“If you ask me, Jeeves, art is responsible for most of the trouble in the world.” (Bertie Wooster)
Creation, by Carol L. Douglas. Today’s illustrations are three paintings from when I was younger and more cynical.
In the wake of last week’s horrifying shooting in Parkland, Florida, Rochester educators have had a jittery week. “I’m coming tomorrow morning and I’m going to shoot all of ya bitches,” 21-year-old Abigail Hernandez, an adult student with disabilities, allegedly posted on East High’s Facebook page. A 23-year-old rapper, Randy Ross, was arrestedfor making a video called School Shooter, which he filmed on Greece Central School property. Officers deemed the video a terroristic threat. I’ll get back to that.
On Monday, employees at the Mary Cariola Children’s Center received a package via FedEx. It included cryptic, “ranting and raving” text and a device that looked like a bomb. Mary Cariola Center is a much-loved cultural institution in Rochester, because it serves children with multiple, complex disabilities. There were about a hundred clients there that day. They were evacuated and the bomb squad secured and disarmed the package.
The package contained a wooden box with homemade electrical components, including a power source, switches, a circuit board and lights. It was not a bomb. It was a work of art.
Man, by Carol L. Douglas
According to Rochester Police, the package was misdelivered. Its intended recipient was an arts organization in Rochester. They expected it and wouldn’t have been discomfited in the least by its message. Those ravings? They were the title: Baby Go Boom.
No one is going to be arrested for this snafu. No word yet, either, about whether the package was insured. But I have a grudging respect for the artist, even if I don’t like the theme. The piece was convincing enough that, outside the gallery context, rational people mistook it for a real bomb.
Artists have made work from the point of view of the anti-hero since Shakespeare wrote Richard III (and probably earlier). Such literature is often uncomfortable, but until recently, nobody questioned whether it was art. The line was blurred by Eminem. He talked about drug use, sex, mental illness, poverty and divorce, in language his audience understood. Still, he seemed to romanticize violence, particularly against women.
Confusion, by Carol L. Douglas
Even if Randy Ross is a rotten artist, his School Shooter is probably art, not threat. I’m not interested in creating art that celebrates nihilism; in fact, I abhor it. Still, I respect the right to create it.
We’re so focused on the Second Amendment these days that we’ve lost sight of the Fourth Amendment and the idea of probable cause. For example, your son makes a stupid joke about a square root sign looking like a gun, and your house is tossed by law enforcement. The more we are driven by fear, the more likely we are to ignore the niceties of our Constitution. Unfortunately, they’re the bedrock on which our legal system stands.
Set against this is the powerful need to root out violence. I’m no closer to an answer than anyone else, but I keep coming back to the idea that a society without values and aspirations is ungovernable. Our culture speaks to the lowest common denominator. Is it any wonder that it is also corrupt?
Knowing how to make things was part of our human birthright. Who stole it?
Little Giant, by Carol L. Douglas. Courtesy Camden Falls Gallery.
I have a to-do list a mile long. One item on it is a muslin mockup of a dress for my granddaughter Grace, who will be the flower girl in her aunt’s wedding in May. I’ll see Grace in Buffalo as I finish my Alabama trip, and I need this mockup to check her measurements. Grace is two years old and growing like a weed. I’ll make the bodice and skirt separately and stitch them together at the last minute, between my workshop in Rye and the wedding.
On Sunday I complained that I’d have to give up my Sunday nap to finish it. “Is there anything you can’t do?” a friend laughed. In truth, I’m only good at things that require spatial skills. That includes math, art and sewing. I can’t cook, although I don’t mind cleaning up afterward.
I learned to sew in 4H. That’s a venerable old organization dedicated to developing citizenship, leadership, and responsibility by teaching life skills. It’s also where I learned basic carpentry, animal husbandry, and how to make a pie crust. The first speech I ever gave was at the County Fair. It was on leavening agents and was called Lovely or Lumpy.
Catskill Farm, pastel, by Carol L. Douglas
Other things I learned at home: how to paint (from my father), how to garden, how to can vegetables, and how to put up hay. My parents were not farmers: my father was a psychologist and my mother a nurse. They were practitioners of the back-to-the-land movement, but everyone of their generation knew how to make and mend things. Today, if we do those things at all, we do them as hobbies or artisanal work.
