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From the Tree

Generations of artists are not uncommon. In the families of Pieter Brueghel, Charles Willson Peale, N. C. Wyeth, and Abbott Handerson Thayer, a prominent father/artist figure generally assumed the responsibility of guiding his own children's technical development. In the family of Rockwell Kent (1882-1971), however, this was not the case. Kent's influence came not through direct instruction but from the physical presence of his work-paintings, drawings, prints, books--and his strong philosophical convictions.

There is no precedence in the Kent family for a direct artistic lineage, per se, though, Kent's great uncle, Cleveland Rockwell (1837-1907), his cousin, Alice Kent Stoddard Pearson (ca. 1885-1976), his aunt, Ellen Josephine Holgate ('Auntie Jo,' 1858-1935), and his sister Dorothy Kent (1888-1981), all practiced the fine arts with varying degrees of success. To this broad stream, which culminates in the current exhibition, must be added the family of Kathleen Whiting Kent, Rockwell Kent's first wife. Her uncle, Abbott H.Thayer (1849-1921), reigned as the artistic beacon from which generations, including his daughter, Gladys Thayer Reasoner (ca. 1886-1945), and son, Gerald, have been guided, both stylistically and topically.

Harrison Lake,1893, Cleveland Salter Rockwell, oil on canvas, 12 x 30"

Though Kent never formally studied the arts with his elders, his family certainly provided the cultural stimulus. In addition to the artwork by Auntie Jo and Cleveland Rockwell, that is known to have existed within the family home, the works of other artists were also displayed. The practice and enjoyment of music and literature were family traditions. At the age of 13 Kent accompanied Auntie Jo on a trip to Dresden and Holland, where she pursued her study of decorating china and flower painting. When Kent expressed a desire to paint, his mother financed summer sessions with William Merritt Chase. It was Auntie Jo, a one time student of Abbott Thayer, who arranged Kent's apprenticeship with her former teacher; she also arranged for Kent's first solo exhibition at Clausen Galleries in New York. Without a doubt, the dichotomy of Kent's childhood-living in affluence one moment and relative poverty the next--had as much influence on his direction and success, as did growing up in a family that loved the arts. His social fabric and work ethic was born of his childhood environment and led him to believe in Life above Art. Kent became a bridge between Victorianism and Modernity, that for subsequent generations has served as a source of familial irritation as well as inspiration. Kent studied with Abbott Thayer during the summer of 1903. He quickly befriended Thayer's son Gerald and became a frequent visitor at the family's New Hampshire home. By 1908 Kent met and fell in love with Gerald's cousin, Kathleen Whiting; the two were married on New Years Eve, 1908.

Artists In Their Own Right

Portrait of the Artist's Sister,
ca. 1879, Abbott H. Thayer,
oil on canvas with wooden strips,
24-1/8 x 19-3/16"
In Thayer's Portrait of the Artist's Sister (ca. 1879) Susan Thayer Whiting sits upright, her fair skin and lace shawl sharply contrasting against the darkened background and frame in which Thayer has placed her. Her youthful appearance belies her future position as matriarch of eight children and countless grandchildren.

Unlike many of Thayer's paintings, in which his figures become angels, his Portrait of the Artist's Sister is not idealized beauty but real beauty.

In Gladys Thayer Reasoner's portrait of her father, Abbott Thayer (1912), she likewise surrounds her model in darkness. She portrays him, adorned in a sheepskin vest, in the snow blessed forested landscape he found comfort in. The book he holds-perhaps his beloved Thoreau-and the environment he occupies, were worlds that he freely shared with Kent, who in turn shared them with his own children.

There is no evidence to suggest that Cleveland Rockwell was as influential on Kent's career as his Auntie Jo and Abbott Thayer. Kent was certainly aware of Rockwell's work with the U. S. Coast Survey and his artistic accomplishments, as evidenced by his keeping the work on paper entitled, The Sugar Loaf. Hudson River (ca. 1857-1859). Kent may not have known, however, that his great uncle preceded him to South America, western Canada and Alaska. Rockwell's oil on canvas, Harrison Lake (1893), rendered in the Hudson River School style typical of the period, is a testament to his explorations north of the Canadian border.

