Part 12 of 12
Rockwell Kent’s influence on fellow artists and writers has not been fully explored. What I have found strongly suggests that it was significant. In this series I’ve highlighted Henry Beston and Barrett Willoughby; but even future Nobel Prize winning author William Faulkner wrote to Kent asking if he could purchase one of the original Ahab drawings from the artist’s 1930 illustrated edition of Herman Melville’s “Moby Dick.” Kent sold him one and Faulkner hung it in his writing room. “Wilderness” went through several printings through the 1930s as well as a small 1930 Modern Library edition. How many writers and artists did the paintings and book impel to visit Alaska, to paint or write it?
We can be relatively sure that Jan Van Empel, the artist who painted Christ’s Ascension behind the altar at St. Peter’s Episcopal Church in Seward, knew of Rockwell Kent, his trip to Alaska, and his stay on Fox Island. It is also likely he read Wilderness. Van Empel studied under Robert Henri, Kent’s friend and teacher in New York, and probably learned from him about Kent’s book and experience in Resurrection Bay. You can find a chapter about Van Empel in my book, “The Spaces Between.”
In 1935 Kent returned to Alaska briefly to research a commission from the US Treasury Department to paint a mural for the Washington, D.C. Post Office building. His assignment was to depict the range of mail service from the Arctic to the tropics. During this trip Kent noticed the work of two Alaskan artists, George Aden Ahgupuk and Ted Lambert. Though he didn’t return to Seward, Kent did stop at Juneau and Fairbanks but spent most of his time in the Nome area. That’s where he saw the art of 24-year-old Ahgupuk, whose given name was Twok – meaning “man.” Ahgupuk was born on Oct. 8, 1911, in the Inupiat Native village of Shishmaref where he learned subsistence living skills. In 1930 he broke his leg in a hunting accident. The injury developed into a Tubercular infection and he spent several months in a Kotzebue hospital. That’s when he started drawing realistic depictions of Inupiat life. Kent never met Ahgupuk but learned of him through Edith Weaver whose husband worked at the Northern Light and Power Company of Nome. Kent saw the talent in Ahgupuk’s work and decided to make him widely known through contacts in the art world. All of Kent’s correspondence with Ahgupuk went to Weaver who contacted Ahgupuk and then wrote back to Kent.
Weaver sent Kent some of Ahgupuk’s work, and Kent used his influence to get the young Alaskan artist some recognition with articles in the New York Times, Time Magazine, and Literary Digest. Kent purposely misled the press by telling them he had discovered and met Ahgupuk – that they were friends. In a letter to Weaver, Kent apologized for the lie emphasizing, “it was important for George’s own publicity value that he appear as one who I knew personally. Of course, I have never laid eyes on him, but I pretended to the newspaper men that we were quite good friends.” This was one of many examples of how Kent learned to use the press for advertising and social activism purposes. Kent helped Ahgupuk become a member of the American Artists Group and wrote to the US Treasury Department trying to get him a commission like the one that brought him back to Alaska. George Aden Ahgupuk went on to become one of Alaska’s best-known Native artists. His work can now be seen in museums around the world. He died in 2001.
Kent was impressed with Alaskan artist Ted Lambert’s work as well. The US Treasury Department had asked Ken to look out for talented artists in need while he was in Alaska. “There is a pretty good young painter in Fairbanks,” Kent wrote of Lambert. “He works in a mine to support himself, and when the mine is closed, he paints. His pictures are clear, able, realistic Alaska landscapes. He sells a few and is in no sense a needy case.” Not all Alaska artists were interested in working with the US government and Lambert was one of them. It is most likely he would not have accepted a commission. Lambert came to Alaska in 1925 from Illinois. He had a daughter from his 1937 marriage that ended in divorce. He eventually moved into a secluded cabin at Levelock in Bristol Bay. In 1960, after dining with friends, he headed back to his cabin and was never seen again. His disappearance is still a mystery.
