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Rockwell Kent’s books complement his paintings

Like a hiker who returns to familiar, nourishing, trails, I often reread books that pleased me in the past. Rockwell Kent’s adventure memoirs echo the world the AuSable Forks resident put on canvas. He wrote of the beauty and danger he found in the cold wilderness, which we see in so many of his paintings. Dipping again into his books, his other art, is always a pleasure.

“N by E” was published in 1930, when Kent was 49 years old. It’s an account of his 1929 voyage with two other men on a 33-foot cutter sailing from New York City to Greenland. But it’s a Rockwell Kent account, meaning it’s a log of a sailing journey, a travelogue with philosophical musings, a collection of drawings, and poems from the Greenland native oral tradition. The scope and variety can be dizzying, but always rewards.

Kent’s descriptions are vivid, elliptical and accompanied by woodcuts that reinforce the words: “West Greenland, mountainous and wild. A raging storm; cold rain in torrents from low hanging clouds. Streams pouring down the mountain side are turned to vapor by the gale; and the whole face of nature, land and sea, smokes as from internal fires.”

Against this very harsh world, Kent recalls a Greenland native prose poem/fairy tale that softens that world: “There was once a sealer whose wife was so beautiful that where she was the wind forgot to blow; therefore the sea was always calm before her dwelling.”

“Salamina” is Kent’s second Greenland-centered book. Published in 1935, it chronicles his two years living in the Igdlorssuit community. Kent lived among the native people, sharing their work lives and their celebrations. He captured the harsh world and warm people, produced his familiar woodcuts and described an exotic world.

Salamina is the name of the woman who served as Kent’s housekeeper in the village. We learn of her childhood, and how she and Kent grow closer. “She put supper on the table, and we ate it. Salamina was very quiet. Then she came over and sat next to me, and rested her hand on my shoulder. After a time she spoke.” What she spoke about was her sadness when Kent would return to America.

The chapters of “Salamina” are short, snapshots written by a tourist who saw everything on the surface, and much of what was below.

“Wilderness — A Journal of Quiet Adventure in Alaska,” published in 1920, predates Kent’s Greenland memoirs. It is the most linear of the three memoirs, recounting the artist’s winter of 1918-19 in Resurrection Bay, Alaska, where he shared a cabin with his 9-year old son. (It’s a parent’s dream — time alone with your child, that long weekend at camp, just the two of you.) “Wilderness” is the diary he kept of that winter, a time he knew was precious, momentary. His final entry, March 18, 1919: “a remote experience too wonderful, for the full liberty we knew there and the deep peace, to be remembered or believed in as a real experience in life.”

Rockwell Kent lives large in the North Country. His prints grace many an Adirondack wall, and the Kent Gallery at SUNY Plattsburgh is a gift. His landscapes and seascapes remind us of his wish, he said, to “paint the rhythm of eternity.” These books give us a window into the mind of that painter and the worlds he visited.

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