May 28, 2018
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Conversations with Maine: Piano lessons and a painter called Santa Claus

Photo courtesy of Great Cranberry Island HIstorical Society
Photo courtesy of Great Cranberry Island HIstorical Society
By Robin Clifford Wood, Special to the BDN

Sometimes Maine touches the lives of people from far away and slips unexpectedly into the forefront of their lives, even if only for a short time. On a visit to New York’s Adirondacks, I caught up with an uncle who asked me about my home in Maine. He proceeded to tell a tale from his past that left upon him an indelible impression of my home state. Back in 1977, before he became a teacher himself, John Goodwin studied piano with Carlos Buhler.

After lessons, he loved to look through his teacher’s collection of linoleum cut prints. They were original Christmas cards made by a talented artist from Maine, Carl Nelson. Nelson was a friend of Buhler’s. When the artist went into the army, he left a number of his paintings with Buhler for safekeeping.

Incidentally, even if you don’t know Nelson or his art (worth looking up), you have likely seen him. Carl’s face is on the cover of Lois Lowry’s 1994 Newbery-award winning book, “The Giver.” But that is another story.

After Buhler’s death, someone took up the task of divesting his possessions, including selling some of his Nelson paintings for very low prices. Goodwin bought several. Years later, on a whim, Goodwin called the artist in Maine and told him, “I own some of your works from the ’40s, and I’d like to know what you’re doing now.”

“Well, why don’t you come over and take a look,” Nelson responded.

So Goodwin did. He was on vacation in upstate New York, but he hopped in the car, traversed New England on Route 2 through the presidentials and down to Northeast Harbor where he caught the ferry. He asked some people in town about Carl Nelson.

“Oh! You mean Santa Claus!” they said. Goodwin didn’t know what to make of that.

When the ferry landed at the Great Cranberry dock, Goodwin saw an old man with a massive beard waiting for him, and immediately understood the Santa Claus reference. Word had it that while he was working, Nelson sometimes tucked his paintbrushes away into his beard.

Goodwin’s host grabbed his luggage from him and said, “Here we go; we have a couple of miles to walk to the house.” At that time, Goodwin was in his 40s and Nelson was 86 years old. Goodwin was deeply relieved when someone picked them up a short time later and drove them out to Nelson’s house.

The two men hit it off so beautifully that they were up most of the night, chatting and looking at Nelson’s artwork. Nelson brought out paintings from all over his home, including some 9 foot high pieces. A lot of them were pictures of birches or archangels. They finally went to bed and slept a few hours.

Nelson was making breakfast the next morning when a neighbor came by to check on the old man, who lived alone in his beautiful white cottage surrounded by hollyhocks, delphiniums and geraniums of every imaginable color. Out on the white porch were all of the paintings that Nelson had pulled out the night before. The neighbor took Goodwin aside and said, “What in the world did you SAY to him?! He never shows his work to ANYONE!”

In their continuing conversation that morning, Goodwin and Nelson got talking about John Marin, a renowned Maine artist. Goodwin had heard that Marin had a home studio that had been made into an art museum at Cape Split, even farther Down East in Maine.

“I’ve always wanted to go see it,” Goodwin said.

“Well, let’s go then,” said Nelson. They took the ferry, got in the car, and went. What a thrill it was for Goodwin to see the dramatic coastal setting where Marin did so much of his work.

“It felt just like you were right in one of his paintings,” he said. So ended a wonderful, whimsical and very spontaneous adventure that brought a piano teacher vacationing in upstate New York all the way to a tiny island off the coast of Maine, where he connected with Santa Claus, Carl Nelson, a renowned artist from Great Cranberry Island.

Robin Clifford Wood welcomes feedback and suggestions at


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