Rockwell Kent Review

Following the Festival in February of 2013, The Rockwell Kent Review (formerly The Kent Collector) featured our celebration in their Spring 2013 issue. Editor Don Roberts along with the Plattsburgh State Art Museum generously allowed us to reprint the content of the articles on our website.

Rockwell Kent in Winona: A Centennial Celebration

The Woman in White

One work in the Minnesota Marine Art Museum’s “The Art of Rockwell Kent: Images from a Wandering Man” excited special interest. Kathleen by the Sea or Sitting in the Sun, as it is variously known, is among the few Kent paintings indisputably linked to Winona, having come into the possession of a local druggist in 1913. Over time, it had disappeared into what the artist called “the lasting oblivion of private ownership.”

Kent arrived in Winona in 1912 with most of “the almost countless pictures” he had painted up until then, but the extent of his work as an artist in the year that followed is a mystery. Kenneth Hayes Miller, his former teacher wrote in response to Kent’s letters, “I am glad indeed to hear you are painting,” and “I am eager to see your pictures.” In correspondence with his wife Kathleen, Kent spoke of painting her portrait and wrote, “I worked all day, dinnerless, on my pictures. My two big ones of Monhegan look pretty fair.”
In hopes of discovering other paintings that Kent may have left behind, Celebration organizer Taff Roberts launched a well-publicized search. It proved fruitless, but he succeeded in locating the painting of a woman in white sitting in the sun, an open book in her lap, the sea in the distance—and at last bringing it to exhibition. Two authorities on Kent’s art, both featured speakers at the Celebration Symposium, share their thoughts on the subject:

Richard V. West, Director Emeritus
Frye Art Museum

“About the Winona painting. I first saw it in the mid-1980s in a private collection in Santa Barbara. It belonged to a lady who was the daughter of the drugstore owner who bartered it for some supplies Kent needed. I gave it the title Sitting in the Sun for lack of any other clues, and mused aloud that it might be Kathleen. I regret this now, because that stuck to the painting and I’m not at all certain still who the sitter might be. I am sure, however, that the painting was never completed, hence the face has hardly any features that could lead to a secure identification, absent any written documentation. It is neither signed nor dated, and Kent was usually quite meticulous about that during this period. My supposition is that the style is close to the way that Kent painted on Monhegan and in the Berkshires around 1907–08. What we have here is a 90% completed painting. Its subject could have been an attractive day-tourist, one of Kent’s inamorata, or Kathleen. Kent liked those persistent little yellow flowers and dotted them around his earlier Monhegan landscapes starting in 1905, which is why I tend towards an earlier dating of this painting.
  “I’m rather skeptical about the claim that he used his spare time after closing the architectural office there to create new paintings. I rather think he may have used the time to complete some of his previously unfinished paintings like The Seiners, rather than starting anything fresh. It’s dated 1910–13, which makes a strong case that it was an earlier painting completed in Winona.
  “There is, however, the tantalizing fact that the lady who inherited the Sitting in the Sun remembered that her father had two Kents hanging in the house, the other being a “sleigh ride scene.” Unfortunately, it was lent to an uncle in the Minneapolis area and never returned. She and her parents moved from Winona shortly after Kent was there. Although “sleigh ride” certainly could pertain to a Minnesota winter, it could very well be another of the Berkshire or New Hampshire scenes from around 1908. Anybody’s guess at this point.”

Dr. Henry Adams, Professor of American Art
Case Western Reserve University

“I must confess that I don’t know what Kent produced in Winona. The statement I’ve seen seems to indicate that he had most of his paintings in Winona, but many of these seem to have been works that he created earlier, such as The Seiners that he sold to Carl Ruggles, but which Ruggles couldn’t fully pay off and which therefore came back to Kent, and was sold to Frick, and ultimately ended up in the Hirshhorn. It’s always been a bit of a mystery to me how Kent produced so many paintings and illustrations while he was also building houses or boats, or working as a lobsterman, well-digger or what-have-you. Sometimes he probably drew or painted at the end of the day; but my guess is that more often he alternated from one mode of activity to another, and when working on his art worked at a sort of white heat, with none of the dawdling and hesitation that most of us go through.”

Angels in the Trees

Theatre du Mississippi: The house lights dim; onstage it is 1953. At their home in California, Alex Geckler and his wife, Martha, begin reliving memories of their forty-year friendship with the now-notorious artist Rockwell Kent.