When my twins were infants, I made them sleepers. It cost me more than they cost ready-made at Kmart. After that, I only sewed for special occasions.
That’s true across most of our economy. It’s cheaper to buy a new toaster than fix the one you have. It’s cheaper to buy baked beans than make them yourself. It’s certainly cheaper to buy a chair than build one. The consequence of this is that our kids have grown up in a world of consumption rather than creation. They have no idea that for humans, creativity is a natural part of life.
Still life, by Carol L. Douglas
Last week, someone sent me this irritating little piece in Smithsonian, which suggests we “leave the cairn-building to the experts.” Ours is certainly a scolding culture, and the goal of all that hectoring is to keep us as passive recipients of others’ experiences.
Why the passion for stacking up rocks on the beach anyway? The human animal is designed for creativity. Our throwaway culture has stolen that from us.
In Maine, there’s still much more of a make-or-mend culture than in other parts of the country. People really do patch up their cars and boots for another go-round. It’s also a more entrepreneurial society than our cosmopolitan centers. I don’t mean that in the Bill Gates sense. Kids who grow up with skilled laborers as parents understand that they don’t need a college degree to be useful, productive, self-supporting members of the community. Kids who grow up with self-employed parents understand there are more ways than a 9-to-5 job to earn a living.
It would be nice if we could add that to our measure of performance when we tote up how well a community does at preparing its kids for the future.
Five classic techniques for organizing your picture plane.
Kaikroddare by Anders Zorn (watercolor) uses the principles of opposition and transition.
Arthur Wesley Dow was a painter, printmaker, photographer and well-known art teacher in the beginning of the 20th century. He felt that composition was largely a question of proportion. He identified five elements of spatial harmony:
Examples of Opposition. The intersections of lines are raw and unadorned.
Opposition is a principle we see both in nature and human objects. It’s when two lines meet or cross to form a simple and severe pattern. These crossings are always abrupt, and can even be violent.
The beauty of a door lies in its unmediated opposition and symmetry.
Transition tries to mediate opposition. A line or object is added at the join, softening the moment of impact. This is a strong and ancient goal for human designers. The columns at Karnak, which were started more than 4000 years ago, are softened with decorative capitals at the ceiling. We’ve been doing it ever since, with brackets, corbels, and other architectural elements to soften stark architectural lines.
Examples of Transition. A bracket is probably the most common example we see in everyday life.
Transitions also occur in nature. A beautiful example is the overlapping, trailing silhouettes of the Blue Ridge Mountains, which are far less stark than mountains looming black against the sky.
Kaikroddare by Anders Zorn, top, uses the principles of opposition and transition. The cross of the oars and arms is unopposed in the closer figure, who seems vigorous to us. The burden in the far boat softens the sharp lines of the oars, making that figure seem less vital.
Different forms of subordination.
Subordination: To form a complete group, elements of the painting are attached or related to a single dominating focal point. This is the fastest way to create unity out of complexity and confusion.
Subordination can happens in three ways:
By grouping around an axis, (leaf to stem or branches to trunk).
By radiating from a central point, such as petals in flowers, or water splashing over a rock.
By size, as with a mountain within in a mountain range, or a cathedral around its steeple.
Our Maine houses and barnyards are excellent examples of repetition.
Repetition: In a sense, this is the opposite of subordination, since the objects are generally the same size. It is made by repeating lines in rhythmical order. The intervals may be equal as in a fish weir, or unequal, as in a grove of trees. Our long run-on houses in Maine are visually pleasing because of their repetition.
A Bust of Amenhotep IV/Akhenaten in the Luxor Museum, Egypt.
Symmetry: This is a technique that we often avoid in contemporary western art, being more interested in balanced asymmetry (which is in itself a variation on the theme). However, the most obvious way to create balance is symmetry, where equal lines and shapes occur on either side of a central axis. I’ve included a portrait bust of Akhenaten as a demonstration of its effectiveness. Used carefully, it has the same severity and clarity as opposition.
None of these, of course, produce great art on their own. The skill lies in carefully using them to create harmonious outcomes. That requires practice.
