Eric Aho plans to cut holes into a frozen Maine lake Saturday, not an uncommon sight this time of year.
But Aho won’t be dropping a line and waiting for a bite. Instead, he’ll be hoping to catch inspiration and introspection, about art, nature and a nearly-forgotten chapter of Maine history.
Aho is hoping to re-create the scene of a 1908-09 painting called “The Ice Hole, Maine,” by Marsden Hartley, a Lewiston native and one of the foremost American painters of the 20th century. He’s organized a community ice cutting on Keewaydin Lake in Stoneham, near Bethel, using the same types of hand saws and other antique tools ice harvesters used 100 years ago. He picked the spot because Hartley had spent time living in the area during the period that the painting was made, and was known for creating art by blending what he saw with his imagination.
Aho hopes the ice cutting might inspire people and prompt them to think of art, nature and history in different ways.
“Paintings are about paying attention, and a project like this is about the awareness of our natural world today,” said Aho, 55, a painter who lives in Saxtons River, Vermont, but spends time on Little Cranberry Island most summers. “It’s about the intersection of Maine ice harvesting and the tradition of American painting in rural places.”
Aho plans to get out on the lake by 9 am and start cutting the ice. He’s inviting anyone who wants to participate, by sawing or extracting blocks of ice, to join him. His wife, photographer Rachel Portesi, will be documenting the process with photos. Aho will also set up his easel to paint and invite others to do so as well. He figures eventually he’ll post photos and writes about the ice cutting project on his Instagram page and website. He’s also been writing about Hartley and ice as part of the project.
The event is weather-dependent, and it might be postponed in case of a blizzard or below-zero temperatures, Aho said. Information about the event can be found on the Albany, Lovell, Stoneham, Stow and Waterford Maine Facebook page.
FINDING ART IN THE ICE
A big part of Aho’s passion for this project is his fascination with ice harvesting and the role it plays in his own art. He grew up in Hudson, New Hampshire, hearing stories from his father about ice harvests. As a child, his father had worked on ice harvests during the Great Depression of the 1930s with other Finnish immigrants in the small town of Townsend, Massachusetts. Over the years, Aho has amassed a collection of ice harvesting tools – including a saw that dates to 1890 and a scale and some tongs he inherited from his father.
Aho began cutting ice on his own so he could take polar plunges before warming up in his sauna. He’d cut out squares four or five feet across and start to notice the colors and textures of the ice and water. He began painting what he saw in his ice cuts and has done a series of 25 or so, each one different. In 2016, Aho’s “Ice Cuts” series was the focus of an exhibition at Dartmouth College’s Hood Museum of Art in Hanover, New Hampshire.
“There’s the black center of the water, mysterious, and around the edges you can get turquoises and violets and almost hallucinogenic colors,” said Aho.
Aho said he first became aware of “The Ice Hole, Maine” after seeing it hanging in a show at the Wadsworth Atheneum Museum of Art in Hartford, Connecticut, in 2003. He noticed the ice theme and thought, “Huh, I do that , too,” but otherwise wasn’t particularly struck by the painting. He has never thought of Hartley as an inspiration either, but says there’s “a little bit of Hartley in all American painters.”
Then, when the Hood Museum was organizing his “Ice Cuts” show, Hartley’s painting came up in discussions as a famous work on a similar topic. He saw the painting again in 2017 as part of an exhibition called “Marsden Hartley’s Maine,” a collaboration between the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York and the Colby College Museum of Art in Waterville.
Seeing the painting sparked his imagination. He could make out the artist’s initials in the piece – a massive “M” shaped by the mountains and an “H” cut into the water – and became interested in finding a way to explore it on his own. Because of his own fascination with ice harvesting, the answer seemed simple: He’d cut ice and create the scene.
But he needed to find the scene.
PLACES OF INSPIRATION
Neither Aho nor the art curators and historians he’s talked with know exactly what specific Maine place Hartley was depicted in his painting, so the choice of Keewaydin Lake is an educated guess. It is documented that, beginning in 1902, Hartley began visiting Kezar Lake in Lovell – south of Stoneham – and was incredibly fond of the area. A few years later, he spent several winters in a rustic hut in Stoneham, not far from Keewaydin Lake, said Dan Barker, a town historian.
While farmers would have harvested their own ice from just about every local lake or pond – including Keewaydin Lake – Kezar Lake was known to be a place where ice cutting operations were based, Barker said. Hartley was known to sketch real places and also add elements of his imagination, so Aho thinks it’s possible “Ice Hole, Maine” might have been inspired by both Keewaydin and Kezar lakes.
Aho drove and walked along the shores of both lakes and made mental notes. The mountain landscape and farmhouses in the painting looked at him like the scenery around Keewaydin Lake, but mountains are visible around Kezar Lake as well.
“Hartley was absolutely inspired by that part of Maine, he was very much struck by what he saw there. For people who know Maine, some of (Hartley’s paintings) are absolutely identifiable, but there are aspects of imagination and feeling as well,” said Elizabeth Finch, chief curator of the Colby College Museum of Art and a co-curator of the 2017 exhibit “Marsden Hartley’s Maine.” “This project is a wonderful example of an artist collaborating with people in a local community to understand their cultural history.”
The project also brings attention to a lesser-known work by Hartley (1877 to 1943) and an early period in the painter’s life. Born in Lewiston, Hartley’s mother died when he was 8, and his father struggled to maintain a job in the mills. The family resettled in Ohio, where Hartley took his first painting lessons. He came back to Maine in 1900 at age 23 and stayed here, either living year-round or parts of the year, through 1911. After that, he left for Europe and returned to Maine only occasionally until he came back for good in 1937. He died in 1943 in Ellsworth, after spending the last years of his life in the Down East fishing village of Corea.
Hartley was drawn to Maine’s Western mountains, where Stoneham and Lovell are, because he was inspired by artists who strongly identified with a single place, said Finch. Also, the area was not far from where he was born.
It was around the time when “The Ice Hole, Maine” was being painted that Hartley’s reputation began to grow outside of Maine, and he began to show his work widely, Finch said. His paintings of Maine at the time also helped establish his reputation as one of the great painters of and from Maine.
“He’s an artist who other artists love,” said Finch. “He would be on the short list of great painters working in the US in the 20th century.”
The Bates College Museum of Art, in Hartley’s hometown of Lewiston, is in the process of creating a comprehensive accounting of all his paintings and drawings. Portland art historian Gail R. Scott is leading the museum’s effort to track down and detail the histories of each and every one of the 1,650 or so Hartley paintings and drawings known to exist as part of the Marsden Hartley Legacy Project: The Complete Paintings and Works on Paper.
Aho’s project not only focuses on Hartley, but on the nearly forgotten Maine ice harvesting industry. Before refrigerators were introduced to consumers in the early part of the 20th century, Maine ice was shipped all over the world, said Ken Lincoln, president of the Thompson Ice House Harvesting Museum in South Bristol. In the late 1800s, some 25,000 men cut ice on the Kennebec River to be stored and shipped.
“It was bigger than the lumber industry. Maine ice had a reputation as being clean and pure, and it shipped all over the world,” said Lincoln, who was consulted by Aho on his ice-cutting project. He said he’d like to attend but is not sure he can since his museum’s ice harvest – which is open to the public – will be held the following weekend, on Feb. 13.
For Aho, the community ice cutting is the perfect melding of his own work as an artist and the inspiration he gains from nature and history.
“I thrive in the outdoors. My work is all about the pulse of the natural work,” said Aho.
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