Off the Wall

By Edgar Allen Beem — October 07, 2004 9 min read
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All 1st graders are artists. Undaunted by a sheet of white paper and too young to be intimidated by convention or the expectations of others, 32 of them at the Harrison Lyseth School in Portland, Maine, eagerly and earnestly attack sheets of watercolor paper with sponges, brushes, and, of course, their fingers to conjure wonderfully expressive landscapes and seascapes.

The small art room where the students are working on this spring day is stuffy and jam-packed with supplies. On the walls are student projects and reproductions from such painters as Marc Chagall, Vincent Van Gogh, and Maine’s adopted son, Winslow Homer. The inspiration for this lesson, however, is a small ink wash of a sailboat by the late William Thon, a 20th century artist celebrated in Maine for his paintings of coastal landscapes, turbulent seascapes, sailboats, and fishing boats. And thanks to an unusual bequest, it’s no reproduction. At Lyseth and other K-12 schools across the state, students have the opportunity to learn art while holding original works in their hands.

Raised in New York City haunting its art museums, Thon believed that the children of Maine, where he moved in the 1940s, would benefit from easier access to serious art. So he directed in his will that some of his pieces be given to public schools. Working with Thon’s lawyer and his gallery, Portland Museum of Art officials ultimately selected 68 paintings and drawings for distribution during the 2003-04 school year. But the donated works—small, often untitled pictures—are far from inaccessible museum pieces. They’re taken off the walls, passed around, and used as inspiration for students, who see in the original artwork textures and other details that get lost in reproduction.

Artist William Thon.

Here at the 600-student, K-5 Lyseth School, a low brick complex surrounded by suburban housing developments, the Thon painting is usually in the library. Before turning her students loose on paper, however, art teacher Ellen Handelman gathered them on a carpet in one corner of the classroom to show them the work and demonstrate Thon’s techniques. “I think it looks like a broken ship,” one boy says. When Handelman asks why the sloop looks “broken,” the young man points out, “It’s not connected.” True, the sketchy outlines of the boat give the Thon painting a sense of spontaneity and freedom. It is an evocation rather than an illustration ofa sailboat, a testament to how the artist relied on his failing eyesight late in life to create works that remain among his most powerful.

Told to “create a scene about nature,” the Lyseth 1st graders set to work, some intuitively, exploring and experimenting, others more methodically, using everything from charcoal to white tempera paint. None of the children, however, show any anxiety about likeness or control, and ina matter of 15 to 20 minutes, most have created fresh and lively pictures of boats, trees, clouds, hills, and waves. Some even bear a credible likeness to Thon’s work. “William Thon was a Maine artist, and you’re Maine artists, too,” says Kathleen Porensky, who team-teaches with Handelman.

While 1st graders may have no trouble grasping Thon’s style, exposure to his work is a bit different for older students, those who’ve been taught for years to color within the lines. In fact, visits to two other schools in Maine demonstrate how wide-ranging Thon’s influence is on kids of all ages. And it’s not just his work that’s influential, but the details of his life. “Thon was a self-educated artist,” Handelman says. “He saw the beauty in nature and just created. He’s an excellent example for the children.”

Thon, who died in 2000 at the age of 94, was a successful player in the New York art scene during the 1940s. He exhibited regularly at a prestigious Manhattan gallery, and his works were collected by some of the city’s most prestigious venues, among them the Metropolitan, Brooklyn, and Whitney museums of art. But his reputation is now largely regional. As former Whitney curator Susan Larsen noted in her catalog essay for a 2002 retrospective at the Portland Museum of Art, Thon “did not gain his enduring place in American art by participating in the lively critical discourse of his day.” Instead, she wrote, he “chose to live in the relative isolation of Maine on a peninsula overlooking the sea.”

In 1945, after being discharged from the Navy, Thon moved permanently to the coastal Maine fishing village of Port Clyde. There he painted and sailed for close to 60 years, and when he died—widowed, childless, and blind—he left his considerable estate to the PMA. Along with endowing a biennial exhibition of Maine art and a curator’s position, his $4 million bequest included the provision that much of his work be donated to Maine schools. Each one in Portland, the state’s largest city, and in Knox County, where Thon lived, received a piece of art. Works were also placed in the largest elementary and high schools in Maine’s 16 counties. All in all, artwork valued at more than $90,000 went directly to the schools. Thon may well have been the first artist to specifically request that his work be given to schools for day-to-day use, PMA officials say, and to add value to his bequest, the museum framed each piece and prepared accompanying lesson plans.

