Editor’s note: In part two of the edited, transcribed interview by Lighthouse Digest Historian Debra Baldwin, renowned artist Jamie Wyeth recounts events from his own three-decade ownership of Tenants Harbor Lighthouse on Southern Island in Maine. Part one, covering his father Andrew’s time, was published in the November/December 2021 issue of Lighthouse Digest.
My parents next bought Allen Island. I learned that was coming up for sale, so I told my mother you have to look at this – you have to buy this island. That really got her going, so she bought it, and then bought Benner Island next to it. At that point, I was having a real hard time on Monhegan with the amount of people out there. I mean, I love Monhegan, but there are a lot of other people who love it, too. I always have said that I wish it were a destination for dentists, not artists because they’re everywhere. I was getting disenchanted, so my parents said, well then, why don’t you move to Southern? I had visited many times and thought it was wonderful. So, my brother got the farm in Cushing and I got the lighthouse.
When I first moved here, I thought, good God, what am I going to do? I can’t paint lighthouses because they’re the symbol of Maine and the most overpainted thing in the world. I’m never going to be able to work here because it will all look like Andrew Wyeth paintings. I thought maybe I’ll paint the bugs on the island or the insects or something. But then I found my own interests. There’s something about living at a lighthouse. As someone once said to me – it’s like running away with the circus.
As a child – I was probably nine or ten – I had my brother Nicky bring me over here, way before we had anything to do with Southern Island. I’d see him going in and out of Tenants Harbor in his boat, so I said, “Can you put me out on this bell buoy? I want to do a painting of the island from the bell.” So, he brought me out and left me on it with my pad and my paints. Well, then the wind kicked up and he, of course, being an older brother, didn’t come back for two hours and left me stranded! It was blowing very strong and the seas were running hard from the west, so the bell was going GONG! GONG! GONG! I thought I was going to go mad!
So, I took off every bit of my clothes and wrapped them around the clappers because it was deafening. I spent two and a half hours on the bell before he showed up and got me off it. And now, here I am living on this lighthouse. So, when I look at the bell buoy out here, it makes me furious with my brother all over again.
The buoy is serviced twice a year and checked so it is on station. Of course, I love it. I use it as a weather barometer because in the winter here, when it gets below zero, the gong loses its tone. It just goes gonk, gonk, gonk and I know it’s cold.
Years later, somebody called here. People were calling me with lighthouse items every second, and this person said, “I have a lighthouse bell are you interested?” I said, “Sure!” So, he drove up from Massachusetts. By the time he arrived, the springs were gone in his car because this thing was so heavy. I have it up here under the flagpole. It once was a bell from a bell buoy because you can tell it was gonged from the outside – that’s where the dents are on it.
In the winter, I row back and forth. It gets extremely cold here and windy. One time, I was zooming along in a Zodiac and you get these ice chunks, that as they roll, they get bigger and bigger like the one that the Titanic hit underwater. I thought I had given enough berth to the thing, but I hit it and went flying over the bow. I luckily ended up on the ice chunk and when I came to, I thought, you know, I’m going to row back and forth from now on.
Another time, I remember coming down and jumping into my peapod to start rowing and I got halfway out here. But it was like rowing in mud because the harbor was starting to freeze and saltwater ice is very tricky. You don’t want to get out and walk on it. So, I turned around and it took me two hours to row back that short distance. Thank God I turned around or I would still be out there. It got to 19-below that night. So, you have to pick your times.
The lighthouse requires an awful lot of paint every year. You have to paint all the time. That’s why at Monhegan light they were very smart – they never painted that tower or the one at Saddleback Ledge.
The wood that is produced now is so terrible that any repairs I do to this place rots in three years. It can’t be more exposed to the weather than in a lighthouse. During a storm, you get an inch of salt on the windows because you get a lot of spray on it. The sea just etches the paint. So, I’m always asking different groups that have lighthouses what the best paint is to do brick for the lighthouse itself because it literally blows off in the winter. The salt just attacks it and, of course, paints have no lead in them now, which makes them not stick very well.
I’ve had the windows reconditioned but these are the original sashes and we’ve just put the weights back in. Even the window locks had “U.S. Lighthouse Service” stamped on them. I have a lamp here going up the tower which says in brass on the lamp base, “Table Lamp.” So, they had to identify everything.
