Wilderness, Solitude, and Creativity: Artist and Philosopher Rockwell Kent’s Century-Old Meditations on Art and Life During Seven Months on a Small Alaskan Island
“These are the times in life — when nothing happens — but in quietness the soul expands.”
By Maria Popova
Not often — a handful of times in a lifetime, if you are lucky — you come upon a work of thought and feeling — a book, a painting, a song — that becomes a fountain to which you return again and again, and which returns you to your life refreshed each time.
For me, The Little Prince has been one, and Leaves of Grass, and I Put a Spell on You, and Spiegel im Spiegel. Wilderness (public library) by the painter, printmaker, and philosopher Rockwell Kent (June 21, 1882–March 13, 1971) is another. (Ample gratitude to George Dyson for bringing this soul-slaking treasure into my life.)
In the last days of August, in the last months of the world’s first global war, while the Spanish Flu pandemic was savaging civilization, Kent arrived on a small island in Resurrection Bay off the coast of Alaska, searching for the ultimate. He was thirty-six, dispirited and destitute, as passionate about his art and as pained by the world’s indifference to it as Walt Whitman had been when he self-published Leaves of Grass at that same age, from that same precarious place, intimate with the same depths of depression, buoyed by the same reverence for life.
Drawing on that experience, Kent would later formulate the closest thing to a personal credo:
Often I think that however much I draw or paint, or however well, I am not an artist as art is generally understood. The abstract is meaningless to me save as a fragment of the whole, which is life itself… It is the ultimate which concerns me, and all physical, all material things are but an expression of it… We are part and parcel of the big plan of things. We are simply instruments recording in different measure our particular portion of the infinite. And what we absorb of it makes for character, and what we give forth, for expression.
Kent arrived at this uncommon life in art via an uncommon path. His parents had pressured him to channel his talent into a practical, profitable career in form and function, but he had dropped out of Columbia University’s architecture program to devote himself to the work of form and feeling, moving to a rugged island off the coast of Maine. He built himself a small house there and spent his days in solitude — reading Emerson and Tolstoy, and painting; laboring as a lobsterman, and painting. Immersed in Haeckel’s inception of ecology, he grew enchanted with the interwoven life of nature; immersed in Thoreau’s journals, he absorbed the will “to live deliberately” in wild places where he could find and nurture his inner wilderness — those lush and desolate landscapes of the soul, from which all art is born.
So it is that, in his late twenties, Rockwell Kent voyaged to Newfoundland in the hope of establishing a communal art school with a friend in the untrammeled northern wilderness. The hope crumbled against reality, but the Great North cast a permanent enchantment. He returned four years later, in 1914, this time with his wife and three children, just as the world was coming unworlded by the Great War.
In a small-town community where the notion of an artist was alien and suspect, the large-spirited, liberal-minded Kent was soon accused of being a German spy. Driven away, the family had to make the long voyage back — Kathleen pregnant with their fourth child, the other three ill with whooping cough.
But the northern wilderness kept calling to the artist’s soul:
I crave snow-topped mountains, dreary wastes, and the cruel Northern sea with its hard horizons at the edge of the world where infinite space begins. Here skies are clearer and deeper and, for the greater wonders they reveal, a thousand times more eloquent of the eternal mystery than those of softer lands.
Four years later, at the peak of his struggle to support the growing family, Rockwell Kent returned to Alaska in the hope of resuscitating his spirit and his ability to, quite simply, go on.
“Never did I enter upon any course with such a sense of necessity, of duty, as drives me into this Alaska trip,” he told Kathleen.
Fatherless himself since the age of five, having inherited nothing more than his father’s silver flute, which he carried everywhere, he voyaged to the Far North with his nine-year-old son, also named Rockwell, and his silver flute. “We came to this new land, a boy and a man,” he wrote, “entirely on a dreamer’s search; having had vision of a Northern Paradise, we came to find it.”
