It's no surprise that Rockwell Kent, being one of the United States' most famous 20th-century artists and an Adirondack resident to boot, is the subject of public presentations from time to time in these parts. But two such expositions in a five-day stretch next week is an unusual opportunity for North Country folks to learn more about this modern and transcendental artist, world traveler, writer and political activist.
Either of the two talks will require some driving for Tri-Lakes residents. The first is Monday, Oct. 15, at St. Lawrence University in Canton; the second is Saturday, Oct. 20, at the Adirondack Interpretive Center in Newcomb. If you miss them, though, the SLU event is actually the launch of an exhibit of more than 70 works by Kent, in a variety of media, that will be on display through Dec. 14. Titled "Rockwell Kent: The Once Most Popular Artist," it's up in SLU's Richard F. Brush Art Gallery and Owen D. Young Library.
Look for each event to be hosted with a great deal of expertise. The SLU presentation will be led by Scott R. Ferris of Boonville, a Kent specialist for almost four decades. Look up Kent on Wikipedia, and nine of the 41 "further reading" books are by him.
Rockwell Kent in 1920, not long before he bought his farm near AuSable Forks
(Public domain photo)
The Newcomb session will be led by Caroline Welsh of Tupper Lake, director emeritus of the Adirondack Museum and a widely regarded connoisseur of Adirondack art.
Ferris and Welsh collaborated on the 1999 book, "The View from Asgaard: Rockwell Kent's Adirondack Legacy."
Asgaard Farm, near AuSable Forks, was Kent's home base from the 1920s, when he was in his 40s, until his death in 1971 at the age of 88. There he did much of the work for which he is best known, including book illustrations in woodcut and pen-and-ink, and painting that gradually shook out landscape contours and focused on sharper, more defined lines.
If you go ...
Who: Rockwell Kent specialist Scott R. Ferris
What: Lecture: "Rockwell Kent: The Once Most Popular American Artist"
When: 7 p.m. Monday, Oct. 15
Where: Griffiths 123, St. Lawrence University, Canton
How much: Free
Who: Adirondack Museum Director Emeritus Caroline Welsh and others
What: Day-long program on Rockwell Kent: "They Broke the Mold After Making Him"
When: 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Saturday, Oct. 20
Where: Adirondack Interpretive Center, Newcomb
How much: Free pre-registration requested
Contact: 518-582-2000, email@example.com
Part of his fame spread from his considerable artistic skill and his vision, but in the U.S., it usually takes more than that for an artist to gain the level of fame Kent did.
"Kent's prominence as an artist and author, cavalier adventurer and socio-political activist made him a pressroom darling," reads a press release issued by SLU for Ferris' talk. "Who during the day was not familiar with his paintings of the Adirondacks, Maine, Alaska and Greenland, or his illustrations for 'Moby-Dick,' 'The Complete Works of Shakespeare' and 'Beowulf'? And who was not aware of his barnstorming for civil rights and unions, or his equally vigorous protests against fascism, Senator Joseph McCarthy and the Vietnam War?"
"That day will mark a precedent, which brings no news of Rockwell Kent," The New Yorker once quipped.
Ferris first heard about Kent as a student at SUNY Plattsburgh in the mid 1970s, when the university's Rockwell Kent Gallery was quite new. After helping catalog the gallery's works, Ferris worked for Kent's third wife and widow, Sally, helped work on a Kent anthology and later took the lead on many books about the artist, essentially dedicating his life to Kent's work.
Welsh will speak in Newcomb about Kent's legacy. Titled "They Broke the Mold After Making Him," the program will run most of the day, from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Paul Hai, program director for ESF's Northern Forest Institute which manages the center, and Marianne Patinelli-Dubay, environmental philosopher with NFI, will provide readings and insights on Kent's physical and personal adventures. To complement these, two regional artists, Diane Leifheit of Gabriels and William Elkins of Syracuse, will paint, draw and chat with guests along the center's trails.
Leifheit described Kent as an artistic "forerunner.
"My impression, and this is from an artist's perspective who lives here, is that he really saw the Adirondacks in its glory in the fall, in the cold, and he was able to show that in his work," she said. "His work is very graphic, probably because of his woodcut work."
Ferris said that while Kent was a pioneer in some of his work, he was not really a "trendsetter" with the Adirondack landscapes he loved to paint, such as the "bucolic scenes of farmland" around his home. Nevertheless, his style evolved into something far from "what many would consider stereotypical Adirondack art like (Arthur Fitzwilliam) Tait and (Winslow) Homer.
"He went from a very heavy, very painterly style from his early days, from the first decade (of the 20th century) into the early '20s," Ferris said. "That's around the time he is moving into the Adirondacks, into the town of Jay." There Kent "matured into the style he is most famous for, which is stark composition, reduced composition. That started with his Greenland paintings ... and the Adirondack paintings almost look like the Greenland paintings.
"If he had moved to the Adirondacks in the first decade, I think you'd see a world of difference."
Ferris said Kent painted most of his serene Adirondack works in the '40s, '50s and '60s. As it happened, this is a time when he was busiest professionally - most in demand as a book illustrator - when his political activism had heated up and also when he was in his 60s, 70s and 80s.
"When he can get away, he goes back to what he enjoys most, which is painting," Ferris said.
Perhaps the Adirondack landscape was "comfort food" for Kent, Ferris said, but he didn't do it just for himself.
"He creates this work he's able to share with the general public through sales, through gifts," Ferris said.
Many of these gifts were to the Soviet Union - such a left-winger was Kent. In 1960 he donated several hundred of his works to the communist nation, for which he was later inducted into the Soviet Academy of Fine Arts and given the Lenin Peace Prize in 1967.
This huge gift package included many of his best Adirondack paintings, Ferris said. He can say that with authority; he traveled to Russia and eastern Europe to study and catalog these works for a 1998 book, "Rockwell Kent's Forgotten Landscapes."