The Colgate Scene
Students and professor, still
|Text and photographs by James Leach|
An annual week on picturesque Monhegan Island off the coast of Maine gives Ray '69 and Leslie (Heaslip) '74 Wengenroth and Jim Loveless, professor of art and art history, emeritus, a perfect setting to create — and discuss — paintings. Monhegan has served as a summer art colony for more than a century.
On the porch of Elfant Cottage, overlooking an ever-changing meadow on Maine's Monhegan Island, a scent of oil paints was in the air.
Jim Loveless, art professor emeritus, had just finished one of his impromptu mini-lectures, a riff off a casual conversation. Matisse had a mention, and Picasso. Somehow Loveless connected them to Pollock and de Kooning and Rothko. Manet figured in the transition to Robert Henri and the circle of American realist painters he influenced at the turn of the 20th century, Edward Hopper and Rockwell Kent among them.
Ray '69 and Leslie '74 Wengenroth, their day's paintings leaning against the shingled wall behind them, drying in the late-afternoon sun, absorbed it all, students still.
"Jim rambles on and then he'll throw in something about your work and it gets you thinking for the rest of the day," said Ray.
A teacher-student relationship that began when one was a 30-something instructor and the other was an 18-year-old freshman has matured over 40 years, adding many layers and nuances, but always grounded in their art. Leslie (then Heaslip) was a Loveless student, too, at a time when Colgate first enrolled women. To see the three together now is to witness the evolution of a friendship that sprung from the studio and classroom, emerging as anything but stuffy.
For the past five years, Loveless and Ray — joined by Leslie when her work allowed — have shared a rustic cottage on Monhegan for a week, as summer turns to autumn. Twelve miles by ferry from Boothbay Harbor, the tiny island is less than a mile square, with about 60 permanent residents. A weathered tercentenary tablet placed on a hillside overlooking the harbor commemorates Captain John Smith landing there in 1614 and using the island as his base to explore the coast from Penobscot Bay to Cape Cod.
For generations, many of the permanent residents have made their living by fishing, lobstering, primarily. Visitors in summer and fall — the off season for lobster — encounter wire lobster traps stacked everywhere along the island's mile or so of wandering dirt roads. The few vehicles on the island, relic pickup trucks, shuttle to and from the wharf both the traps and the luggage of seasonal visitors, the transportation system thus mirroring the economy of the island.
For more than a century, a substantial contingent of those visitors have been artists, drawn to the wonderful light on the island and the way it presents the meadow, the inland forests, and the rocky coastline and dramatic, undeveloped headlands on the eastern shore. In his preface to the catalogue for the 2007 annual exhibition in the Monhegan Museum, museum president Edward Deci called the island "one of the most important summer art colonies in the history of American art."
That history attracts Ray: "I like being part of the tradition. It's one of the reasons I paint. And everyone has painted here. There's a legacy." (For Ray, the tradition is also in the family; his father's cousin, lithographer Stow Wengenroth, was described by Andrew Wyeth as the greatest black and white artist of his day.)
Loveless is mindful of the tradition, as well, and not only for the history of artists represented in the collection of the Monhegan Museum. "You're in a different place," he said. In the cottage they share, the absence of a telephone (or even a cell phone signal), television (the shortwave is the link to the outside world), or electricity (lights, refrigerator, and stove are all gas), reinforce the idea that they are here to connect with the past and carry it forward.
Of the pressure they feel to produce, Loveless said, "We're looking for an excuse to work. We come here and we click on."
Over breakfast, the artists planned their days. One day it was off to paint in the garden cultivated by islanders who had invited Ray and Leslie in.
Some days were spent painting from the porch of the cottage, which offers scenes across the meadow to the harbor, or up the hill to the 1824 lighthouse. The cottage itself has been a frequent Loveless study over the years. Ray is sometimes drawn to seascapes, or to the gulls working the shoreline. Leslie's architectural studies this year were sometimes set against the backdrop of neighboring Manana, which shelters Monhegan Harbor.
Not every day was spent at the easel. Walks along the many pathways that crisscross Monhegan's woods and trace the coastline were a source of inspiration and a link to the island's traditions. In a fish house converted into a studio/gallery, Ray and Leslie met a Monhegan artist who made her first sale just 20 miles from Colgate. Near Lobster Cove they passed the shipwrecked D.T. Sheridan, immortalized in Kent's paintings from the 1950s. Scouting at Fish Beach, Ray encountered Bud Bolte '55, who was encamped with fellow artists at a cottage on the shore.
After touring the museum's exhibition of paintings depicting life on the island from 1920 to 1950, Loveless returned to the cottage one day with an assignment for Ray and Leslie to identify their favorite artists from the show. Another chance to connect across Monhegan's history.
As sunlight faded, the Wengenroths and Loveless would gather on Elfant's porch to recount their experiences. "I imagine it's like the painters of old, coming back to share their notes at the end of the day," said Ray. Inside the cottage, each day's paintings were tacked between the studs on uninsulated walls, creating a visual record of the week's work, an impromptu gallery subject to constant critique.
Over gaslit dinners, the wide-ranging conversations often turned to Colgate. The Wengenroths compared the experience of their son Eric '07 with the social consciousness of Colgate and the country in the late '60s and early '70s. Loveless talked about students' responses to his timeless assignments — like the student who painted an entire panorama of pink flamingos in response to the assignment to "paint anything but flamingos."
"Of course, it was just right," Loveless concluded, the observation of someone who felt it was most important "to be in sympathy with your students. Art's hard."
"Jim was one of my best professors," said Leslie, "with Kistler and Slater and Blackmore."
Ray, in conversation with a Monhegan neighbor he has come to know over the years, explained that he and Leslie were "here with our art professor."
— Leach retired from Colgate in 2005 as vice president for communications and public relations.
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