They came with one duffle bag stuffed with the warmest clothes they owned and one heavy trunk full of books, paints, and provisions. Sprawling across three diary pages, Kent’s inventory includes these essentials:
- 8 lbs. chocolate
- 1 gal. peanut butter
- 4 pots
- 2 pillows
- 10 lbs. lima beans
- 10 lbs. white beans
- 100 lbs. potatoes
- 1 broom
- 6 lemons
- 6 agate cups
- 4 agate plates
- 4 agate bowls
- 5 lbs. salt
- 6 Ivory soap
- 2 cans dried eggs
- 1 tea kettle
- 12 candles
These they brought to Fox Island, welcomed there by an elderly Swede named Olson, who had arrived long ago prospecting for gold; having failed to find any, and having been dismissed by the mainland townspeople as a “crazy old man, he had made a home on the small and isolated island, tending to two pairs of blue foxes and four goats. Kent found Olson to be “a kind-hearted, genial old man with a vast store of knowledge and true wisdom,” a man of “deep experience, strong, brave, generous and gentle like a child,” a “keen philosopher [who] by his critical observations gives his discourse a fine dignity.”
Father and son set about converting Olson’s goat-house into a home. On either side of the log cabin, Kent — an excellent carpenter from a young age — built two long wall-to-wall shelves: one to hold their provisions, the other for paints, toys, clothes, and the flute. In the far corner, he built a bookshelf for their miniature library — sustenance for mind and spirit, as vital as the canned goods they had carried across the landmass and rowed across the icy strait of Arctic waters. Among the books were The Iliad and The Odyssey; Robinson Crusoe and the fairy tales of Hans Christian Andersen; a book of Indian philosophy and a literary history of Ireland; a natural history of the ocean and a basic medical handbook; William Blake’s poems and Life of Blake — the biography with which Anne Gilchrist had wrested Blake from obscurity a generation earlier to establish him as a creative icon for generations, celebrated by Patti Smith as “the loom’s loom, spinning the fiber of revelation,” and casting upon Kent a spell of “intense and illuminating fervor.”
Despite these marginal comforts, the cabin remained a ramshackle structure invaded by the elemental cold. Kent tried calking the gaping openings between the logs with dried moss, but the moss never managed to dry enough for insulation under the interminable rain. Indeed, from the moment they set foot on Fox Island, father and son waded into a world ruled by rain, an Anne Sexton kind of rain. In their first seventeen days, a single cloudless sunrise greeted them. “It will be a strange life without the dear, warm sun!” Kent lamented in his journal. The absence of the sun — like any absences of cherished warmth and radiance — made its rare returns all the dearer, aglow with ecstasy:
Ah, the evenings are beautiful here and the early mornings, when the days are fair! No sudden springing of the sun into the sky and out again at night; but so gradual, so circuitous a coming and a going that nearly the whole day is twilight and the quiet rose color of morning and evening seems almost to meet at noon. We glance through our tiny western window at sunrise and see beyond the bay the many ranges of mountains, from the somber ones at the water’s edge to the distant glacier and snowcapped peaks, lit by the far-off sun with the loveliest light imaginable.
But by early November, the unremitting gloom began eclipsing the sparse ecstasies of light:
Endlessly, day after day, the journal goes on recording a dreary monotony of rain and cloud. Who has ever dwelt so entirely alone that the most living things in all the universe about are wind and rain and snow?
As the days grew shorter and shorter and the weeks unspooled into months, the weather became a sort of teacher. In an entry penned the day after the deepest snow and the coldest cold snap on the record — “the cold very many degrees below zero” — Kent exclaims in the diary: “Such mild weather!” It was still far below freezing, but not nearly as far as the previous day — a study in the delight of contrasts, the same contrasts that give shape and texture to art and life.
Eventually, he arrives at a sort of existential acceptance, as applicable to the elements as to the ever-shifting weather system that is life itself:
I have learned to expect nothing of the weather but what it gives us.
We create our own weather, he intimates in an entry from the clutch of February:
A little snow, a little rain, but altogether a pleasant day. It’s always pleasant when I paint well.
Throughout the journal, Kent interpolates so naturally between the elemental and the existential, between observation and contemplation — nowhere more so than in this reflection on the totality of his wilderness experience:
These are the times in life — when nothing happens — but in quietness the soul expands.