After 1933, the lighthouse was discontinued as an active aid. The three men that bought it from the Lighthouse Service auction had it as a party island. They were always doing pranks on one another. One of the pranks was that the accountant came to the one who lived in New York one day and said, “Do you know, you’ve been paying for snow removal on Southern Island for the last 10 years? It’s added up to quite a bit of money and we’ve been paying it.” But of course, it was a joke. He thought, how can I get back at them? So, he decided I’m going to have a Checker Cab delivered to the island with the bill for it and the transportation sent to their account.
I always thought the story was apocryphal and my God, one day I was going through the woods and I found the block all rusted and the emblem that had the two checker flags on it. There was a local historian, who lived in Owl’s Head – a wonderful man named Ed Coffin – and he dug up photographs of the cab being lowered onto a boat in Rockland! There it is – a New York Checker Cab which was a model T! So, apparently in those early years, whenever you arrived on Southern Island, you’d be met by the Checker Cab that was the transportation that drove you up here to the lighthouse. I thought that it couldn’t be true, but then I found the evidence that it had lived and died here!
Then, as another joke, they did tombstones for themselves and placed them like graves here because I found those one day. I have them on the wall outside here with their names carved in them. So, they went to great effort on these things. They came out here to have fun. Obviously, they were wealthy and well-established.
I know there was a period when my father was here where the drug enforcement people came to him and asked if they could set up in the tower and watch the movement of the boats going in and out at night. My father was very excited over that. I think he did let them for a little bit. Later, he did a painting at night of the lighthouse with shadows up there.
The Coast Guard came to me years later and said they’d like to relight the light. I got very excited and said, how fabulous it would be to live in a working lighthouse! They said they would just need the tower and only use that. Thank God a friend of mine who has a lighthouse in Cape Cod said, “I wouldn’t let them on the property. They’ll just take it over from you.” This was before September 11, but as you know, their mission changed after that. I think I would have been thrown right off of here. Thank God I didn’t go along with it.
There are always dramas here. For instance, this year when I came, we were getting an inordinate amount of ticks out here and I thought, how am I going to deal with this? Somebody suggested guinea hens. So, I got 36 guinea hens - God, the sound of them! And they are without a doubt the stupidest birds around. And, of course, this is a seagull island, so with their interaction I thought, God can you imagine if they crossbreed?
They were doing well for a while and then a coyote swam to the island. I wouldn’t have known had some of the fisherman not called me and said, “You’ve got a friend going back and forth!” The coyote killed 28 of the guinea hens. All the coyote hunters wanted to come out with all their snares and I thought, listen, he’s kind of earned it in a way. I mean, imagine, he’s working the tides and he’s looking at his watch and saying the lighthouse is going to be low tide now – time for me to go over and get a hen. He probably died of overeating since I haven’t seen any sign of him, knock on wood.
So, I’m now down to eight hens and yes, they have taken care of the ticks. I find them sort of amusing. They go along all day long pecking the ground and the seagulls are going along behind them pecking the ground also! I’ve never seen a seagull peck the ground, so the guineas have had an influence on the gulls.
No question the seagulls have influenced my painting. Living alone here, I get to spend a lot of time with gulls and finally, a few years ago, I had them fall asleep next to me. Now, that’s really trusting when a gull will do that. I’ve always been fascinated by seagulls. I love them because they are scavengers and mean to each other. They are not a sweet bird. People paint them as if they are pigeons or doves and they’re not. I did a whole series on the Seven Deadly Sins using gulls to show them.
The island was a little inaccessible to my wife, Phyllis, but I made it as accessible as possible. She would come out here in the winters sometimes. I remember she was sitting here reading the paper and it blew across the room and she thought I don’t think I can stay to live here the year. This is a pretty drafty house. It was built in 1857. She had no experience with lighthouses. She was fascinated as anybody was and found me lighthouse items in odd places. She knew so much of my work was derived from this, so that intrigued her.
I really prefer being here in the winter than in the summer. Being here in a storm is incredible. I remember Phyllis and I came here during “the storm of the century” – I’ve forgotten what year that was. As we were driving down to the shore, on the radio it was saying, “abandon for four miles” and Phyllis said, “Do you think this is a very good idea, us going out there?” I said, “Well, the lighthouse has been there for a couple of hundred years, so I think we’re going to survive.”