The museum’s educational staff has long considered its collection an educational resource—its Looking to Learn project, for instance, helps schools meet Maine’s Learning Results standards and was honored in 2003 by the American Association of Museums. But the Thon bequest adds a new element. “Certainly, the goal is for the students to come to the museum to see original works of art,” says Stacy Rodenberger, PMA’s coordinator of school programs. “Having art in the classroom may inspire them to come see the real thing.” And like Thon’s artwork, she has traveled across the state to ensure that the bequest is well-received.

Two weeks after the Lyseth School 1st graders created their Thon-inspired paintings, Rodenberger takes the Casco Bay Lines passenger ferry across Portland Harbor to the Peaks Island School, where a Thon painting is to be unveiled during a PTO-sponsored Family Art Night. Given that only 47 students attend the K-5 school on an island with a population of 1,000, the turnout is impressive. Close to 60 students, parents, and friends gather in the old-fashioned cafetorium/gymnasium and take their places at long lunch tables to watch a video titled William Thon: Maine Master and then try their hands at Thon’s techniques.

Because macular degeneration left Thon legally blind in his 80s, he eliminated all color from his final works, resorting instead to a hands-on application of blacks and whites. As the islanders watch the video, they see a dignified, soft-spoken old man relying on peripheral vision, muscle memory, and a lifetime of painting and sailing small boats to create a bold, Zen-like marine painting. “I see with my hands,” the artist explains as he pushes paint around with his fingers.

Small family groups then spend 15 minutes creating their own black-and-white wash drawings before adjourning to the hallway, where their original Thon—an untitled work depicting a sailboat—is unveiled. The islanders applaud. “You guys have brought such excitement to this gift,” Rodenberger says.

Jenny Yasi, a local singer-songwriter, is in attendance even though her 13-year-old daughter goes to a middle school on the mainland. Peaks Island is a close-knit community, and Yasi and her daughter, Echo, are here to support an 11-year-old neighbor. “Beyond the obvious—that it shows kids they are valued and important,” Yasi says, “putting art in their space gives legitimacy to their endeavors. When kids create their own products, they don’t always know what to hold them up to. Having a model gives students something to aspire to.”

At the high school level, however, Thon’s approach, and his legacy, can sometimes be intimidating. Mount Ararat High School in Topsham has a reputation for offering one of the best art programs in the state, and its spacious art classroom, a holdover from the open classrooms of the 1970s, has the air of a busy atelier.

With the goal of pushing students toward greater freedom of expression, Cooper Dragonette, one of four Mount Ararat art teachers, has developed a Thon unit for several of his classes at the 1,100-student school. The 15 students in his introductory painting class have all seen the Maine Master video, and today, he is going to show them the school’s Thon painting as they work on their own black-and-white landscapes.

A Mount Ararat High School student tries the wet-on-wet technique used by William Thon.

But after he pulls away the cloth covering a small easel, a student’s work is revealed. The teenagers pretend to be impressed as Dragonette shows off the uninspired imposter. He then drops the “Thon” on the floor and steps on it, tearing it as he picks it up. The clowning around is calculated, in part, to loosen up his students, many of whom believe that art equals realistic representation. Dragonette has also resorted to making a pair of “macular degeneration glasses,” cardboard blinders with pinholes in them, designed to open students to different ways of seeing the world.

“My AP class had a hard time letting go,” he explains. “They’re all very capable illustrators—put anything in front of them, and they can put it on paper. But using their imagination and working with Thon’s techniques was a real struggle for them.”

Mount Ararat’s authentic Thon, which usually hangs in the school office, is a small oil paintingof a fishing village inwinter where overturned rowboats are covered with snow. Compared with the informal pieces made by the Lyseth School 1st graders, most of the high schoolers’ recreations are overworked and literal, line drawings to which Thon’s fluid technique has been applied like makeup.

Not all the teens are so uptight, though. Ron Belanger, a mop-haired junior who plays in a local rock band, is listening to Radiohead on his headphones as he works, absorbed in a lyrical wash drawing of a breakwater and a lighthouse. “I respect Thon a lot,” he says. “When he went blind, his work got a unique feel to it. Being a little sloppy with things is fun. I like it. There should be art in every school.”

Many of Maine’s public schools do have art—and not just student and faculty work but also professional pieces commissioned for lobbies, auditoriums, and school grounds. Large decorative murals and outdoor sculpture, however, lack the intimacy and immediacy of a painting you can hold in your hands. Dana Baldwin, who’s been the director of education at the Portland Museum of Art for 11 years, says the Thon bequest has finally allowed the museum to fulfill the Number 1 request she gets from teachers who, she says, understand the value of “the real thing.”

“They wished they could have original works of art in the schools—could we loan them something?” Baldwin recalls. “Teachers understand the difference between the power of an original object and a reproduction or a poster.”

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