Story and photos by Timothy Gillis
PROUTS NECK, September 29, 2012 –
Winslow Homer died 102 years ago today, at the age of seventy-four, in his studio on Prouts Neck with his two brothers present. The reputation of this great American artist was secured because of the later work he created while living in this studio, which looks out on Saco Bay south of Portland. Making observations and sketches of the rugged coast and then painting pieces in his studio, Homer created his masterworks mainly in Maine, from 1883 until his death. “Weatherbeaten” (1894) is one of his most popular works and lends its name to the current exhibition at the Portland Museum of Art. “Weatherbeaten: Winslow Homer and Maine,” a once-in-a-lifetime exhibit of thirty-eight Homer pieces, only allows sixty visitors at a time, and the Studio tour in Prouts Neck is an even tougher ticket to get. Only ten people, three times a day, are able to take the requisite van ride from the PMA to Homer’s house, every day except Sundays from now until December 2. The wait (and $55 ticket price) is worth the trip. And now fans will have to wait longer as the tour is sold out this season, though people can make reservations for the spring.
With these tours of the newly restored Studio and the property surrounding it, including a walk down to the coast to see Cannon Rock and other inspirants up close, visitors see Homer’s paintings come to life. It’s an amazing tour. Anyway one turns to look, familiar flashes of famous paintings come into view. Look left and see “Northeaster” (1895), look right and see the “Rocky Coast” (1882-1890). One can even imagine “Wild Geese in Flight” (1897) with field replacing rock, and “Fox Hunt” (1893) with snow covering the rocky coast. Such are the visual inspirations everywhere that make this tour so popular.
“Some things are larger than life. This is one of them,” said Bruce Brown, curator emeritus at the Maine Center for Contemporary Art in Rockport, now celebrating its 60th year. The weather and the tour combined for an almost surreal mix of representational art and the reality that inspired it.
“Yesterday (the day of the tour) was the perfect summer’s day,” Brown said. “But I suspect that it would be just as meaningful to visit even on a stormy and cold day as so many Homer paintings addressed the power of water rushing headlong into the steadfast cliffs.” Brown, now retired after twenty-one years at MCCA, was on one of the first public tours of the Studio, which started this past Tuesday. He joined nine others, their docent, and their driver in the PMA’s black Mercedes van, which takes visitors the twelve miles from the PMA where they meet to Homer’s property in sleepy Prouts Neck.
“The trip out in a small bus was just right as we passed through the Scarborough marshes and then more of an open bay to our destination. It set the stage for our visit out on the rocks by the studio,” Brown said.
Kristen Levesque, director of public relations at PMA, trailed the van recently with this reporter in tow, to get an inside glimpse at the newest Mecca in American art.
We slowed down when entering “Prouts,” as it is simply known by locals, cruising through this small, private enclave with no public parking and an omnipresent police patrol. Most visitors know that if they patronize the Black Point Inn, they can park there and perhaps enjoy a brisk cliff walk, but other than that, the area is secluded and fairly hard to frequent. “Basically, the only way to see the Studio is to go to the Museum and get a ticket,” Levesque said.
The area gets its name from the Prout family, who lived there. After them, the Libby family came and bought some land and tried to change its name to Libby’s Neck. “But the name didn’t stick,” Levesque said.
Homer came to Prouts Neck in 1883 when his father and brother purchased most of the land there. Instead of moving in with his brother, Homer had the former carriage house moved 100 feet closer to the sea and renovated to provide a piazza studio for his work.
The PMA started a fundraising campaign in 2004 for the “purchase, exhibitions related to the Studio, future education programs, and an endowment,” Levesque said.
Homer first exhibited at the PMA with “Signal of Distress” in 1893, eleven years after the Museum was founded. “Homer’s in our DNA” Levesque said.
Thomas Denenberg, Portland’s former chief curator who organized the exhibit before moving to the Shelburne Museum in Vermont, has a crowning jewel in one of his last projects for the PMA. The new director, Mark Bessire, is excited to be part of the historic restoration.
“The opening of the Winslow Homer Studio will be a pivotal moment in American art history. For the first time, visitors will be able to experience the Studio as it was during Homer’s time and discover the actual location where he created his best-known paintings,” said Bessire. Brown shares the director’s enthusiasm, and expects the Studio to become a shrine for years to come.
“First and foremost, it is a rare privilege to visit a truly sacred place in the history of American art,” Brown said. “The Portland Museum deserves great credit for accomplishing a Herculean task that has taken six years and millions of dollars to make such an experience possible. The renovation has been done with great care. It is to the Museum’s credit that the furnishings and objects belonging to Homer have been kept to a minimum and do not interfere with the architectural design achieved by John Calvin Stevens early in his career.”
Visitors enter through a locked, automated gate and park in front of the Studio. They take a quick look at the ocean vista before going inside, to Homer’s former kitchen and dining room, where he enjoyed wild game on an open-fire roaster. The artist was thought to be a hermit, but that’s one of the myths, probably self-perpetuated in his attempts to secure privacy for his painting. A sign saying “Snakes snakes mice” is testament to this drive for privacy. The next room, a downstairs studio added later, has ten chairs in two rows and a PowerPoint plays on a TV set up on an easel designed to look like an artist’s palette, one of several subtle modernities to bring Homer into the technological age. The upstairs has another TV set-up with chairs, and the piazza offers a dizzying view. A camera, newly installed on the roof of the Studio, plays the live feed back at the Museum so visitors there can see what Homer saw, minute by minute for hours.
Darlene Jarrell, a docent at the PMA for the last two years, led this particular tour, and engaged visitors with a detailed narrative that echoed the artist’s work, emphasizing his later years as the most important. Jarrell said she has led numerous tours for all kinds of artists, but this one is special.
“My heart is here. I think the Studio is a marvelous addition to PMA’s collection,” said Jarrell, an art history major at Barnard College (of Columbia University) with a master’s degree in the science of speech language pathology. She told the tour that Homer’s paintings told narratives and that those stories were often open-ended. A visitor asked a question about Homer’s influence on N. C. Wyeth. Such is the enthusiasm that everyone associated with the Studio has for Homer that a security guard offered an answer.
“Our guide did a terrific job in sharing so much information about Homer’s life and career in detail with grace and deep interest,” Brown said about Jarrell. “Her enthusiasm for sharing her considerable knowledge about Homer was both heartfelt and contagious. She offered an exemplary and comfortable tour.”
Brown’s own enthusiasm is not derived from the novelty of the experience. He has “been to the studio several times in the past in a much more informal setting when Doris Homer was alive,” he said. “They were wonderful times, too, but this is the Homer experience of the present and future. I can’t think of anything more that the tour might have accomplished. It was a life enhancing experience that will remain with me for many years to come.”
Those who don’t get a chance to see the Studio before it closes for the season on December 2 will get a chance in the spring, when it opens again. A couple of such hopefuls were enjoying the cliff walk and bumped into the second phase of the tour, the up-close look at Homer’s coast.
Audrey Johnson, who lives on the Spurwink Road, had tried to get tickets for her mother’s birthday, but the waiting line is long. Beverly Johnson, her mom from Durham, New Hampshire, said the cliff walk that day was a perfect substitute. “It doesn’t get any better than this,” she said.