It was a huge storm! It sounded like trains were going through the tower itself! I realized later on that there are air vents in the tower and that wind was howling through there. During that storm, I lost part of the dock and I lost a boat, but I loved it! At dawn, I remember going up in the tower and I expected to see huge seas, but it was blowing so hard that it was knocking the top of the sea off so it looked like ice. It was just all white and the wind was screaming across it. It was just great!
There’s no specific time I come out here to Southern, but I avoid Monhegan in the summer. I’m up at 5:30AM every day. I don’t have a designated place where I paint – I paint in the bathroom, I paint everywhere throughout.
I’m pretty boring in that I don’t have hobbies, just painting and not always inspired. There’s a lot of sitting and staring at the ocean. I never tire of looking out at the sea. Monhegan is a pretty large island, but its way out. This is small enough that I can walk around it pretty easily.
In a lighthouse, the sea is completely around you. Everything is reflected so it can’t help but influence your painting and makes a difference in luminosity. I’ve certainly painted the lighthouse in several paintings of mine.
People love lighthouses. They are attracted to them like a magnet. Lighthouses usually become a symbolic thing. First, I was fighting it. Then, I went along with it. Why not use it? It is such a wonderful shape. A lot of the symbolism varies and yet it’s a simple form and that’s where it becomes a readily usable metaphor. So, I fell into what I was going to avoid. It goes beyond the symbolism because you are living in it. It’s part of my life now.
In Sunset Southern Island, the girl lived on North Haven. I was in a grocery store and I saw her and thought she was so extraordinary-looking that I followed her out and got her license plate number. It turned out that her mother worked for the Island Institute in Rockland, so she ended up posing for me quite a bit.
She had this whole thing about being locked in the tower that I thought was kind of fascinating, so it’s somewhat symbolic. She had some emotional and family problems, so she was locked in her mind. The lantern room became her mind and she was conceivably being influenced by the sunset light coming into the tower, hoping there was light at the end of her tunnel. She’s gone on and is happily married now. At the time, I was obsessed with it. I sat in the room up here in the lighthouse, in the library I have, which walks right out into the watch room, so it was perfect to paint from.
I did another one of a Monhegan boy I painted a lot – Orca Bates. There’s one of him and the lantern with an actual lens I painted in it. He was an island child and when I moved from Monhegan to here, I was sort of bringing Monhegan with me. The lighthouse, again, became a metaphor for him. He was a fascinating child because he was born on Manana and very unruly. His friends were seagulls and seals and things like that. He didn’t like people.
People come here and they say you must be running out of things to paint and I think I could live three lifetimes and not run out – and they’re not all lighthouses. There’s the constant of the sea and the changes from day to day.
I really haven’t thought about the future. The lighthouse might go along with the islands my parents had that Colby College is maybe going to take over and use them to keep them active. My mother didn’t want these places to be museums. She wanted to have the students come out and utilize them. These islands have incredible history, so I think eventually Southern Island will be part of that, which would be a good thing. I did a lot of work here. My father did a lot of work and it may be of interest for people to see. It gives it a life rather than just a museum.
Yes, the history of the island fascinates me and the people that have come before and the ones that will come after. It does something to you. Imagine what this place was – the presence of it – the fact that it was an important part of maritime history in this area. This is considered bucolic now, but back then, this was a very active place.
I’ve been here longer than most keepers lived here. There’s an affinity to it. I gathered those lighthouse jobs were like outposts at that point. The history permeates the work that I do here. It can’t help but affect it and all the people who have come before – living alone even more so.
There’s one painting I did – it’s the figure running toward the lighthouse with the red jacket, the hair blown and the wildness of it – and here’s this lighthouse. That was pretty symbolic of the emotions, I think. You learn to live with yourself when you live alone on an island. You’ve got to get used to that.
There’s something about being on an island, and particularly if you go up into the tower of the lighthouse, you see the perimeters of your world. I think it gives you a certain sense of omnipotence – I mean there’s your world! You don’t need anything bigger than that.
This story appeared in the
Jan/Feb 2022 edition of Lighthouse Digest Magazine. The print edition contains more stories than our internet edition, and each story generally contains more photographs - often many more - in the print edition. For subscription information about the print edition, click here.
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