The above illustration contains examples of each of the principles of design as identified by Dow. Your homework today is to identify which principle is at work and then draw your own version. Depending on your confidence, you can either copy his drawings or draw something of your own.
It takes a lot of trial and error to make something that’s visually harmonious, even for experienced artists. But the experiments are fun and easy. As always, I’d love to see you post your work on our Facebook page.
Interested in real-life learning? I’m teaching four plein air workshops in the coming year. Message me here for more information, or visit my website.
Today’s lesson and illustrations are from Composition, by Arthur Wesley Dow (Doubleday, Page and Company, 1920). Mr. Dow taught at the Art Students League, Pratt Institute, and Columbia University.
He committed to painting two paintings a week, despite working at a full-time job on the side.
Sun Above Nant Peris, Sir Kyffin Williams, RA (courtesy Rowles Fine Art)
Sir John “Kyffin” Williams was a landscape painter who lived at Pwllfanogl, Llanfairpwll, on the island of Anglesey. He is widely regarded as the greatest Welsh artist of the 20th century. (If you’re like me, this is the moment where you first come to grips with the idea that there is a Welsh school of painting at all.)
His painting looks a great deal like the lunchtime noodling of my young friend Zac Retz. Zac is a video developer at Sony Pictures Animation. He has a brother, Tad, who’s equally talented as a painter. However, Tad’s work in the ‘real’ medium of paint doesn’t look quite as much like Sir Kyffin’s paintings as Zac’s electronic paintings do.
Fedw Fawr, Sir Kyffin Williams, RA (courtesy Thompson’s Galleries)
That has something to do with their toolkits. Zac’s electronic brush works more like a palette knife than a real-world brush. Sir Kyffin relied heavily on black, which is frowned upon in contemporary painting but not in electronic art. Sir Kyffin’s work looks very contemporary to modern eyes.
It’s not just the technical side of Sir Kyffin’s paintings that compels, but his attitude toward the craft of painting.
Sir Kyffin was born on Anglesey in May of 1918. He joined the 6th Battalion Royal Welsh in 1937, intending to make a career in the military. He failed his medical examination of 1941 due to epilepsy and was forced to retire.
Morfa Conwy, Sir Kyffin Williams, RA (courtesy Christies)
His doctors advised that he take up art for his health, intending it as a hobby. Instead, Kyffin scraped his way into London’s Slade School of Fine Art, despite an indifferent academic record. He went on to be senior art master at Highgate School from 1944 until 1973, at which point he was famous as a painter. Sir Kyffin died on Anglesey at age 88, leaving his entire fortune of £6m in paintings and other assets to Welsh arts organizations.
Knighted in 1999, Sir Kyffin was a Royal Academician and Honorary Fellow of the University of Wales Colleges, Swansea, Bangor and Aberystwyth.
Sir Kyffin was a highly-disciplined painter, setting himself up a target of completing two paintings a week while teaching at Highgate. He kept this rate of production up through his lifetime.
Mount Snowdon from Nantlle, Sir Kyffin Williams, RA
“I never had to think what shall I paint,” he said. “I don’t think how I should paint it. The whole thing to me somehow is far too natural a thing. It is there and I am the vehicle for expressing it.”
He was a self-described depressive and obsessive. “I paint for kicks rather like Van Gogh painted for kicks—excitement. Maybe if you’re an epileptic you crave excitement,” he said. “And I wanted the excitement of a strong dark against the bright light. It does something for me like other people take alcohol.”
David Wynn Meredith was interviewed by the BBClast week about Sir Kyffin. “He believed that you had to love your subject matter, and if you don’t love anything you can’t communicate,” he said.
“And Kyffin certainly did love. He loved people, he loved the mountains, he loved the seascapes. He was totally committed to his craft as a painter. Painting was his life. And he viewed it not in any emotional way at all. As he often said, ‘it’s my job.’”
It can be either deliciously finicky, or wildly out of control. Or, in a perfect world, both.
St. Elias Mountains, Yukon Territory, by Carol L. Douglas. Think you can’t paint from a boat? This was done from the passenger seat of a car.
