoast, and specifically to an area of Lincolnville called Slab City.

Many of those artists adopted Maine as their home, seasonally or year-round, and Maine became a key component of their muse and studio practice. Today, the core of those artists remains closely associated with Maine: the painters Alex Katz, Lois Dodd, Neil Welliver, Rackstraw Downes, and Yvonne Jacquette and her husband, the filmmaker Rudy Burckhardt. There were others, too, whose associations with Maine were less lasting. Painter Red Grooms came for a time, as did writer, poet and art critic Peter Schjeldahl.

As with the Haystack show in Portland, “Slab City Rendezvous” focuses on the two decades following World War II, when New York began to eclipse Paris “as home for the avant-garde,” said Farnsworth chief curator Michael K. Komanecky. This part of the story begins in 1954 when Katz and Dodd bought a house on Slab City Road.

Alex Katz, “Lincolnville,” 1953. Image courtesy of Farnsworth Art Museum

They were following a tradition of artists coming to Maine to find artistic freedom that began in the early 1800s and resulted in the art colonies of Ogunquit and Monhegan, among others. The Slab City artists also were drawn by the Skowhegan School of Painting and Sculpture, which opened in 1946 and began a lecture program in 1952 that brought nationally and internationally recognized artists to rural Maine. Their presence enhanced the school’s reputation, and Skowhegan became a magnet for Katz and others, including the late Robert Indiana.

‘A GATHERING OF FRIENDS’

What distinguished the Slab City artists was the casual and organic nature of their art colony. They were drawn together by camaraderie, Komanecky said. “This is another incident of New York artists coming to Maine, but of a much different type. This is a gathering of friends. It’s not a residency program, it’s not a school,” he said.

Maine attracted them because it was beautiful and affordable. They could paint, and they could buy homes, and that combination dramatically influenced their art. The Maine landscape began showing up in their work, and their close-knit living situation enabled them to talk over and experiment with ideas, strategies and methods.

Tangential to “Slab City Rendezvous” at the Farnsworth is an exhibition at the Center for Maine Contemporary Art in Rockland, opening June 29, featuring the work of painter Ann Craven, who is known for her moons, birds and flowers. Craven has painted in Maine since the early 1990s on Slab City Road in Lincolnville. For a time, she worked as Katz’s studio assistant.

Although she has painted in Maine for 25-plus years, this is her first Maine exhibition, said CMCA executive director Suzette McAvoy. “Like so many artists who come up, she has kept a low profile. Maine is where her work comes from, but Maine is not necessarily where it gets shown,” McAvoy said.


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