Kent soon finds a new kind of liberation in the quiet expanse — freedom not only from the bustling tumults of the warring present, but from the totality of any collective human culture, which can so ossify identity and become a straitjacket for the soul:
So little do we feel ourselves related, here in this place, to any one time or to any civilization that at a thought we and our world become whom and what we please.
Father and child become, in the way only art and nature afford us, unselfed — not persons, scarred with identities and ideologies, but fields of grateful awareness. They go berry-picking along the coast of Resurrection, skate on the pond “frozen hard and thick,” and watch the killer whales play in the cove by their cabin, “their terrible, mysterious, black arms that beat the water with a sound like cannon.”
Recording these encounters with the elemental, Kent’s diary entries read like prose poetry, as any fully attentive and pure-hearted observation of nature always does — deeply affecting yet unaffected, fresh from the source. One mid-October evening, after quoting from memory a lullaby verse by a German poet born 100 years earlier, Kent exults:
The night is beautiful beyond thought. All the bay is flooded with moonlight and in that pale glow the snowy mountains appear whiter than snow itself. The full moon is almost straight above us, and shining through the tree tops into our clearing makes the old stumps quite lovely with its quiet light. And the forest around is as black as the abyss.
The following evening, a wholly different guise of beauty:
To-night the sun set in the utmost splendor and left in its wake blazing, fire-red clouds in a sky of luminous green.
And the following:
The moon has risen and illuminates the mountain tops — but we and all our cove are still in the deep shadow of the night. It is most dramatic; the spruces about us deepen the shadow to black while above them the stone faces of the mountain glisten and the sky has the brightness of a kind of day.
In another entry:
From our feet the cliff dropped in a V-shaped divide straight down to the green ocean; and at its base the ground swell curled, broke white and eddied. The jagged mountains across shone white against black clouds, — what peaks! huge and sharp like the teeth of the Fenris-Wolf.
It is impossible to place oneself amid such staggering beauty — “it is so beautiful here at times that it seems hard to bear,” Kent writes — and not wish to reverence it, to channel it, to magnify it and add to the world’s store of wonder with one’s own creations. And so, one cold October day seven weeks after alighting to Fox Island, Kent records:
We came home and had a good dinner. I cut more wood and at last, after one month here on the island, I PAINTED. It was a stupid sketch, but no matter, I’ve begun!
He feels “the goddess Inspiration returning” and soon the floodgates of his creative force rush open:
After the morning’s wood cutting I worked hard on my pictures. I’m now at last fully launched upon my work with small pictures going well. That’s both a relief and a concern to me. From now on my mind can never be quite free.
In a passage that captures every true artist’s savage and restless devotion to their art — the kind Beethoven conveyed in his letter of advice to a little girl longing to be an artist, the kind at the heart of Martha Graham’s exquisite notion of “divine dissatisfaction” — Kent writes one October day two months after his arrival:
Today was a day of hard work for me. I cut wood, baked bread and painted on three canvasses… Over to-day’s painting I’m filled with pride; it will be equalled by to-morrow’s despair over the very same pictures.
He becomes a channel for the majesty around him, seeing in it a reflection of his own worldview, mirroring it back to the world in the paintings nature draws out of him:
A wonderfully beautiful day with a raging northwest wind. I must sometime honor the northwest wind in a great picture as the embodiment of clean, strong, exuberant life, the joy of every young thing, bearing energy on its wings and the will to triumph.
Immersed in “the profound and characteristic winter silence of the out-of-doors,” a grateful gladness slips over him each time the wind parts the curtain of clouds:
It is no little thing to have one’s work on a day like this out under such a blue sky, by the foaming green sea and the fairy mountains.
From the outset, Kent decides that if his art is to ever be shown in civilization, the exhibition must be titled “Paintings of Paradise” — an homage to his love for his son and for his son’s love of the wilderness: “I know nothing in all life more beautiful than the perfect belief of Rockwell in his Paradise here,” Kent writes in one entry. It is a paradise build of what his literary hero Hermann Hesse, writing in the same era on a different landmass in a wholly different landscape, called “the little joys” — those smallest atoms of aliveness. Kent records:
Mornings we get up together and go through a set of Dr. Sargent’s exercises, do them with great energy. Then we go naked out-of-doors… No matter what the weather is we go calmly out into it, lie down in the drift, look up into the sky, and then scrub ourselves with snow. It’s the finest bath in the world.