Yesterday I got an e-blog that read, “Want looser watercolors? Pour your paint.” Well, I like pitching, throwing and otherwise making a mess with watercolors, so I opened it in great anticipation. What it was really talking about was drawing a meticulous cartoon, blocking off the light areas with masking fluid, and then setting the darks with a wallowing, graduated wash that gets a little bit psychedelic by virtue of watercolor’s great sedimentation qualities.
That’s a beautiful technique, but nothing that starts with masking fluid can be described as loose. We can’t use these shadowy washes in field painting, unless we’re willing to hang around all day reblocking paper and waiting for it to dry.
A field sketch of Houghton Farm (New York) by Winslow Homer.
Frank Costantino is a painter who manages to pull off meticulous renderings in watercolor in plein air events. Frank’s drawings are spot-on and his framing is clever. On the other end of the spectrum is Elissa Gore, whose field sketches always burble in the style of Ludwig Bemelmans.
You know my pal Poppy Balser, who shares my adoration of boats, the sea, and color. Although she’s primarily an oil painter, Mary Byrom does lots of sketching in watercolor.
Large Piece of Turf, 1503, Albrecht Dürer.
There hangs the moral of my tale. Every one of these painters works in more than one medium—in Frank’s case, watercolor and colored pencil, in the rest of them, watercolor and oils. That’s true of me, too.
I first learned to paint in watercolor. That was standard procedure in the mid-century, when no right-minded teacher was going to hand a kid a box of toxic chemicals and tell her to go to town. It’s a private possession for when I travel or when I’m thinking. I never sell my watercolors, and I don’t intend for them to be shown. Watercolor, for me, is deeply personal.
Preparatory sketch of Marshall Point, by Carol L. Douglas.
But it’s also the perfect travel medium, which is why I took it to Australia and to London and plan to bring it along to Alabama, Louisiana and Mississippi in March. When it’s just you, your suitcase and a Prius, you want to travel light.
All of this has been much on my mind recently as I’ve debated the best sketchbooks to buy for my Age of Sail workshop on the American Eagle, in June. I’ve tried many myself. As with everything else, each one has its plusses and minuses. One friend suggested that I cut down sheets of paper and make my own, but I want every student to have a takeaway book with a nice binding.
I plan to have students working in both gouache and watercolor. I need to find the right paper for both. So every time a friend posts a new work in a sketchbook I query him or her relentlessly on the materials. And I’m narrowing it down, slowly but surely.
Sometimes the balance between creativity and routine gets out of kilter, and it never seems to be in favor of creative time.
Places I’d rather be right now: Headwaters of the Hudson, by Carol L. Douglas, which anyone who’s been to Lake Tear of the Clouds would recognize as a romantic personification rather than the real thing.
I’m sorry there was no post yesterday. Grandchildren are human petri dishes, and mine gave me their norovirus. (That’s the nature of children, and I would change nothing.) I’m feeling better today, but not 100%.
Ironically, I’d planned to write about action vs. reaction. Every job has moments of each designed into it. For example, the EMT who saves your life is mostly reactive, responding to what’s happening to you and the instructions he’s getting over his radio. The engineer designing a new system of 0s and 1s is mostly active. As he interacts with his team, though, he is reactive.
But that’s in the particular. Generally speaking, most successful people are reactive much of the time. They’re listening to their competitors, their peers, and their customers, and trying to give the people what they want.
Palm and Sand, by Carol L. Douglas
The self-employed artist is stubbornly individualistic, but that doesn’t save him from reactivity. We treasure our active tasks, like painting or marketing, that we initiate and drive ourselves. Then there are tasks that are in response to others’ initiatives. For example, at 2 PM today, I must send an email. I don’t know why this particular moment is important to the organization but I do know that a small part of my mental energy today will be spent wondering whether gmail’s delayed-send feature really works.
Painting commissions, while on the ‘creative’ side of our ledger, are fundamentally reactive tasks. This is why some artists don’t enjoy them as much as other work. The impetus, the spark of idea, didn’t originate with us.
All sole proprietors exist in this maelstrom of action and reaction, which tug and vie for our scarce time.
Spring, by Carol L. Douglas, painted down the road a piece, on an April day.
