‘Wilderness: A Journal of Quiet Adventure in Alaska’
When he was 59, Rockwell Kent Jr. told his famous artist-father, who would soon pass away at his AuSable Forks farm, “The year we spent together on Fox Island was the happiest of all my life.”
The younger Kent was referring to the seven months, from August 1918 to March 1919, when the Kents, 9 and 37, lived in a renovated goat-house on an island near Seward, Alaska.
That time – so special in a young boy’s life and pivotal for the artist’s career – is chronicled in “Wilderness: A Journal of Quiet Adventure in Alaska.” This is the first of the many books Kent wrote (“Voyaging;” “N by E;” “Salamina;” etc.), and perhaps the most delightful.
In 1918, Rockwell Kent was a married father whose paintings were not selling. He had already visited Newfoundland, viewing the unforgiving sharp-edged northern landscape that shaped his painting for so many years, but he had not achieved commercial success. Going to a remote Alaskan island with your child when your art is not selling might not appear to be a good career move, but it worked for Rockwell Kent.
On Fox Island, Kent met 65-year-old Lars Matt Olson, an Alaskan pioneer who offered the Kents a building his Angora goats used to inhabit. It needed work, but father and son moved in and made it livable. Finally, on Sept. 30, Kent writes, “I cut more wood and at last, after one month here on the island, I PAINTED. It was a stupid sketch, but no matter, I’ve begun!”
This before-he-was-famous Rockwell Kent is impressive. In a cold and remote area he made a home, cared for his son, painted, sketched and wrote a journal.
In the illustrated journal, Kent listed mundane details, such as what they brought to the island – food, building materials, kitchen utensils and “a heavy trunk containing books, paints, etc., one duffel bag, one suit case [sic], and a few other things.” He also described his own Alaskan education. He writes that the locals seem “needlessly timid about the sea.” But shortly he and his son, heading home from Seward, are rowing for their lives, caught on the waves and a wind that will not stop. When they finally get home, “that night in their bed Rockwell and his father put their arms tight about each other without telling why they did it.”
It is that combination of strength and tenderness, the father and son facing the elements and then holding each other for (dear) life, that separates wilderness from an obvious comparison, Henry David Thoreau’s Walden. Both men separated themselves from society and wrote about it. But Kent’s effort is often a father’s love story, describing his son’s growth in a harsh, elemental world: “So Rockwell and I explored the woods, at first reverently treading one path that the snow about us might still lie undisturbed. But soon the cub in the boy broke out, and he rolled in the deepest thickets, shook the trees down upon himself, lay still in the snow for me to cover him completely “
When he returned to New York in 1919, Kent had a show of his Alaskan paintings. In 1920, coinciding with the second show of his paintings, wilderness was published to rave reviews (Kent was compared to Whitman!). The Alaskan paintings and Wilderness brought Rockwell Kent critical acclaim and financial security. For a time he lived in Vermont, and then at his AuSable Forks property, becoming our unofficial Adirondack artist in residence. Now we are grateful to view his work, including many of his northern landscapes, in the gallery named for him at SUNY Plattsburgh.
There was, of course, often a political back story to Kent’s art, as Doug Capra mentions in the foreword to “Wilderness.” In 1953, Kent runs afoul of Senator Joseph McCarthy, who finds Kent’s journal subversive. What the Senator found, or anyone could find, subversive in “Wilderness” remains a mystery.
Instead, readers will find a parent’s insight, and an artist’s eye. In a letter included in the book, Kent spoke of that time on Fox Island: ” the days and nights, weeks and months alone with my son during which time I have learned to see his wonder-world and know his heart I have found wisdom, and this new wisdom must in some degree have won its way into my work.”
This review reflects the individual view of the reviewer, not the views of the Adirondack Center for Writing or the Enterprise.