Sometimes Maine touches the lives of people from far away and slips unexpectedly into the forefront of their lives, even if only for a short time. Here is a story of one New Englander who followed a thread of connection that led him on a spontaneous journey from upstate New York to Great Cranberry Island, Maine.
Back in 1977 John Goodwin was taking piano lessons from Carlos Buhler. When he went to lessons, one thing he loved to do was to look at a collection of linoleum cut prints that his teacher owned. They were original Christmas cards made by a talented artist from Maine, Carl Nelson. The artist was a friend of Buhler’s. When Carl Nelson went into the army, he left a number of his paintings with Buhler for safe-keeping and never chose to retrieve them.
After Buhler’s death, someone took up the task of divesting some of his possessions, including selling some of his Carl Nelson paintings for very low prices. John Goodwin bought several. Years later, John called the artist in Maine and told him, “I own some of your works from the 40’s, and I’d like to know what you’re doing now.”
Nelson responded, “Well, why don’t you come over and take a look.”
So John did. He was on vacation in upstate New York, but he hopped in the car, traversed New England on route 2 through the presidentials and down to Northeast Harbor where he caught the ferry. He asked some people in Northeast Harbor about Carl Nelson. “Oh! You mean Santa Claus!” they said. John didn’t know what to make of that.
When the ferry landed at the Great Cranberry dock, John saw an old man with a massive beard waiting for him, and immediately understood the Santa Claus reference. Word had it that while he was working Carl sometimes tucked his paintbrushes away into his enormous, flowing beard.
John’s host grabbed his luggage from him and said, “Here we go, we have a couple of miles to walk to the house.” At that time, John was in his 40’s and Carl was 86 years old. John was deeply relieved when someone picked them up a short time later and drove them out to Carl’s house.
The two men hit it off so beautifully that they were up most of the night, chatting and looking at Carl’s artwork. Carl brought out paintings from all over his home, including some 9 foot high pieces. A lot of them were pictures of birches or archangels. They finally went to bed and slept a few hours.
Carl was making breakfast the next morning when a neighbor came by to check on the old man, who lived alone in his beautiful white cottage surrounded by hollyhocks, delphiniums and geraniums of every imaginable color. Out on the white porch were all of the paintings that Carl had pulled out the night before. The neighbor took John aside and said, “What in the world did you SAY to him?! He never shows his work to ANYONE!”
In their continuing conversation that morning, John and Carl got talking about John Marin, a renowned Maine artist. John had heard that Marin had a home studio that had been made into an art museum at Cape Split, even farther downeast in Maine. “I’ve always wanted to go see it,” John said. “Well, let’s go then” said Carl. They took the ferry, got in the car, and went.
What a thrill it was for John Goodwin to see the dramatic coastal setting where Marin did so much of his work. “It felt just like you were right in one of his paintings,” he said.
So ended a wonderful, whimsical and very spontaneous adventure that brought a piano teacher vacationing in upstate New York, all the way to a tiny island off the coast of Maine to connect with Santa Claus, Carl Nelson, a popular artist from Great Cranberry Island.
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I am always glad to hear from anyone in mid-Maine with ideas for this column. Send in your suggestions, and I’ll share the stories of the many-sided people of Maine.
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