Artist to recreate scene from Marsden Hartley’s Maine lake painting
Eric Aho plans to drill holes in a frozen Maine lake on Saturday, which is not uncommon at this time of year.
But Aho won’t drop a line and wait for a bite. Instead, he hopes to find inspiration and introspection about art, nature, and a nearly forgotten chapter in Maine history.
Aho hopes to recreate the scene from a 1908-09 painting titled “The Ice Hole, Maine,” by Marsden Hartley, a Lewiston native and one of the greatest American painters of the 20th century. He organized a community ice-cut on Lake Keewaydin at Stoneham, near Bethel, using the same types of handsaws and other ancient tools used by ice harvesters 100 years ago. He chose the location because Hartley had spent time living in the area during the painting’s making period and was known for creating art by mixing what he saw with his imagination.
Aho hopes the ice cream sundae can inspire people to think about art, nature and history in different ways.
“Paintings are about paying attention, and a project like this is about being aware of our natural world today,” said Aho, 55, a painter who lives in Saxtons River, Vermont, but passes time on Little Cranberry Island most summers. “It’s about the intersection of Maine’s ice harvest and the rural American painting tradition.”
Aho plans to get out on the lake at 9 a.m. and start cutting the ice. He invites anyone who wants to participate, by sawing or extracting blocks of ice, to join him. His wife, photographer Rachel Portesi, will document the process with photos. Aho will also set up his easel to paint and invite others to do so as well. He thinks he will eventually post photos and writing about the ice cutting project on his instagram page and website. He also wrote about Hartley and ice as part of the project.
The event is weather dependent and could be postponed in the event of a blizzard or sub-zero temperatures, Aho said. You will find information about the event on the Albany, Lovell, Stoneham, Stow and Waterford Maine Facebook page.
FINDING ART IN ICE
A big part of Aho’s passion for this project is her fascination with ice harvesting and the role it plays in her own art. He grew up in Hudson, New Hampshire, hearing stories from his father about ice harvesting. As a child, his father had worked on ice harvests during the Great Depression of the 1930s with other Finnish immigrants in the small town of Townsend, Massachusetts. Over the years, Aho has amassed a collection of ice harvesting tools – including a saw that dates to 1890 and scales and pliers that he inherited from his father.
Aho started cutting ice on his own so he could do polar dives before warming up in his sauna. He had cut out squares four or five feet in diameter and had begun to notice the colors and textures of the ice and water. He started painting what he saw in his ice prints and made a series of about 25 of them, each different. In 2016, Aho’s “Ice Cuts” series was the subject of an exhibition at the Hood Museum of Art at Dartmouth College in Hanover, New Hampshire.
“There’s the black center of the water, mysterious, and around the edges you can get turquoises and purples and colors that are almost hallucinogenic,” Aho said.
Aho said he first became aware of “The Ice Hole, Maine” after seeing it hung in an exhibit at the Wadsworth Atheneum Museum of Art in Hartford, Connecticut, in 2003. He noticed the theme of ice cream and thought, “Huh, I do that, too”, but otherwise he wasn’t particularly struck by the painting. He never thought of Hartley as an inspiration either, but said that there is “a bit of Hartley in all American painters”.
Then, when the Hood Museum was hosting its “Ice Cuts” exhibit, Hartley’s painting came up in discussions as a famous work on a similar subject. He revisited the painting in 2017 as part of an exhibition called “Marsden Hartley’s Maine”, a collaboration between the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York and the Colby College Museum of Art in Waterville.
Seeing the painting stimulated his imagination. He could make out the artist’s initials in the work – a massive “M” shaped by the mountains and an “H” carved out of the water – and became interested in finding a way to explore it for himself- same. Due to his own fascination with ice harvesting, the answer seemed simple: he cut ice and created the scene.
But he needed to find the scene.
PLACES OF INSPIRATION
Neither Aho nor the art curators and historians he spoke with know exactly what specific location in Maine Hartley depicted in his painting, so the choice of Lake Keewaydin is an educated guess. It is documented that from 1902 Hartley began to visit Lake Kezar at Lovell – south of Stoneham – and was incredibly fond of the area. A few years later, he spent several winters in a rustic cabin in Stoneham, not far from Lake Keewaydin, says Dan Barker, a historian of the city.
While farmers would have harvested their own ice from almost any local lake or pond — including Keewaydin Lake — Kezar Lake was known to be a place where ice-cutting operations were based, Barker said. Hartley was known for drawing real-life locations and adding elements from his imagination, so Aho thinks it’s possible that “Ice Hole, Maine” was inspired by both Keewaydin and Kezar lakes.
Aho drove and walked along the shores of both lakes and took mental notes. The mountain landscape and farms in the painting resembled the landscape around Keewaydin Lake, but mountains are also visible around Kezar Lake.
“Hartley was absolutely inspired by this part of Maine, he was very struck by what he saw there. For people who know Maine, some (of Hartley’s paintings) are absolutely identifiable, but there are also aspects of imagination and feeling,” said Elizabeth Finch, chief curator of the Colby College Museum of Art and co-curator of the 2017 exhibition. “The Maine of Marsden Hartley.” “This project is a wonderful example of an artist collaborating with people from a local community to understand their cultural history.”
The project also draws attention to a lesser-known work by Hartley (1877 to 1943) and an early period in the painter’s life. Born in Lewiston, Hartley’s mother died when he was 8 and his father struggled to hold down a job in the factories. The family resettled in Ohio, where Hartley took his first painting lessons. He returned to Maine in 1900 at the age of 23 and remained there, living all year or part of the year, until 1911. After that he left for Europe and n He returned to Maine only occasionally until his final return in 1937. He died in 1943 in Ellsworth, having spent the last years of his life in the fishing village of Down East, Corea.
Hartley was drawn to the western mountains of Maine, where Stoneham and Lovell are located, because he was inspired by artists who identified strongly with one place, Finch said. Moreover, the area was not far from where he was born.
It was around the time “The Ice Hole, Maine” was painted that Hartley’s reputation began to grow outside of Maine, and he began to show his work widely, Finch said. His paintings of Maine at the time also helped establish his reputation as one of the great Maine and Maine painters.
“He’s an artist that other artists love,” Finch said. “He would be on the short list of great painters working in the United States in the 20th century.”
The Bates College Museum of Art in Hartley’s hometown of Lewiston is creating a comprehensive account of all his paintings and drawings. Portland art historian Gail R. Scott leads the museum’s effort to track down and detail the history of each of the approximately 1,650 Hartley paintings and drawings known to exist as part of the Marsden Hartley Legacy Project: The Complete Paintings and Works. on paper.
Aho’s project doesn’t just focus on Hartley, but on Maine’s nearly forgotten ice-harvesting industry. Before refrigerators were introduced to consumers in the early 20th century, Maine ice was shipped all over the world, said Ken Lincoln, president of the Thompson Icehouse Harvest Museum in the south of Bristol. In the late 1800s, some 25,000 men cut ice on the Kennebec River to store and ship it.
“It was bigger than the lumber industry. Maine ice had a reputation for being clean and pure, and it was shipped all over the world,” said Lincoln, who was consulted by Aho about his ice cutting project. He said he would like to attend, but is not sure he can as his museum’s annual ice cream harvest – which is open to the public – will take place the following weekend, February 13. .
For Aho, the community ice cream sundae is the perfect fusion of his own work as an artist and the inspiration he draws from nature and history.
“I thrive on the outside. My work is all about the pulse of natural work,” Aho said.
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