Chief among the reactive tasks is bookkeeping, which I’d never do at all if the IRS didn’t prod me into it. Before I can file my taxes, I must audit my records to determine if they’re true. The whole job takes me the better part of a week. I think I should try doing the audits monthly. However, every February, I am so happy to be free of bookkeeping that I just go back to the Excel equivalent of stuffing receipts in an envelope.*
This year I decided to try to paint in the mornings and work on bookkeeping in the afternoons. This was a total failure. I would just settle in to my canvas and it would be time to move over to the dining room and its carefully separated piles of papers.
I’m back to my usual technique, which is to schedule tax prep during the nicest week of winter weather. It’s a knack, I tell you.
Why can’t I just ignore my taxes for a week and get back to them when the weather gets bad? Despite my protestations that I wouldn’t do this to myself again, I’ve arranged to be shot out of a cannon again this spring. On March 4, I’m leaving for a short painting trip through Alabama, Mississippi and Louisiana. My third daughter is getting married in May. And after that is my regularly scheduled season. It’s now or never, and the IRS doesn’t like never.
Fall cookies for another daughter’s wedding. That won’t work for May!
I have learned that tasks tend to be amorphous until they’re pinned down. That means that small ones, like “order paint” loom as large as “bake 1000 cookies for the wedding reception,” a job I will be doing without my designer pal Jane this year. Writing them down and classifying them helps me keep them in perspective.
I’ve written before about Bobbi Heath’s time management system, here. It’s a simple system that can stop you from losing your mind when you’re overwhelmed. Whatever system works for you, now is a great time to deploy it, before the weather gets fine and you’re on the run.
*I had a GPS that kept mileage records. I just retired it and bought MileIQ. It’s fantastic for the plein airpainter, who starts and stops and is pulled along by the wind.
Drawing six similar objects will teach you to observe details.
Reliant rigged as a sloop.
I once got a commission to paint Lazy Jack II in Camden Harbor. I was pretty happy with the results. As I finished, two deckhands from another boat stopped to look at it. Their eyes met. “You’ve got the…” one started. “It’s not important,” said the other, and they quickly walked away. I’ve never figured out what’s wrong in that painting, but I did realize that you can only fudge the details so far. The experts will find you out.
In the normal course of things, you’re not going to see many square-rigged vessels here in mid-coast Maine (although you could see USS Constitution if you drive down to Boston). You’ll see fore-and-aft rigs, where the sails run above the keel rather than perpendicular to it.
A Bermuda-rigged sloop. This is the most common silhouette you’ll see wherever pleasure boats congregate.
A boat’s sails all suspend from a vertical spar called the mast. This transmits all the power of the wind pushing the boat through the water. It’s really a marvel of engineering, especially since the kinks were worked out before the age of composite materials. There are some other spars whose names will be useful to know: booms, which run along the bottom of the sails, and gaffs, which get raised up in the air. Not every sailboat has gaffs, but they all have at least one mast and boom to hold the sails taut.
A gaff-rigged catboat.
A catboat is small and has a single sail on a single mast set well forward in the bow, or front of the boat. (I think this would be the perfect painter’s boat, especially if I could find one towable with my Prius.)
A sloop also has one mast, with only one sail in front of the mast. If that head-sail multiplies, your boat has morphed into a cutter. Reliance, the 1903 America’s Cup defender, could be rigged as either a sloop or cutter. I drew Reliance to illustrate that single-masted boats can be gaff-rigged as well as Bermuda-rigged. She was a peculiar thing, built only to win America’s Cup and then sold for scrap. Like all transitory things, she was, oh, so pretty.
A ketch. Angelique is far prettier.
Ketches and yawls have two masts, with the back (mizzen) sail smaller than the front sail. The difference is that in a ketch (like Angelique) the aft mast is meant to push. It’s pretty big. A yawl’s mizzen sail is very wee, almost vestigial, and is way to the back of the boat. It’s basically an air rudder, used to keep things in balance.
A yawl (or y’all, for those of you from the south).
Schooners started out having two masts, but three-masted schooners were introduced around 1800, and the spars proliferated from there. The only seven-masted schooner, the steel-hulled Thomas W. Lawson, was built in 1902. It was 395 ft. long.