One day, looking around the ramshackle goat-house that is now his home, filled with books and wind, filled with a man’s paintings and a child’s love, Kent observes:
I don’t see why people need better homes than this.
In an entry from the peak of winter, he contemplates how such simple life in harsh conditions can so salve and enlarge his creative spirit:
We have… turned out of the beaten, crowded way and come to stand face to face with that infinite and unfathomable thing which is the wilderness; and here we have found OURSELVES — for the wilderness is nothing else. It is a kind of living mirror that gives back as its own all and only all that the imagination of a man brings to it… and if we have not shuddered at the emptiness of the abyss and fled from its loneliness, it is because of the wealth of our own souls that filled the void with imagery, warmed it, and gave it speech and understanding.
Punctuating this surrender to the grandeur of nature and soul are various quotidian tragicomedies. Violent wind sweeps in through the cracks in the cabin and powders Kent’s drawing table with snow. The cold grows so ferocious that his fountain pen and paint freeze solid, the foxes’ food freezes solid, the water pails freeze solid ten feet from the booming stove. One of Olson’s goats — “foolish-faced Angoras” — eats the broom, then breaks into the house, leaving “boxes, pails, sacks of grain, cans, rope, tools, all lie piled in confusion about the floor.” Such happenings only foment Kent’s deep-souled reflections on life:
Where little happens and the gamut of expression is narrow, life is still full of joy and sorrow. You’re stirred by simple happenings in a quiet world.
That simplicity becomes a portal to immensity. In consonance with poet Elizabeth Bishop’s insistence on why everyone should experience at least one long period of extreme solitude in life, and with his contemporary Hermann Hesse’s insight into the destiny-sculpting value of hardship and solitude, Kent writes:
These days are wonderful but they are terrible. It is thrilling… to reflect that we are absolutely cut off from all mankind, that we cannot, in this raging sea, return to the world nor the world come to us. Barriers must secure your isolation in order that you may experience the full significance of it. The romance of an adventure hangs upon slender threads. A banana peeling on a mountain top tames the wilderness. Much of the glory of this Alaska is in the knowledge I have that the next bay — which I may never choose to enter — is uninhabited, that beyond those mountains across the water is a vast region that no man has ever trodden, a terrible ice-bound wilderness.
And yet, as much as nature might gladden human nature, it is our nature also to long for love and connection with our fellow beings. After twenty weeks of such extreme isolation, in an entry penned in the pit of winter, in a sentiment acutely relatable to any twenty-first-century person who has anguished to see an email go unanswered or to watch the three dots on their phone blink and disappear, Kent writes:
It is terribly depressing to have your heart set upon that mail that doesn’t come.
His suicidal depression returns:
I feel like making no record of these days. I take pleasure only in their quick passage.
And then, just like that — like it always does and we always forget it does — daybreak comes for the dark night of the soul, the curtain of depression open, and he grows porous to beauty again, wakeful to the light of aliveness:
The day has been glorious, mild, fair, with snow everywhere even on the trees. The snow sticks to the mountain tops even to the steepest, barest peaks painting them all a spotless, dazzling white. It’s a marvelous sight… There never was so beautiful a land as this!
Eventually, confusions about time arise. His only timepiece — a dollar watch handed down to Olson by its previous owner — stops working. Father and son begin living by animal instinct: They rise at daybreak, have a prompt breakfast — always the same: oatmeal, cocoa bread, and peanut butter — then eat only when hungry as they immerse themselves in the day’s work and in the living world around them, noticing, noticing, and turning those noticings into art; in the evenings, Kent plays the flute for little Rockwell and reads to him (but not stories about kings and queens, which the boy tells his father he dislikes because “they’re always marrying and that kind of stuff”), until they “go to bed without any notion of the hour.” A typical entry reads:
Hard, hard at work, little play, not too much sleep. The wind blows ceaselessly. Rockwell is forever good, — industrious, kind, and happy. He reads now quite freely from any book. Drawing has become a natural and regular occupation for him, almost a recreation — for he can draw in both a serious and a humorous vein. At this moment he’s waiting in bed for some music and another Andersen fairy tale.