Claire Fejes was a New Yorker like Kent and had studied at the Art Students’ League. After World War II she moved to Fairbanks with her husband. Her interest was in sculpture, but she found it difficult to bring all her tools and materials with her, so she turned to painting. There is an extensive correspondence between Fejes and Kent from the 1950s onward. Kent helped her get her first New York exhibit and she promoted his works for shows in Fairbanks. Like Kent, Fejes produced representational art and resisted the move to abstract expressionism which dominated the galleries and museums. In a Sept. 7, 1964, letter to Fejes, Kent wrote, “It’s a shame that none of your pictures in New York have been sold, but you must realize that the vast majority of picture buyers, and of picture viewers, has fallen victim to the cultural fraud of abstract art. In speaking of it I often paraphrase the Hans Christian Anderson tale of ‘The Emperor’s Clothes.’” Kent advised Fejes to find a Native Alaska village, live there, get to know the people, and paint them – as he had done in Greenland – then write and illustrate a book about that adventure as he had done with “Salamina” in 1935, “The Greenland Book,” and his “Greenland Journal.” For Fejes, the result would be two illustrated books, “People of the Noatak” and “Villagers.”
Dale William Nichols, a visual artist born in Nebraska, studied at the Chicago Academy of Fine Arts, later becoming the Carnegie Professor of Arts at the University of Chicago. He read Kent’s Wilderness early on and became fascinated with Alaska. He came to Seward about 1940 with his wife and visited Fox Island with Mayor and Mrs. Don Carlos Brownell. Nichols took a photo of the two women standing in front of what was left of Kent’s cabin. In the 1950’s he had an intense correspondence with Kent, much of it about mysticism, philosophy, and the subtext of Wilderness. Nichols returned to Seward in the 1980s for a visit.
As time passed and Kent’s books went out of print each new generation seemed to rediscovered them. Some of these fans wrote to the artist. On a cold January morning in 1955, Rockwell Kent, now 73 years old, rose early, ate breakfast, read his mail, and then dictated responses to his third wife, Sally. One particular letter written by a young college girl, Stephanie, from Asheville, North Carolina, deserved a special reply. Reading “Wilderness” had inspired her to visit Fox Island in Resurrection Bay, and she sent Kent a very personal remembrance. Kent responded: “A bit of the soil of Fox Island is the most sweetly sentimental gift I have ever received, and I love it.”. He planned to make a tiny casket to hold the soil along with some pressed flowers Olson had sent him from the island. He told her that he also had a piece of board he had used as a palette on the island. Olson had smoothed it, varnished it, put a little frame around it, and sent it to him with the label, “Artist’s View of the World.” Two months later, Kent wrote back to another fan of Wilderness – a young woman from Louisiana named Christine Cansey. Kent responded, “I am very touched by your letter (about) the story of our life on Fox Island having moved you so much, and by your having brought yourself to write about it. It was a sweet and thoughtful act…You may be interested to know that the little son who was my companion on Fox Island grew to be six feet four inches tall and is a Ph.D in physics.”
In Nov. 1961 Kent received a letter from a twenty-one-year-old aspiring actress named Michala living in York City. The day she wrote the letter she had sat on a “dirty and sad subway train” reading “Wilderness.” “One of the loveliest books I have ever read. I forgot I was in New York City on a crowded train. The people sitting next to me must have thought I was an idiot or something akin to one because I burst into gales of laughter.” Michela recognized in the books “utter simplicity and love . . . how we human beings place values on such unimportant parts of our life.” Forty-one years after its publication, “Wilderness” was speaking to a new generation, the one about to embark upon the turbulent sixties.
“We are so concerned with having a big car,” Michela wrote, “running after the pots of gold and envying what we don’t have that we become incapable of truly experiencing some of the realer parts of our lives.” In the wisdom of her idealistic youth, Michela senses what Russian art critic Andrei Chegodaev would write two years later. ‘Wilderness’ is a book about discovery, about seeking the essential values in life; it teaches us how to see what is important amidst the turmoil of our lives, and how in nature and in love we may find the soul.” Michela ends her letter, “I am grateful that there are people who believe as you do and are able to give their talents and wonder of life to the world.”