While you might run across Victory Chimes, a three-masted schooner out of Rockland, the rest of the Maine windjammer fleet have two masts. A schooner’s forward mast is shorter than its mainmast, giving it an appearance of eagerness. Schooners come in all kinds of sail configurations.
A schooner’s foremast is shorter than its mainmast.
Your assignment is to find a photo of each of these sailing vessels and sketch them out as I did, paying particular attention to where the sails attach to the masts, the angles at which the gaffs are running, and the height of the masts in relationship to the length of the hull. This is not about sailing, it’s about attention to the details that matter.
If you aren’t interested in boats, you can do the same exercise with cars, motorcycles, or varieties of apples; I don’t care what they are, just that you have six objects from the same class of objects.
The point of this exercise is not to create six beautiful boat drawings. It is to show you how much you learn by sketching. At the end of it, you should have a clear sense of why sketching in the field is a far better preparation for painting than taking photos is.
Remember, those of you who love boats: we’ll be sailing with Captain John Foss on the most beautiful of all windjammers—American Eagle—in June, studying watercolor painting on the move. For more information, see here.
My little assistants. I drew the boats and they colored.
While hundreds read the post, only a small handful answered the questions. Their answers are still fascinating. Last week, I asked professional artists to tell a young painter from Alabama, Cat Pope, how they organize their business.
This is the first survey I’ve ever written. It was very easy to produce, but there are things I should have asked differently. If you haven’t taken it yet, you can still go to the link here. The results mostly speak for themselves; I’ve just added a few parenthetical notes.
The respondents were heavily slanted to the northeast. Would artists from other parts of the country have answered differently? What about Canadian painters?
How hard, I wonder, is it to keep more than 3 galleries supplied with work? I should have also asked about other spaces like coffee shops, restaurants, or hotels.
This next chart represents some serious online work, even for people who aren’t direct-selling through websites.
I feel the frustration of wearing all the hats, all the time. Apparently, I’m not alone. A lot of us put a lot of soul into the ‘sole proprietorship’ idea.
The following was a badly-designed question. I should have given respondents the opportunity to answer “none.” 40% of respondents skipped it entirely, which makes “none” the second-largest category.
Another missed opportunity. Why didn’t I ask about annual sales goals?
I included this last question because artists are always being asked to “showcase their work” in charity auctions, yet it’s not a deductible donation for us. When we see that work being sold for a fraction of its gallery price, we think it would be easier to just write a check.
I support the new law, although some of my friends are opposed. Plastic bags caught in branches are an annoying side effect of densely-packed people, and we get lots of visitors in the summer. It won’t go into effect until next January, giving small retailers a chance to unload their stocks of bags. Plastic bags are already controlled in major cities in Canada. And my favorite grocery store—alas, not in Maine—has always had a bring-your-reusable-bag policy, which I navigated for years without trouble.
The ubiquitous tree-bag of North America.
Nobody knows how long it really takes for plastic packaging to break down, because we haven’t had it long enough to tell. Plastic degrades when exposed to sunlight, but it happens more slowly when it’s cold. A current guesstimate is that a foam plastic cup will take 50 years to decompose and a disposable diaper will take 450 years. On both ends of the plastic bag’s life cycle, it creates microplastics—either as bits and bobs from the manufacturing process, or as waste from the breakdown of bigger plastics. Marine organisms are indiscriminate foragers, so they eat these microplastics. Bigger pieces of plastic end up in marine animals’ guts, with deadly results.
Not using plastic packaging is often an easy choice, a matter of choosing the eggs in the cardboard container instead of that other brand. It’s far easier than, say, buying a smaller car or building a new mass-transit infrastructure.
Eastern Towhee, 1. Male 2. Female, by John LaMacchia et al.
Artist John LaMacchia describes himself as “an artist that makes things… and then he shows them to you.” Among his current work is a riff on John James Audubon’s Birds of America. This series of giclée prints, also called Birds of America, points up the difference between the environment of America 200 years ago and the environment today. For the birds, it’s our trash that makes the difference.
Red Knot, Female, by John LaMacchia et al.