With time so elusive, they lose track of the date. There are practical consequences: The steamer to and from Seward — the “New York of the Pacific” — runs on a spare and strict schedule, on which they rely for their mail and provisions. There are poetic consequences, too: Unsure when to celebrate little Rockwell’s tenth birthday, they designate a best-guess day, on which Kent begins teaching his son to sing and presents him with his sole, precious present — “a cheap child’s edition” of a popular natural history encyclopedia. It so delights the boy with its depictions of his beloved wild animals that he decides, a generation before Borges, to begin writing and drawing an encyclopedia of imaginary beasts.
Kent grows acutely aware of how these spare gladnesses — books and nature, freedom and love — are the fundaments of life, and all the rest is noise. Something quickens in him under the conditions of this new life — so spartan, so primal — and deconditions the habits of mind by which civilization bridles the spirit:
Here in the supreme simplicity of life amid these mountains the spirit laughs at man’s concern with the form of Art, with new expression because the old is outworn! It is man’s own poverty of vision yielding him nothing, so that to save himself he must trick out in new garb the old, old commonplaces, or exalt to be material for art the hitherto discarded trivialities of the mind.
There are days too short and dark to paint, too bleak to access the aliveness from which art springs — days when “the spirit didn’t work.” But there are also days, rosaries of them, that consecrate Kent’s painting with a state of total flow:
It is weeks since I have stopped my work even for a walk. In this “out-of-doors life” I see little of out-of-doors.
Five months into this Fox Island life, having “struck a fine stride,” Kent settles into a peculiar creative routine:
During the day I paint out-of-doors from nature by way of fixing the forms and above all the color of the out-of-doors in my mind. Then after dark I go into a trance for a while with Rockwell subdued into absolute silence. I lie down or sit with closed eyes until I “see” a composition, — then I make a quick note of it or maybe give an hour’s time to perfecting the arrangement on a small scale. Then when that’s done I’m care free. Rockwell and I play cards for half an hour, I get supper, he goes to bed.
Again and again, it is nature — so immediate, so alive, so numinous — that becomes the portal to this trance, leaving him with a magnified capacity for art and a clarified lens on life:
One night, one midnight out on the black waters of a Newfoundland harbor, the million stars above, and on the wretched vessel’s deck the horde of half-drunk, soul-starved men saying their passionate farewells, — on the dull plain of their life a flash of lightning revealed an abyss; — this night on the still, dark cove of Resurrection Bay, rimmed with wild mountains and the wilderness, strong men about you, mad, loosened speech and winged, prophetic vision, — God! but sane daylight seeing seems to touch but the white, hard surface of where life is hidden.
And so, seven months into his search for the hiding-place of life, Kent writes:
This beautiful adventure of ours has come to an end. The enchantment of it has been complete; it has possessed us to the very last. How long such happiness could hold, such quiet life continue to fill up the full measure of human desires only a long experience could teach. The still, deep cup of the wilderness is potent with wisdom. Only to have tasted it is to have moved a lifetime forward to a finer youth… We have learned what we want and are therefore wise. As graduates in wisdom we return from the university of the wilderness.
On March 18 — their last day in the wilderness, and the last days of the world’s first winter after the end of the war — Kent writes:
Fox Island will soon become in our memories like a dream or vision, 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. It was for us life as it should be, serene and wholesome; love — but no hate, faith without disillusionment… Ah God, — and now the world again!
But as he reentered the world, with its falsehoods and human ferocities, Kent carried the wilderness with him, its indelible imprint on his soul. Looking back on his time in Alaska, he wrote:
In living and recording these experiences I have sensed a fresh unfolding of the mystery of life. I have found wisdom, and this new wisdom must in some degree have won its way into my work.
