American Sabbatical 002: 8/28-30/96


8/28/96.. Vermont.

Yesterday was our first full day on the road, and my butt already hurts. Too much driving, not enough walking. We spent Tuesday night with David and Anci in Woodbury, high up the Green Mountains, where David coached me in nerdology. He had me downloading software from the net, including a browser, and then sent me spinning into the web. There’s not enough time in this life for spider games. I feel like a fly trapped in puter-time, anyhow. David insists that it’s better to watch TV while computing, so all the wait times get used, but I find that sort of hyperactivity a bit crazed. In fact, the dissociative quality of computing makes me nervous. I want to get the whole story in sequence, but it’s a bits and pieces world. I did figure out how to do E-mail, though, and our broadcast log begins here.


(Click on images
to see blowups.)


We rolled down out of the Green Mountains onto the Champlain plain at Burlington. Seth and Klara are talking about settling there this winter, so we wanted to take a look. Young town with a lake and mountains. Pretty good choice, I’d say. It was fog and drizzle in the early morning hills, but the sun was out in the valley, and summer hot by mid-day.

Shelburne Barn
We went south along the lake to the Shelburne Museum where we received a shock. Entrance fee (even with our senior citizen discount) was $15 per. Ouch. I begged off and went outside to paint the big round red barn, while Peggy did the tour. She griped to the guides and they gave her a free pass for me, so I could see the circus.
Shelburne is a very strange museum. A motley collection from all periods of Americana, with some Impressionist classics thrown in, all viewed in reconstructed Victorian buildings. In fact, you could only look at the Manets and Cassats from the doorways of period bedrooms and parlors. The circus is a collection of splendid carved carousel animals and about a million carved and painted circus performers, 8-12 inches tall. Great fun, but for $15?

We continued on down the Champlain Valley, through lush dairy country full of shining silos. We realized that silos are an American emblem. Towers of corn, the American grain. In the sultry haze the big farms looked like Italian hill towns, and we stopped for Peggy to do a pastel of a “Vermont Campanile”. Then we cranked up Rory Block on the tunebox and roared through the wafting manure to Steve and Mary Ellin’s house, high in the hills above Sandgate. On the way we suddenly came out of the low rent New York border towns into a clatch of chic boutiques: Montgomery, an outletville like Freeport. It was amusing to see New Yorkers honking horns and waving fists in the hills of Vermont.

Vermont Campanile



Steve and Mary Ellin’s house is way up a two-track, with a spectacular view of highhunched hills. One of the best parts of this trek will be connecting with old friends, and Steve is our oldest friend: he introduced us. Steve’s 4-year-old showed us how to hotdog a kiddiecar down the loose gravel driveway, and how to make a dragon-boomer out of a stick and a puppet. Steve is finishing up his new book “Eco-Pioneers” and is in the throes of publishing deadlines. That’s the other side of dropping in on people: they aren’t on sabbatical. Still it’s wonderful to beard lions in their dens. We listened to Mary Ellin’s latest tape. She’s starting a new career as a cabaret singer, and we shared thoughts on the evolution of careers in the arts. Steve and I agreed that we should stick with our chosen work, but evolve our mindset. For sure we are going through changes this year. More to follow.



We spent Thursday morning on Sinner’s Hill in Sandgate watching the mountain view resolve out of the mists. First Minister’s Hill, then the Reclining Woman, finally Equinox Mt. and the bright blue sky. Then we rattled down the rocky two-track and headed west again, out of the clumped-together hills of Vermont into the wider valleys of New York. Up the west side of the Champlain Valley, through shadowman territory (those black silhouette lawn ornaments jumped out at us all day), to Ticonderoga. After reading Rabble in Arms aloud last winter it was exciting to see Skenesboro (“Birthplace of the US Navy”) and other sites in the tale.