Of course, the modern artist is an idea man, and must outsource the art skills. For that, LaMacchia turned to British ornithologist and illustrator Daniel Cole. LaMacchia sketches out his ideas using a combination of photography and drawing, and Cole executes them. A calligrapher, Hamid Reza Ebrahimi, does the plate notations in calligraphy, using an English Round Hand style commonly used for copperplate engraving.
LaMacchia’s goal is to create 435 plates, matching Audubon’s complete oeuvre. He’ll have to speed up the process, though, since the trio has finished six prints since they started in 2014. Of course, Audubon included birds that are now extinct, like the Ivory-billed Woodpecker, the Carolina Parakeet, and the Passenger Pigeon. That should cut down the final count.
At an age when modern kids are munching on Tide Pods, Abbie Burgess ran a lighthouse on a rock in the sea.
A 19th century engraving of the girl lighthouse keeper. Courtesy Elinor DeWire Collection.
Matinicus Rock is a treeless, windswept outcropping of about 30 acres. It’s about twenty miles off the mainland, but it’s on the approach to Penobscot Bay.
Its first keeper lasted four years before going ashore to die. The second keeper also died after a short tenure. A tremendous storm in January 1839 forced a total reconstruction. Keeper Samuel Abbott was forced to take refuge in the attic with his family during the storm of February, 1842. He thought they were all going to die.
Samuel Burgess, was appointed the light’s keeper in 1853. He moved to the lighthouse with his wife Thankful and four of their children. Abbie was the oldest girl there.
Courtesy Elinor DeWire Collection.
She ran the light, freeing her father and brother to fish for lobster. The lamps used lard oil. “[T]hey were more difficult to tend than these lamps are, and sometimes they would not burn so well when first lighted, especially in cold weather when the oil got cold,” she wrote.
Abbe worried that, in the case of a great storm, she would be unable to move her invalid mother to safety. In December, 1855, she moved her mother’s bedroom to the lighthouse itself.
The cutter that was supposed to have supplied them in September had never shown up. By January, food and lamp oil were running low. Samuel Burgess sailed to Rockland for supplies. Shortly thereafter, a Nor’easter blew up.
Matinicus Light House. Designed by Alexander Parris, drawn by Brown and Hastings, engineers, March 28, 1848.
“…Father was away. Early in the day, as the tide arose, the sea made a complete breach over the rock, washing every movable thing away, and of the old dwelling not one stone was left upon another. The new dwelling was flooded, and the windows had to be secured to prevent the violence of the spray from breaking them in. As the tide came, the sea rose higher and higher, till the only endurable places were the lighttowers. If they stood we were saved, otherwise our fate was only too certain.
“But for some reason, I know not why, I had no misgivings, and went on with my work as usual. For four weeks, owing to rough weather, no landing could be effected on the rock. During this time we were without the assistance of any male members of our family. Though at times greatly exhausted with my labors, not once did the lights fail. Under God I was able to perform all my accustomed duties as well as my father’s.
“You know the hens were our only companions… I said to mother: ‘I must try to save them.’ She advised me not to attempt it. The thought, however, of parting with them without an effort was not to be endured, so seizing a basket, I ran out a few yards after the rollers had passed and the sea fell off a little, with the water knee deep, to the coop, and rescued all but one. It was the work of a moment, and I was back in the house with the door fastened, but I was none too quick, for at that instant my little sister, standing at the window, exclaimed: “Oh, look! look there! the worst sea is coming.”
That wave swept the old house off the rock.
The chickens proved their salvation. The Burgesses survived on a daily ration of a cup of cornmeal and an egg for the next three weeks.
Abbie Burgess Grant
Samuel Burgess lost his job after the election of 1860. He was replaced by Capt. John Grant. Abbie stayed on to train Grant and ended up marrying his youngest son, Isaac. They tended the Matinicus Rock Light for fourteen years, having four sons while there. They then moved to Whitehead Light off St. George.
Abbie Burgess Grant died in 1892 at the age of 53. “Sometimes I think the time is not far distant when I shall climb these lighthouse stairs no more,” she wrote. “I wonder if the care of the lighthouse will follow my soul after it has left this worn out body!”