Portrait of Abbott H. Thayer,
ca. 1907-1912, Gladys Thayer Reasoner,
oil on canvas, 48 x 30-5/8"

Mending the Nets, 1922,
Alice Kent Stoddard Pearson,
oil on canvas, 30 x 25"
Kent had regular contact with his cousin Alice Kent Stoddard Pearson, including mutual stays on Monhegan Island, Maine, and it is likely that the two were aware of each other's current accomplishments. Unlike Kent, who stayed on Monhegan during two distinct periods, Stoddard Pearson returned to the Island throughout her life, where her associations translated into portraits of the local and seasonal residents. Fellow artist Andrew Winter sat for her, as did fisherman Manville Davis, the subject of her portrait, Mending the Nets.

While in her twenties, Kent's sister Dorothy moved permanently from Tarrytown, New York to New Mexico. There she continued her study of the violin as well as painting. In 1917 she joined her brother and nephew (Rocky) in submitting artwork for the mammoth Society of Independent Artists Exhibition held at New York's Grand Central Palace. Like Kent, Dorothy found her voice in a variety of media-watercolors, oils, lithography-and, as we see in her compositions of the American southwest, she reduced the complexities of nature to highly stylized, modeled forms.
Untitled, San Juan Compound, Dorothy Kent,
watercolor, 19 x 25-1/4"

Untitled, Goat in the Cabin,
ca 1918, Rockwell Kent III,
pen and ink on paper, 8-1/2 x 5-1/2"
Kent's artistic influence on his own children was relatively minor. Only two of his five children dabbled with the visual arts, and neither of them pursued it as a career. His eldest son Rocky found expression through play acting and writing as much as through drawing and painting. However, enraptured Rocky may have been with visual expression during his adolescence,his later career search led him through astronomy, dairy farming and forestry before settling on physics.

Rocky's childhood drawings range in topic from naive interpretations of real animals-goats, fox, magpies-to collages of incompatible cultures laid out like American Indian ledger drawings. Some of these works appear in Kent's book, Wilderness, and some in illustrated letters to his mother, while others appear in Rocky's personal volume of natural history he titled Triypool. Rocky's drawings were also displayed in Kent's Alaska Drawings exhibition in 1919 at Knoedler Galleries. One of his fanciful paintings, that hung in the 1917 Independents Exhibition, sold to the artist, Abraham Walkowitz for $25.

Untitled, Backyard Fence, Semenary Street, 1956,
Barbara Kent Carter, charcoal on newsprint, 6-3/4 x 9"

Rocky's youngest sister, Barbara, studied at the Art Students' League for two nonconsecutive years during the early 1930s. As she recalls, the League was loosely governed, allowing students to study from the model or the 'book' whenever they desired. Barbara continued her studies at home by copying her father's work, which may explain the stylistic similarities between her sketches of the backyard and farm in Vermont and some of Kent's early work. Throughout the years Barbara continued to sketch for her own enjoyment. Her domestic responsibilities prevented her from making a living as an artist.

The amateur artist/author who created such works as Hosea, x, 12 (seen in this exhibition), King Street, Argosy!, and Oak Street, New York was also named Rockwell Kent. (King Street was previously attributed to Kent -- see Dan Burne Jones, The Prints of Rockwell Kent, #154.) Rockwell Kent (1858-1934), of Brooklyn, NY, was a renown amateur oarsman with the Nonpareil Rowing Club during the 1870s-1880s. By profession he was a proofreader, employed, during his career, by several New York newspapers including The Sun, The New York Herald, and The New York American.

Hosea X, 12, 1922, Percy Rockwell Kent,
mixed media on paper, 4-1/2 x 5-1/2"

The professional artist, Kent, and blood relative to the artists in this exhibition, confirmed his knowledge of the other Rockwell Kent in a March 17, 1970 letter to his cousin, Richard Travis Kent. In this letter he wrote, "There appears to be a rash of Rockwell Kents in the world, and as far as I can make out many of them quite unrelated to me." He goes on to say that "there was a Rockwell Kent in Brooklyn years ago. I came into correspondence with him and learned that his name, Rockwell, was derived from the doctor who brought him into the world in the Civil War era."

Rockwell Kent, from Brooklyn, lived with his wife, Sara Sloane Kent, at 1198 Pacific Street. Sara Sloane Kentıs signature is included on Hosea, x, 12 with her husband's. This is the same address that is stamped on the verso of the marine picture and poem titled, Argosy!. Two variations of Argosy! are included in two (allegedly of ten) bound manuscripts in the Kent Collection, Rare Book and Manuscript Library, Columbia University -- one dedicated to Kentıs sister, Charlotte, the second to his niece, Dorothy Ruth Kent Bennett.

