Midcoast Maine's psychic sculptor
Midcoast residents who remember Harry Stump likely think of him as a sculptor and a founding member of Maine Coast Artists, now the Center for Maine Contemporary Art. Although he died in 1998, some of his work still can be found at Scuttlebutt Antiques in Warren, the town where he lived his final years and his widow still resides. Folks on Vinalhaven remember when he lived there and his family included a seal that had its own door into their house. Others may remember him in connection with a former wife, who was a very popular teacher and drama coach in the Camden-Rockport school system and served as art critic for the Camden Herald in the 1980s. But a book recently released by Maine Authors Publishing reveals that Stump — and Midcoast Maine — had a hidden life, one that involved ESP, hallucinogenic mushrooms … and Aldous Huxley.
Lloyd Ferriss, a former reporter for the Maine Sunday Telegram, has produced an intriguing record of Stump’s multi-faceted life that combines the artist’s personal memoir with biography pieced together via research (disclaimer: I lent a small amount of Courier-Gazette archival assistance early on) and with the help of Stump’s widow, family members and colleagues. “Harry Stump, Maine’s Psychic Sculptor” is a short, intriguing portrait of a local man who lived an extraordinary life.
In his research, Ferriss sought out Rita Harper Stump, who eventually offered him a memoir the sculptor had written. Harry Stump was born and grew up in Holland and he was dyslexic, so Ferriss had his work cut out for him in transcribing Stump’s writings. They tell of a somewhat harsh yet bucolic childhood leading into a coming of age that involved questioning, and eventually rejecting, his religious upbringing; discovering a passion for sculpture, fueled by dangerous visits to abandoned mergel (soapstone) mines nearby; and beginning art school. When the Nazis invaded, Stump, at age 17, began a new career in which his knowledge of the nearby mines proved vital, as a member of the Dutch Resistance.
The things that Stump experienced during World War II, a sampling of which he shares in his memoir, haunted him the rest of his life. Ferriss does his best to fill in some of the gaps, recounting testimony from members of Stump’s family in the Netherlands and Rita. After the war, when Stump immigrated to New York City, leaving a wife and two children behind, he lived a lean and hungry life, working in factories and living in poverty. But one night, a pianist friend invited him to a concert and an apartment party afterward, beginning a chain of events that very quickly changed Stump’s life and brought him to Midcoast Maine.
Stump recounts in his memoir that from childhood on, he had had visions — sometimes seeing landscape and people from a previous era, other times knowing about contemporary occurrences he had not witnessed. He learned early on not to speak of these things, as doing so made people afraid of him, and he decided before coming to America to keep his telepathy a secret. But at that post-concert party, he was provoked into revealing his unusual gift by a man who was criticizing an extrasensory perception research lab in Glen Cove, Maine.
The next day, Stump was invited to dinner by the mother of one of the party guests. She turned out to be Alice Bouverie, born Astor and an heir to the Astor hotel fortune. According to Ferriss, she was very interested in telepathy and it was her money that enabled a Dr. Andrija Puharich to purchase what was known in the 1950s as the Warrenton Estate in Glen Cove. This 18-room oceanfront home, now privately owned, became the seasonal headquarters of the Round Table Foundation — and Stump became Puharich’s prize subject in the foundation’s ongoing ESP experiments.
Stump wrote that his work at the lab was demanding at times, but he had a studio for his sculpture, a decent place to live and regular meals, which he had not enjoyed since before the war. He also ate what he called the Sacred Mushroom, amenita muscaria, known for its hallucinogenic effects.
“It is impossible to convey these visions in words. Attempting to describe them would be as futile as trying to explain art,” he wrote.
The mushrooms, subject of a book by Puharich in which Stump is dubbed “Harry Stone,” seemed to follow the sculptor; they showed up in his yard when he lived on Knox Street in Thomaston, for example. Stump did not reveal much about his work at the foundation, which Ferriss writes included long-distance telepathy trials while closed inside a copper-lined electrified Faraday cage, but does relate some amusing episodes involving guests, welcome and not so, during the summer season. The guest who made the biggest impression was “Brave New World” author Aldous Huxley, who visited Round Table in 1955. The men formed a friendship during early morning walks — walks in which they found they did not need to verbalize to communicate.
“It is difficult to relate my conversations with Aldous because sometimes we didn’t talk. We connected mentally and understood each other,” Stump wrote. “I cannot begin to describe the sadness I felt upon his departure, for Aldous was a man as kind as he was great. All I possess of him now is a photograph and a life mask I cast on his face. The intangible is so much more.”
Stump actually had one other reminder of his brief encounter with one of the 20th century’s most esteemed writers. He sculpted a bust that Ferriss came across a couple of years ago at Scuttlebutt Antiques. Ferriss said when he looked for it again last year, it was gone.
In 1956, Bouverie died unexpectedly. By 1960, the Round Table Foundation was no more and its Glen Cove location was occupied by the Glen Cove Bible College. Ferriss reports that papers and artifacts from the experiments were burned as they were considered occult works. He also reports that Maine newspapers and magazines, including The Courier-Gazette and Portland Press Herald, did no reporting whatsoever about the Round Table Foundation. While Puharich’s secretiveness no doubt played a part, “It’s also likely that the Maine press, if at all aware of the foundation, found the subject too weirdly esoteric for 1950s Maine readers.”
Stump’s memoir ends after Huxley left Maine in 1955, so Ferriss had to call upon his journalist chops to piece together the rest of the story. It includes Stump’s helping found Maine Coast Artists, tending bar at the Thorndike Hotel in Rockland, appearing in the opening scene of “Peyton Place” and mounting a one-person sculpture show at the University of Maine in Orono that helped bring his work to the attention of the country’s art community. The account of his second marriage includes living on Vinalhaven and in Thomaston, a reunion with his Dutch daughter, an article in Down East magazine about the Stumps’ donkey-filled Warren farm, the onset of cardiac problems and the completion of his memoir.
Ferriss’ account of the last 18 years of Stump’s life includes a return to Vinalhaven, casting some of his dancers sculptures at a Rockport foundry, his happy third marriage, a visit with Puharich, a visit by both Stump’s Dutch daughter and son, establishing a new home in Warren and continuing to create new work in the studio. On Aug. 28, 1998, Stump collapsed in his sculpture studio, dying of an aortic aneurysm before emergency medical help arrived. His funeral service filled Thomason Baptist Church with both people and art works. On what would have been his 83rd birthday, his widow traveled with two of his relatives to Holland and, with his children, scattered Stump’s ashes on his family’s grave site, which is marked by a bas-relief sculpture he had created years earlier in honor of his elder sister.
It’s quite a story, and Ferriss knows it.
“My paranoia that someone would publish a Round Table exposé first persisted up until my first box of books arrived last summer from Maine Authors Publishing,” said Ferriss, who wrote features and a garden column during his Sunday Telegram days.
The first press run of “Harry Stump, Maine’s Psychic Sculptor” sold out by late summer, and the second run is going fast. The book can be found at the Vinalhaven Public Library, local bookstores and via maineauthorspublishing.com.
Courier Publications’ A&E Editor Dagney C. Ernest can be reached at (207) 594-4401, ext. 115 or firstname.lastname@example.org.