Art meets history in Our World

Jan 04, 2019
Celebrating the collaborative exhibit are, from left, Ann Morris of Rockland Historical Society; Farnsworth Director Christopher Brownawell; Capt. Dave Sulin (RHS); Shasta Minery and Leith MacDonald of the Wyeth Study Center; the museum’s Andrea Curtis and Sheryl McMahan; and Gil Merriam and Ben Perry (RHS).

Rockland — The Farnsworth Art Museum will present a panel discussion titled Andrew Wyeth in Rockland: Our World on Thursday afternoon, Jan. 10. The discussion, including members of Rockland Historical Society and the Wyeth Study Center staff, will take place at 2 p.m. in the downtown museum’s auditorium. It is free, but requires museum admission.

The panel will discuss Rockland history, as viewed through the lens of Andrew Wyeth’s watercolors in the exhibition “Andrew Wyeth in Rockland,” on view through Feb. 17. Following are Wyeth Study Center staff member Leith MacDonald’s remarks about how the collaborative exhibition came together.

Andrew Wyeth in Rockland – Our World

The Greek philosopher Aristotle wisely observed, “the whole is greater than the sum of its parts.” Such was the experience of developing ‘Andrew Wyeth in Rockland,’ a groundbreaking show of Wyeth watercolors and a celebration of collaboration between three institutions in Rockland, Maine.

A partnership among the Wyeth Study Center, the Rockland Historical Society and the Farnsworth Art Museum, “Andrew Wyeth in Rockland” features 18 watercolors painted in the city between 1940 and 1998, 15 of which were previously unexhibited. Coinciding with the Farnsworth’s 70th anniversary, the show creates an impressive connection between the museum’s hometown — Rockland — and one of America’s great painters. For this city transitioning into the Art Capital of Maine, the show also helps to ground museum guests in Rockland’s past — its people, architecture, and working waterfront economy.

The idea for the exhibition began as part of the Wyeth Study Center staff’s routine care of the Andrew and Betsy Wyeth Collection. Something about the stance of the gulls perched atop a ragged scratched fence in the painting “400 Limerock” made a deep impression. Upon further research into the 1958 watercolor, staff discovered that this previously unexhibited watercolor had originated just up the hill from the Farnsworth Art Museum on nearby Limerock Street.

While Wyeth famously painted the peninsulas and islands south of Rockland, the experience with “400 Limerock” led staff to search for additional pieces created in their backyard. A surprisingly large number of pencil drawings, watercolors, and tempera paintings were identified. The pieces were then shared with the Rockland Historical Society for assistance in better understanding their place in the historical context of Rockland’s changing landscape.

The Historical Society’s local knowledge and passion resulted in myriad of connections between Wyeth’s paintings and Rockland history. During the team’s first meeting, Historical Society volunteers and staff identified several places in Wyeth’s paintings that have since disappeared and many others that have been recognized on the National Register of Historic Places. As they enthusiastically poured over reproductions of Wyeth’s Rockland work, they shared stories of their own Rockland experience inspired by the paintings.

While the Historical Society provided invaluable assistance with research and fact checking, it was the stories that they shared that led to a vision to incorporate actual Rockland voices into the exhibition. As a result, the show includes a city map that details the location of each painting, as well as a series of oral histories that offer a local flavor and unique insight into the “Real Maine” that is not available anywhere else.

Wyeth Study Center staff and a team of Farnsworth Art Museum specialists worked together to present the knowledge and information gained from the Historical Society with a clean and simple gallery presentation. New label designs were created to encourage guests to engage with the oral histories on their own cell phones, resulting in more than 1,700 calls within five months. The three institutions have collaborated on marketing and outreach, seeking to bring local residents in to marvel at Wyeth’s take on their hometown, and to learn more about its dynamic history.

Volunteers at the Rockland Historical Society enjoyed having the opportunity to tell their stories and have them integrated into a museum exhibition they can have pride in. Historical Society board member Capt. David Sulin remarked, “This collection of paintings isn’t Christina's World, it is OUR world. This is where we grew up, this place was wrapped all around us.”

By listening, sharing, and being willing to try new things, this collaboration of three Midcoast institutions brought together a diversity of expertise behind the work of one of America’s great painters to create a new and engaging gallery experience at the Farnsworth Art Museum. - Leith MacDonald

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