Inherited Inspiration

Ice Light, 1996, Tim Carter, silver gelatin print, 13 x 19"

Sunspots, North Atlantic 2000, Thayer Carter, acrylic on paper, 34 x 42"

Few of Kent's innumerable descendants ever really knew the family patriarch. Some of the eldest grandchildren, Tim and Thayer Carter and Patrick Finney included, had the opportunity to receive feedback on their creations, from Kent, during their extended stays at Asgaard.

Tim, who recalls a moment of rejection by his grandfather, overcame his childhood embarrassment to pursue the arts. He has chosen photography as both a means of expressing himself and of making a living. He prefers to use a black and white format because he believes it is better at conveying the starkness of the landscape he sees. Tim feels that his piece, Ice Light, with its 'great opposition between light and dark,' and its statement on 'the immensity of the land' reflects his grandfather's influence. The layout of this composition, with its sloped mountainside and three stacked horizontal planes, resembles Kent's painting Sledging, in reverse. Tim varies this formula of stacked planes in Encampment, which, with its vertical furrows, distant structures and heavy cloud cover, recalls Kent's views of Whiteface Mountain looking across Asgaard's eastern fields. Early Pond and Lone Tree are lyrically infused, begging the viewer to search the compositions for a multi-tiered meaning, as if they were a subtle version of a Jerry Uelsmann photograph. Some of this haunting effect comes from the artist's manipulation of the imagery. Tim's Lone Tree reminds us of Kent's use of the same subject-Ancient Elm and Ancient Oak-in which the tree, like the Yggdrasil of Norse mythology, and the family tree, refers to continuity, heritage, and strong independence.

Some observers have noted striking similarities between Tim and Thayer Carters' compositions. Considering that these brothers have seen little of each other and each other's work over the past several years, one could draw the conclusion that Kent is their common source of inspiration. An obvious comparison is Tim's Ice Light and Thayer's painting, Last Snow (not in this show). In each composition, rugged mountainous terrain is the theme. Though the frontal plane in Last Snow is busy with rocks and other natural objects, in stark contrast to the barren swath of gray in Ice Light, both works share similar compositional elements, a common texture and the same limited tonal range.

Another work by Thayer that is derivative of Kent is Sunspots, North Atlantic. The artist's view of the ocean from the starboard side of a ship, dissected by mast and rigging, is similar to the illustrations The Lonsdale, in Voyaging and Cutting In, in Moby Dick, images by Kent that Thayer would have known since childhood. As Thayer notes these recurring themes: 'man's relationship with nature, a feeling of loneliness and vastness, and a sense that things are bigger than we are,' are what he considers Kent's influence on his work. Vermillion Cliffs exemplifies these characteristics, albeit in a climate that Kent sought to avoid, and like all of Thayer's work it highlights his appreciation of design. Thayer rebelled against the American realist style for years, experimenting with Expressionism and Impressionism before arriving at what is natural for him. His Jeremiah O'Brien, more like a work by Ralston Crawford, follows the precisionist bent that his grandfather often skirted. Cordova, Night Reader and Creston, Colorado, emphasize Thayer's inquisitiveness in finding a medium and style that will best express his ideas.

Chris Kent continues the tradition of working in a realist style. Like his grandfather he trained in a branch of architecture-landscape architecture-which has had some effect on how he perceives and constructs his compositions. His medium of choice-watercolor-and the manner in which he applies it, as well as the layout of his compositions is more like the work of Cleveland Rockwell, than of Kent.

It may be the nature of his medium or the effect he wishes to achieve but Chris's use of light is akin to Kent's. Like both of these ancestors Chris has traveled to many of the same places-the northeast, Alaska, the west coast-to indulge in his love of the world and to enhance his 'library of real world images.' As a result, he contributes to a historic document of our changing environment.

Manana Island, Chris Kent,
watercolor, 9 x 12"

Supporting Columns, 2000,
Clara Dennison,
monotype, 20 x 16"
Another family member with whom Chris shares some artistic affinity is his sister Clara Dennison. The common ground in their works is a spiritual interpretation of the landscape that they shared in childhood (eastern Massachusetts); her Supporting Columns and Silently by the River, are examples of this. Clara finds that the monotype process, 'with its inherent surprises, layered textures and colors,' enables her to explore 'what can be seen and what needs to be imagined.' Or, to put it another way, she says that 'the art of seeing is based on an intuitive recognition of the essential spirit of a place or phenomenon.' Though she, like Chris, had no real contact with their grandfather, they experienced his world vicariously through his artwork and books. Unexpectedly perhaps, there exists artistic kinship between Clara and Kent in her more abstracted works-A Treasure and Around the Oak. With these compositions it appears that she was less concerned with constructing a specific image than she was curious to know where her brush might lead her. As a result she has created exhaustively detailed feathery blades of grass. Clara's attention to succinct line mirrors her grandfather's technique, at the same time her free flowing brushwork resembles the under painting we find in many of Kent's early landscapes.