Ticonderoga appears below you around a lakeside curve on Rt.22 much as Burgoyne’s men must have seen it from Mt. Defiance: a very imposing structure guarding the passage to the North. Up close the fort shrinks to human scale (is this true of all heralded spots?), and the tales become more plausible. Peggy was totally enthralled, pumped the guides, watched the reenactments, perused the displays, was stirred by the rumble of drums in the stone courtyard, the blast of canon. I went outside and down to the foot of the battlements to get a sense of how hard it would be to scale the walls, and how difficult for Knox to lower the canons to the boats below. Not so dramatic a height as imagined. I sat at the foot of the South wall and did a watercolor. A red-tail hawk lit in the tree in the foreground and patiently watched while I sketched him in.

We supped on bread and cheese and tea and headed up the lake to the KOA campground (thank you Bilfil) at AuSable Chasm (thank you Ktextor), getting in just before dusk and a shower, so we were all snug and tented down for the night.

Friday we began the day on foot, walking in the gorge (Ausable Chasm). It was gorgeous. A great waterslice out of rectilinear sandstone cliffs, with a roaring river in its throat. The engineering and installation of the walkways and bridges was as fascinating as the more sublime workmanship. What the Indians would have thought about charging $9 a head for folks to walk in a gully?

AuSable Chasm


Having sweated off our breakfast in the company of Quebecois tourists we set out on our next quest : the Rockwell Kent collection, supposedly at Plattsburgh. But the campground phonebook said there was a “Rockwell Kent Legacy” at a number in Ausable Forks, just up the road. So we tracked it down (thanks to the local postmistress) to a farm along a back road. Behind the farmyard (all painted black and white) rose a chain of Adirondack peaks, looking for all the world like one of Kent’s Greenland landscapes. The place was called “Asgaard Farm”. But there wasn’t a soul in evidence. After driving all over we stopped a woman walking the road and she told us that Kent had indeed lived there and his widow still did, but no longer gave openhouse tours, and Kent’s paintings were at SUNY Plattsburgh.

Illustration from Moby Dick
by Rockwell Kent

Thence we thithered. Hidden in the back of the library, behind the turmoil of university reconstruction, is a gem of a collection: paintings, prints, china (designed for MACY’S!!), etc., and an enthusiastic docent and student aid who showed us all the special treasures. It’s strange to be shown somebody’s old bookplates by a reverent scholar in white gloves. I giggle to think that some dogchewed Brycetoy might end up in a serious collection. Yikes.

Eventually we staggered out into the sunshine, with our eyes full of radiant sunsets, the dazzle on snow, and nubile Eskimo girls. And we escaped from Plattsburgh into the Labor Day mountains, with America in hot pursuit.

Just west of Plattsburgh the Champlain Valley vegetation changes into the arboreal forests we know and love. The oaks disappear and big spruces darken the slopes. Lake Placid, Tupper and Long Lakes are postcard visions of the North Woods, but the roadsides here aren’t cluttered with the detritus of free enterprise, like down home. This is a great parkland, so commerce is crowded into the towns, and the highways are just for eyesfull. Our road, to the Goodnow Flowage, winds and dips through paper company acreage and descends to a spectacular gem. Right now the full moon is shining down the length of the lake to this beautiful cottage and I’m going to bed. G’night.

(At this point Peggy joins the conversation.)

(Memo #1)

August 30 - Rockwell Kent Day

WHO? 20th century American artist

WHAT? gallery of his artwork + his farm

WHERE ? SUNY Plattsburgh

WHEN? mid 20th century

HOW? owned farm in area, donated works to college

TOPICS: Rockwell Kent’s art / life, geography of Kent (he painted in Greenland, Tierra Del Fuego, Monhegan, Ausable Forks, Ireland, Newfoundland), McCarthyism & art, printmaking.

QUESTIONS: How you find marvels in your travels?

In the year of our Lord (Rockwell Kent)
SUNY Plattsburgh Art Museum

Today was Rockwell Kent Day with serendipity on our side. We had seen a Rockwell Kent Gallery in Plattsburgh mentioned in small print under a reproduction in an art book, and this spurred us to come to Plattsburgh, New York. We knew nothing more. Had he lived here? Worked here? Had a daughter at SUNY? Ideally, we would have done research before, but on everything?