And indeed it did. The two New York exhibitions of his paintings that followed his return from Alaska were artistically and financially triumphal, sparking a new chapter of solvency for him and Kathleen, and liberating him at last to devote himself wholly to art. Timed with the second exhibition, the publication of his Alaska journal was heralded by England’s most esteemed culture magazine as “the most remarkable book to come out of America since Leaves of Grass.” (An epoch earlier, the English — much thanks to Anne Gilchrist’s impassioned advocacy — had been early to recognize Whitman’s genius when his own country derided and dismissed him.)
When the first exhibition of his Alaska drawings was being mounted, the gallery engaged one of New York’s preeminent art critics to compose the introduction for the catalogue. He wrote to Kent to learn more about how this time in the wilderness shaped his artistic practice. Kent responded with a letter so exquisite, so vibrant with his authentic spirit, that it was printed as the introduction instead. In it, he wrote:
It has always been hard for me to understand myself, to know why I work and love and live. Yet it is fortunate that such matters find a way of caring for themselves. I came to Alaska because I love the North. I crave snow-topped mountains, dreary wastes, and the cruel Northern sea with its hard horizons at the edge of the world where infinite space begins. Here skies are clearer and deeper and, for the greater wonders they reveal, a thousand times more eloquent of the eternal mystery than those of softer lands.
While elsewhere in New York Edna St. Vincent Millay was composing her now-iconic sonnet that begins with “My candle burns at both ends,” to be published months later, Kent reflects on the allure of the Great North’s elemental brutality, on the magnetic misery in the “gloom of the long and lonely winter nights,” and writes:
Always I have fought and worked and played with a fierce energy, and always as a man of flesh and blood and surging spirit. I have burned the candle at both ends and can only wonder that there has been left even a slender taper glow for art.
And so this sojourn in the wilderness is in no sense an artist’s junket in search of picturesque material for brush or pencil, but the fight to freedom of a man who detests the petty quarrels and bitterness of the crowded world — the pilgrimage of a philosopher in quest of Happiness! But the wilderness is what man brings to it, no more. If little Rockwell and I can live in these vast silences beside the heartless ocean, perched high up on the peak of the earth with the wind all about us, if we can stand here and not flee from the terror of emptiness, it is because the wealth of our own souls warms the mountains and sea, and peoples the great desolate spaces. For the time we look into ourselves and are not afraid. We find here life, true life — life rich, resplendent, and full of love. We have learned not to fear destiny but to live for the heaven that can be made upon earth.
With the distance of eleven years, Kent looked back on the experience to find in it the kernels of a larger truth — personal and universal, humanistic and more-than-human. (Some necessary calibration for the ahistorical bristling modern readers often experience at our ancestors’ word-choices: Women were not yet citizens and would finally win the right to vote two months after the artist’s return from Alaska, which was not yet a state and wouldn’t be for another forty years; the word “man” was both the unexamined universal pronoun — to remain so until Ursula K. Le Guin so exquisitely unsexed it two generations later — and a reflection of what was practically possible and culturally permissible for women’s access to independent travel and wilderness adventuring.) Kent writes in the introduction of the second edition of Wilderness:
The thought that was born to me in the quietness of that adventure — that in the wilderness, in uneventful solitude, men for companionship must find themselves — has come to be for me the truth. Maybe the only truth I know.
Go, young men to grow wise and wise men to stay young, not West nor East nor North nor South, but anywhere that men are not. For we all need, profoundly, to maintain ourselves in our essential, God-descended manhood against the forces of the day we live in — to be at last less products of a culture than the makers of it. There, in that wilderness so anciently unchanged it might have seen a hundred cultures flower and die, there realize — you must — that what is you, what feels and fears and hungers and exalts, is ancient as the wilderness itself, rich as the wilderness and kin to it. And of those ancient values of the soul, Art through all its fashions of utterance, despite them all, despite the turmoil of this age, despite New York and Harlem, steel and jazz, proclaims above the riot of Godlessness that there, in Man, eternally, is all the very much man ever knew of God.
Published February 15, 2022