Clara's feathery brush strokes also bring to mind her cousin Molly Carter's work. Molly works with feathers, juxtaposed with crinoline framing and other materials, to create large sculptural installations. In her sculpture, A Pair of Feather Skirts, which is represented here by three relief etching studies, the two diametrically opposed elements form an impractical garment, or a 'beauty modifier,' as Molly prefers to call it. In this work, as well as her series, How to Measure a Wig, and her prosthetic-like shadow puppets, Molly explores 'the relationship we have with our bodies and how one goes about enhancing or changing their appearance to fit culturally defined ideals of beauty.' Her three-times great uncle Abbott Thayer's approach to defining idealized beauty was down-to-earth demonstrated by the simplicity with which he depicted woman or child, but somewhat transmundane when he attached wings to his figures.
How to Measure a Wig II, 2001,
Molly Carter, relief etching and
etched plexiglass, 13 x 15"

Ellen Pearce recreates another type of tension in her work, that which exists between human activity and the natural world. The origins of this inharmony may have its roots in the 'family legacy of emotional austerity,' as she calls it, that was manifested when her mother and grandfather severed relations. This left Ellen without a personal relationship with Kent but she, like many of her cousins, knew him through his abundant work. In many of her landscapes, Ellen expresses 'tension' in the form of 'a road cutting through an otherwise unsullied view.'
Monday Morning, 2001, Ellen Pearce
acrylic on canvas, 18 x 26"

Her Brave Old World is unique among her oeuvre, being a composite piece: seven sequential canvases as one work. Brave Old World walks us through the seasons of a population. In it we see both the conflict between nature (paint on canvas) and humankind (affixed paper) and the irrepressibility of the two. Kent was considerably more pessimistic on this topic when he created The New Year After World War III-a naked toddler stands alone in a skull and bone littered landscape, with nothing more than the galaxy to cover him.

Patrick Finney's outlook on life is also somewhat dark. In segments from three sequential works he 'challenge[s] the dominant political, social and religious paradigms' that exist in America. The Industrial Zone asserts that Senate minority leader Trent Lott may not be as righteous as he would like the public to believe. Patrick seems to be illustrating that Lott, like Clinton prosecutor, Ken Starr, hides his own misdeeds by exposing the failings of others. This type of 'three dimensional suggestive realism,' as this genre is referred to today, found popularity during the 1960s through artists such as Robert Crumb and S. Clay Wilson. Related forms of sharp edged satire, however, long precede thedays of Crumb. Kent took the pseudonym Hogarth, Jr.-a reference to the biting humorist, William Hogarth-when he illustrated the wit of George Chappell and Franklin P. Adams.
Newt's Little Indiscretion, 1995
Patrick Finney, brush, pen and
ink on paper, 15 x 10">


Portrait of Auntie Jo,
unknown artist, ca. 1880,
oil on panel, 10-1/2 x 8">
When I began this project I had little more than an idea to formulate the content and layout of the exhibition. I had not seen most of the art that I was about to work with, and I had reference notes hanging from the Kent and Whiting family trees but no formal structure on which to anchor this knowledge. All of this now makes great sense to me. Yet, like most Kent projects I work on, I now know that there is more information out there than what I was able to include in here.

It is interesting to observe that what is displayed on the closing wall in the exhibition, one wall on which I juxtapose works by each of the descendant artists, Kent has been reincarnated using the artwork of his grandchildren and great-grandchild. The palette, of course, is predominantly blue. All the compositions depict the out-of-doors-mountains and marine scenes in particular. And the storytelling is reduced to black and white, modeled forms.

As seen in Tim Carter's Winter North and Chris Kent's Mount Diablo we come to realize that we are little in the grand scheme of things. But in Clara Dennison's Moonlite Image we discover that however little we are, we are, and therefore are important. Ellen Pearce's Monday Morning and Thayer Carter's Upperdeck remind us that we are on the move, each in our own direction, searching. And in Molly Carter's Neck Extension: Formal Wear and Patrick Finney's Peterbuilt Appreciation we find that by questioning who we are, we learn to accept differences in others.

-Scott R.Ferris, Guest Curator

Copyright, Scott R. Ferris


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