Now seventy-nine years old, his health gradually weakening his energetic body, his career, and art mostly forgotten, his books out of print, Kent sat in his easy chair and dictated to his wife this response to Michala. “Your sweet letter deserved a prompter response…If I were not touched by the letter’s loveliness, you would yourself have found no qualities in my books to love. It is somewhat strange, and quite wonderful, that in these days a young girl should be touched by such simple accounts of a simple and slightly primitive way of life, mainly quite uneventful….‘Wilderness’ is certainly of that character. It is perhaps natural that today in America my books should have been largely forgotten….I may not perhaps thank you for having been so moved by what I have written, but I do thank you for your great thoughtfulness in writing to me about it.”
Today, Kent’s work is gaining status not only in this country but around the world. A new biography of him may be in the works. Eric Downs, an Alaskan filmmaker is producing a short narrative film about the Fox Island adventure. Historian Douglas Brinkley in his book about the conservation movement in Alaska, “The Quiet World,” includes a chapter about Rockwell Kent. The book’s subtitle is “Saving Alaska’s Wilderness Kingdom.” What role did “Wilderness” and the Alaska paintings play in influencing public attitudes in favor of setting aside land for our National Park units? The Alaska Historical Society has put Wilderness on a list of the most important books about Alaska. About a month ago a Chinese language edition of Wilderness was published, a reprint of the 1996 Wesleyan University Press edition with my foreword. I was asked to write a second short foreword for this Chinese edition. I asked the translator what attracted the Chinese to Rockwell Kent. It wasn’t his politics, he said, but his beautiful engravings, wood cuts and pen and inks. He said that Kent is one of the “giants” of art in China today.
As he got older, Kent became more involved in politics. In 1948 he even ran for Congress. He was a Socialist and sometimes accused of being a Communist. I find that somewhat amusing because he was too independent to belong to any party. The hardcore Communists didn’t want him. Kent was too much of a maverick. His confrontation with Sen. Joseph McCarthy in the early 1950s caused many of his friends to abandon him, His name and work became anathema. A year after his death, American Artist magazine admitted that after the McCarthy hearings, Rockwell Kent was consciously ignored by much of the art world. Add all this to the diminished status of representational art after World War II – replaced in significance by the abstract expressionist movement. When he died in 1971 almost every obituary focused more on his political activism than on his art.
Ellen Pearce sums up Rockwell Kent’s political activism nicely in her essay in, “Rockwell Kent’s Forgotten Landscapes,” “Kent was one of those people caught uncomfortably between two Americas; one described in the Constitution, the Declaration of Independence, and most grade-school classrooms, and the one where ideals are often subverted by fear and greed; the America that invented itself through cooperation and hard work, and the one where even freedom can become a commodity; an America where every citizen holds tight to the dream of self-determination while it’s foreign policy often denies other peoples the same privilege. Kent was committed to the more idealistic of these cultures, but he moved in a world dominated by the other.”
Where then does Rockwell Kent stand today when compared with the many artists who painted Alaska? Artist and critic Kesler E. Woodward says it best in his introduction to “Painting in the North: Alaskan Art in the Anchorage Museum of History and Art,” “Later in the century, painters of talent and vision would go north to stay. If many of them produced larger bodies of northern work than Kent, and in the end had a greater impact on our image of Alaska, none captured the spirit of the northern landscape with greater passion and clarity than Rockwell Kent.”
Doug Capra lives in Seward with his wife, Cindy. He’s the author of The Spaces Between: Stories from the Kenai Mountains to the Kenai Fjords, and the foreword to the reprint of a special edition of Wilderness: A Journal of Quiet Adventure in Alaska published by Wesleyan University Press in 1996.