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December 1, 2013

Walk of a Lifetime: Writer discovers views fit for a painting while walking the cliffs of Prout’s Neck, home to famous artist Winslow Homer’s seaside studio

Editor’s Note: Today, we continue the New England Journal as Mike Lunsford writes of a day walking the Maine seacoast in search of the great artist, Winslow Homer. Join Mike in January for the fifth installment of this series as he visits Edna St. Vincent Millay’s rural New York farm, Steepletop.

PROUT’S NECK, MAINE — On a trip that took us over 3,400 miles and through seven states, my wife, Joanie, and I were disappointed in only two things. As we made our way through New England last summer in search of poets and painters and a little peace and quiet, we never saw a moose in the wild, and we weren’t able to peek inside Winslow Homer’s famous seacoast studio. Besides straining our eyes mile after green mile from Vermont to Maine, there was little we could do about the first setback, but I think we more than made up for the second.

We were a bit saddlesore by the time we drove into Maine. We had already visited the reclusive Emily Dickinson in Amherst, Massachusetts, driven nearly the full length of Vermont in trailing the flinty poet Robert Frost, and had even made a pilgrimage to reticent Calvin Coolidge’s boyhood home and gravesite in a tiny stop in the road called Plymouth Gap. But, for the first time on the trip, we decided to stop at a visitor’s center just after we had crossed into “The Pine Tree State,” and we were glad we did.

Maine is, of course, a veritable “vacationland.” Despite being a big state, it is home to just over a million people. It has mountains and beaches and lighthouses and lakes.

The Bay of Fundy and Acadia National Park are there, and so are feasts of lobsters and clams, although we thought our best meal there came with fresh haddock. We had originally planned to make our trip one of a literary nature, and we had chosen wisely: E.B. White’s farm is there; so is the great naturalist writer, Sarah Orne Jewett’s place; and, poet Edwin Arlington Robinson still seems to haunt the streets of Gardiner with his Tilbury Town characters. But since we were going to be temporary Mainers anyway, I told Joanie that we just had to see Homer’s seacoast home on Prout’s Neck, now owned and maintained by the Portland Museum of Art.

“Oh, I’m afraid that will be impossible,” I was told by a very polite state parks employee who manned the counter at the visitor’s center. “Homer’s studio house isn’t open much, and unless you made arrangements to get tickets months ago, you’ll be out of luck,” she said amid the chaos of map-seeking kayakers, boot-shod hikers and those in frantic need of a restroom.

The good fortune that had seemed to accompany us on this trip, first in surviving the neck-breaking pace and the congested construction zones of rain-soaked highways in northern New York state, was still in our hip pockets in Maine. “I think I can tell you a way you can still see the studio, though,” she added, “if you’re up for a walk.”

Prout’s Neck is actually a peninsula in the town of Scarborough so our first step was in getting there. Our rented SUV wasn’t packed as if we were the Joads, but we definitely knew we were on moneyed turf once we approached the Neck. It was obvious that we were driving through prime real estate as we headed up Black Point Road toward the coast, and, as our kindly guide had instructed us, to the famous Black Point Inn, where we’d begin our search for Homer.

Originally called Libby’s Neck, for its first owner, then Black Point, for its dark appearance from the sea because of its rocky coast and dense pines, the area eventually was named for a prominent merchant, Timothy Prout, who came there to live in the late 18th century.

Within another 80 years or so, the Neck was best known as a summer retreat for the established wealthy class, and a whole host of grand hotels and resorts sprouted up. Of those, the Black Point Inn — first called Southgate House — is the sole survivor, but the passing years since it was built in 1873 have done nothing to diminish its grace and beauty.

We went to the inn to walk its coastal trail — “The Cliff Walk” — one that encircles the entire Neck and meanders along the jags and seaside cliffs for a few miles. We were more than ready for a meal before our hike, and taking the advice we had from our friend at the visitor’s center, we decided a little elegant dining at the inn’s well-known restaurant, The Point, was in order before we started our walk.

The view from our table was stunning: the calm bluegreen waters of Garrison Cove to the south and west, a well-appointed lawn and the slash of a bentgrass fairway of the Prout’s Neck Golf Course off to the north. It was a blue day of sea breezes and salt air, and we sat for a good while soaking in the place.

