New Life for the Wyeth Legacy Five Miles Out to Sea
“Colby College has acquired two islands off Maine that inspired the first family of American art, and will show newly discovered works that Andrew Wyeth drew in secret.”
Learning, Research, and Creative Inspiration
Colby College has become the new steward of two historic islands off the coast of Maine where renowned American artist Andrew Wyeth painted some of his greatest works—inspired and influenced by the landscape and architecture that were curated by his wife, Betsy Wyeth. The College has taken ownership of Allen Island and Benner Island from the Up East Foundation and the Wyeth Foundation for American Art as part of an important initiative to preserve these extraordinary areas and continue to utilize them as centers for learning, research, and creative inspiration.
Allen and Benner are adjacent private islands five miles south of Port Clyde in the Gulf of Maine. Betsy Wyeth purchased Allen Island in 1979, and in 1990 acquired Benner. There, she established a model for conservation and the preservation of Maine’s working waterfront and created an extraordinary built and natural environment.
Previously, Colby College partnered with the Up East Foundation to develop projects and programs on Allen that complement Colby’s academic program and have resulted in important discoveries, especially in the sciences. The successful partnership resulted in the opportunity for Colby to steward both Allen Island and Benner Island into the future. Colby will now be able to significantly expand its work there in a range of disciplines that will provide exceptional experiences for its students. This distinctive interdisciplinary focus will continue to involve the social sciences, humanities, interdisciplinary studies, and natural sciences—from sculpture and cinema to bird research and long-term climate monitoring.
Island History and Betsy Wyeth’s Vision
Allen Island has an important cultural legacy that includes being used by the Abenaki, the Native American community that resided in the region. It was the initial stop that British explorer George Weymouth made in 1605 as part of his expedition to the area now known as Maine, and it was also the site of one of the first Anglican services in North America. Allen Island grew into a thriving fishing community that supported a school, but like many year-round islands off the Maine coast, the population declined until only a handful of lobstermen and their families resided there.
Betsy Wyeth purchased 450-acre Allen Island and 50-acre Benner Island to create surroundings that supported and inspired her husband’s work, and over a 40-year period, she unleashed her creativity and thoughtfulness to resurrect them. This involved developing a landscape and forest management plan to highlight and preserve Allen and Benner’s natural beauty; restoring and designing a series of buildings, including barns and fish houses; and building a wharf to support the livelihoods of local lobstermen and re-establish a fishing outpost that had been an important part of the island’s history. Mrs. Wyeth’s vision for Allen and Benner influenced the art of one of the 20th century’s most important American painters. Her efforts to improve the islands resulted in the creation of subjects for some of Andrew Wyeth’s final major works and inspired notable paintings, including Jupiter, Airborne, and Pentecost, among others.
A Living Laboratory for Critical Research
Allen and Benner Islands are distinctive in that they offer year-round easy access and undisturbed environments that are ideal for conducting research. This has created important opportunities for Colby to measure and assess a series of major issues and crises, including:
- the impact of climate change on the Gulf of Maine, one of the fastest-warming bodies of water in the world;
- the broad-scale impact of poor air quality and atmospheric pollution that is pushed to mid-coast Maine and other areas from pollution producers across North America; and
- decreasing biodiversity and the role of genetic structure in how species survive or become extinct.
Commitment to Maine
Colby’s stewardship of the islands will build on Up East’s unparalleled commitment to ecological research, preservation, and education in mid-coast Maine. A key part of this will involve continuing to support the thriving lobstering community that uses Allen Island and that Betsy Wyeth helped re-establish. The College’s use of the islands is part of an ongoing trend by a number of nonprofit institutions to protect Maine’s unprecedented beauty and resources. These include the Island Institute, which Betsy Wyeth was involved in creating, as well as Maine Coast Heritage Trust. Colby also has strong academic and research collaborations with a range of Maine institutions focused on preserving the state’s natural resources. These include a partnership with the Bigelow Laboratory for Ocean Sciences, which is focused on ocean science within a changing global climate, as well as the MDI Biological Laboratory.