At our KOA campground I looked in the phonebook and found “R. Kent Legacies, Asgaard Farm” and a phone number. That sounded perfect. I asked where the exchange was and was told Ausable Forks. We looked on a map and headed there. No signs for the illustrious painter anywhere on Main Street, Ausable Forks, so we stop in the Post Office and ask. “Oh, yes, cross the little bridge, follow the river, look for a sign in a mile and a half”. We did so. Sure enough, there was the legacies sign. In we go, pitted drive and no signs!!! Onward to a beautiful plateau of fields with a spectacular view of mountains to the west. We agree that it was a Rockwell Kent landscape. But where was the gallery? The museum? The crowds? No one around. Beautiful white barns with cupolas, lawn chairs, even a barbecue. Small blue bungalow. We follow dirt track to rather run down small house. No one anywhere. Had we missed it??? We took the main farm road out to the pavement. Taking pictures. We drove on hoping for enlightenment. It came.

We saw a greyhaired woman walking and stopped. “Can you help us?” We told about our Kent quest. She had known Kent before his death and his fourth wife Sally still lived there. Sally’s second husband had organized tours hence the “legacies” sign, but he died and there were no longer tours. The big house had burned down while Kent was still alive, and they saved some things. Sally now lived in the small blue house we saw. She had broken both hips, was infirm. There were some Kent works in the house, but the better works were in Plattsburgh. Our eyes lit up. Oh, yes, they’d given many works to SUNY PLATTSBURGH. (Actually Kent had tried to give his works to a museum in MAINE !!! Robert Henri brought Kent to Monhegan and he'd felt akin to the place, but the museum didn’t like his politics and had refused the gift, so he gave them to The Hermitage in St Petersburg). Our lovely informant told us the folks in Ausable Forks hadn’t cared for Mr. Kent because of his views (was it the fourth Mrs. Kent or his politics we wondered). He apparently was enamored of Soviet Russia in the 1930’s, and he became so suspect during the McCarthy era in the 1950’s that he lost his passport. He also had a period in which he painted in a very Soviet social realism style.

On to Plattsburgh. Follow SUNY signs, ask the first person we see. We get directed through buildings, up, down to...The Rockwell Kent Gallery, a marvel. 26 major Kent paintings including several of the farm in Ausable Forks with the mountain view we had just seen. We ask the woman on duty about him. “Asgaard” means “of the meadows.” Logical. Some paintings we have seen in books, others never. He has wonderful colors and skies. Several oils of Monhegan, one very depressing allegorical work showed Kent and his wife in despair in a bleak Newfoundland house. Three landscapes showed the view we had seen from our car an hour before. We also saw illustrations, prints, posters. Kent ran for Congress for the American Labor party (something for me to research). Asking more questions, the attendant got involved. She showed us many news clipping, then took us behind scenes to show us artifacts in storage, a stone used for a Kent lithograph with a copy of the print. Also dish ware he had designed for Macy’s in the 1920’s. Designs of lower Manhattan, clipper ships. Another amazement, since I recognized one dish ( a picture of a kneeling Greenland Eskimo woman) from my childhood. In a phone call my father corroborates this memory. We had had a Kent dish, where on earth had it gone??? Another family mystery.

The college student inventorying the collection unlocked drawers, donned gloves (human hands carry oils that can damage important artifacts) and showed more prints. They have prints Kent made from one woodcut but experimenting with different colored inks. He did bookplates too.

"The Road to Asgaard" by Rockwell Kent (Hermitage Museum)

Kent’s kayak from his time in Greenland is hanging from the roof. No postcards (apparently a copyright problem). We bought note cards and a t-shirt and started back to the car, stopped at a huge Kent poster mural (maybe 6 X 10) and headed out. A fabulous series of events.


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