It was probably obvious that we were first-time visitors to the inn when Jim Hunter, The Point’s manager came to our table. He was relatively new to the area too — coming from San Francisco to the Neck — and he told us that we’d better have our shoes tied and our legs limber for the walk that he said would be one of the most beautiful we had ever taken. He wasn’t wrong. He also insisted on halving our lunch tab, which made him Christmas card—eligible in my book.

We left the rich flooring and watercolor painting-lined walls of the inn’s fabled Oak Room — the area’s first speakeasy in Prohibition days — to begin our walk on the northern edge of the Neck. Passing a century-old pump house, we soon found an open look at the temperamental Atlantic, decent-sized breakers slamming into fingers of fractured rock. The pink beach roses, mostly untrimmed and running wild along the path, did little to hide a number of impressive homes, but our sights were set more on the sea and the countless, perfectly-round and tubular-shaped pieces of basalt and granite that covered the shoreline. We soon had our pockets and camera bag filled with them, and knowing, like a miner wandering in the desert who has to give up his gold in order to survive, we would eventually have to sacrifice many of them before we made it back.

A little climbing was involved as we eventually faced due south and hiked along the tops of the tallest cliffs on the trail. With noisy white gulls floating above us, and speed-walking plovers chattering if we approached their nests, we encountered virtually no one to spoil the reverie, although one young couple passed us heading back to the inn, their thin sandals and resolve apparently unfit for the walk.

By and by, one spectacular view following another, Homer’s studio came into view. Had we originally walked south from the inn down Black Point Road, we would have gotten to it much more quickly, but wandering up and down the rocky trail, our heads bobbing over the hedges and granite slabs, proved much more rewarding. At one point, where a rickety bit of fencing kept hikers from taking a wayward step toward eternity, we could see Homer’s green-painted porch — his “piazza,” as he was known to call it.

Winslow Homer, born in 1836, was to become one of America’s best-known painters; he first stepped foot on Prout’s Neck in 1875. By then, his brother was already there, the wise owner of most of the real estate in the area. Remarkably, the painter was mostly self-taught, and first made a name for himself as an illustrator. By 1883, he decided to close his studio in New York and move to Maine; he spent most of his remaining 27 years there, unmarried, in relative solitude, living and working in what he often referred to as his “factory,” less than 100 feet from the Atlantic’s big breakers. He died in the studio in 1910.

Although the June day we had made our pilgrimage to the Neck was a soft and warm one — hardly the weather that Homer made famous with his ferocious and powerful seascapes — we both felt we knew why he chose to live where he did. Robert Hughes says of Homer’s studio in his history of American art, “American Visions,” “It perfectly suited a man whose four favorite words were ‘mind your own business.’”

Growing more reclusive with the years, Homer lived on the Neck from early spring to late fall, painting the coast on which we walked until the chills of north winds drove him out of his uninsulated clapboard house. He traveled south to catch the color of Florida, the Bahamas, and Bermuda, and often headed for lengthy stays in the Adirondacks. But always he came back to the Neck, eventually eliminating people from his canvasses altogether, choosing to paint the restlessness and power of moving water. Aware that he was not understood, he once said, “The most interesting part of my life is of no concern to the public.”

Like the artist had undoubtedly done hundreds of times, we stood and gazed south toward the hazy lighthouse on Wood Island. A thunderstorm was building to the west as we studied the sea and the studio, some three hours after we left the comfort of the Inn. The weather was changing its mood toward what Homer had preferred, and we half-expected to see him, a tidy little man in stiff collar and wool coat, standing on his porch, watching the black clouds rolling in.

Not knowing at the time that there was only a half mile more between us and our car, we pulled ourselves away, watching sailboats bob in the bay as we walked, knowing that although we had a week or more left in our New England journey, that we couldn’t possibly have had a better day.

Mike Lunsford can be reached by email at hickory913@aol.com, or c/o the Tribune-Star at PO Box 149, Terre Haute, IN 47808. Go to his updated website at www.mikelunsford.com; his new story collection, “A Windy Hill Almanac,” has been released. He’ll be signing his books at the Vigo County Library from 9:30 to 11 a.m., and Kadel’s Hallmark from 11:30 a.m. to 2 p.m. on Saturday.

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