Playwright Lynn Nankivil, director Judy Myers and a cast of fourteen brought Kent to life in Theatre du Mississippi’s Angels in the Trees: Rockwell Kent in Winona—and, from all reports, succeeded brilliantly. The play focuses on the close camaraderie Kent shared with Geckler, an immigrant German housepainter, without skirting the larger events of a county fair horse race and the “Grand International Workingmen’s Anti-Boss Convention.” It was all there, staged in Winona’s historic Masonic Temple, a 1909 building that Kent would surely have known.
“Before I began my research,” Nankivil says, “I wondered if I would be able to find sufficient information to flesh out a full-length play about a one-year period early in Kent’s career. Now, I can almost imagine his ghost laughing at my concern; his ‘full-packed Minnesota year’ could hardly be contained in two complete chapters in It’s Me O Lord. After reading much of his correspondence with both his wife Kathleen and his good friend Alex, I was amazed at the complexity and sheer energy of the man—a perfect subject for a play.
  “I wondered what the newly arrived immigrant couple would make of this very unusual and volatile young artist from the East, who had been sent out as the architectural supervisor for the construction of twin manor houses at Briarcombe Farm. Kent and Geckler, however dissimilar they may seem at first glance, had much in common. Alex personified all that Rockwell admired in German culture and was a master of his trade in the old European sense. Alex and Martha were, in Kent’s words, “possessed of that most generous and virile culture which has its roots in labor.”
  “The second act takes place during the time they shared a home—a very happy time for Rockwell, despite the absence of Kathleen and the children. His letters to her were now filled with tales of baseball, beer drinking with the men, movies with the Gecklers, and the Deutsche Gemutlichkeit Ball, where he encountered ‘Catfish Mary’ and her girls from Winona’s red-light district. My character depicting Martha Geckler now wonders aloud, ‘What is wrong with this man? Who would write such things to their wife who is far away and lonely and about to have another baby?’ Well, indeed, who would?
  “The play represents Rockwell Kent as I know him from his writings and letters. When it ends, many in the audience are going to be very confused—am I supposed to like this guy or not? I didn’t want to be the person who decides.”

In the following excerpt from Act One, Scene 2, Alex Geckler remembers Rockwell Kent's dramatic horseback arrival at the Briarcombe Farms construction site. Without wasting time, Kent manages to gain what he called "the entire good will of the men with whom I worked: as well as the lasting resentment of Seidlitz, their crusty German supervisor.

The noise of a horse galloping is heard along with a loud crash and branches breaking. ROCKWELL appears at the construction site, brushing himself off and holding the horse’s bridle.

Well, hello, this must be the place. You haven’t seen a big, black horse about anywhere, have you? I managed to grab his bridle, but the rest of him got away. I’m Rockwell Kent. I’m here from New York as the architectural supervisor… but all of you must know that.

ROCKWELL holds out his hand but SEIDLITZ and the workmen all mumble something in German. This surprises ROCKWELL.

German? That is German you are all speaking? Do all of you speak German?

Except for me. I’m the only one who speaks English here.

I can’t believe this. The architects sent me out on a job where everyone speaks only German. How could this happen? (A pause, then a big smile) What a fortuitous and happy accident of fate! I have spoken German since I was a child. I was taught by our nursemaid, Rosa….such a lovely German girl. I will finally have a chance to use my first language again.

ROCKWELL begins to enthusiastically greet each of the men in German, shaking their hands and asking their names. ALEX begins to laugh and all the men follow suit.

Grüss Gott! Guten Tag! Und wie heissen sie? Freut mich, Sie Kennen zu lernen!

(Blustering) I am still the one you must speak to first. I am the boss…..the construction boss. The “on the jobsite boss,” the one who answers directly to Mr. Prentiss and Mr. Bell. I am the one in charge here.

Of course, Mr. Seidlitz. I’m here to help. I’m sure we will get along famously. I did notice that your German is a bit rusty. Maybe I could help you with that too.

The men can hardly resist laughing aloud but SEIDLITZ sends them off.

Back to work, everyone. And, by tomorrow, I want all of you to speak only in English on this job. It’s time you Krauts and Pollacks learned some English. You’d better learn it quick. By tomorrow! Everyone speaks English here by tomorrow! Do you hear me?

What a bright crew you have here, Mr. Seidlitz. English in just one day! But surely, we can sing a few songs in the old tongue now and again. I am a believer in singing on the job. It will be good for morale. Well, I must be off to find John Brown. Who knows what trouble he’s gotten himself into by now. Auf Weidersehn, Herr Seidlitz.

Everyone exits except ALEX who approaches ROCKWELL.