Evelyn Dunphy meets her students in downtown Millinocket and leads a convoy into the woods to the edge of Millinocket Lake. They stop at a cluster of old buildings named Rhodora, the former camp of the famous American landscape painter Frederic Church (1826-1900).
“It’s like stepping back in time,” said Dunphy. “You feel like you’ve gone to the end of nowhere.”
Church had sat behind his easel on the lawn more than 100 years ago. With his right arm aching of rheumatism, he worked with oils on canvas to capture the dark, towering Mount Katahdin and its reflection in the still water of the lake.
Present day watercolor painters have followed in his footsteps to the same breathtaking view for the past two summers. For three days straight, they paint under the instruction of Dunphy, the first artist to be asked to hold workshops at the private-owned historic site.
Not much about the camp has changed.
“Part of the original camp is there, and the rest was built by his son,” Dunphy said. “It’s all restored, but kept exactly the same.”
Church of Hartford, Conn., was a central figure in the Hudson River School of American landscape painters. He traveled far and wide to places such as Colombia, Ecuador, Newfoundland and Labrador. From 1854 though 1856, he visited Nova Scotia, and traveled widely in Maine, New Hampshire and Vermont, painting landscapes along the way.
His final artistic legacy was a group of breathtaking, small oil paintings of the area around Millinocket Lake, where he and his wife built a camp in 1880.
“He could have had a cabin anywhere in the world and he had the cabin built there,” Dunphy said. “To me that’s just amazing.”
Elmer Woodworth, a caretaker of Rhodora, purchased the camp from the last Church heir in 1953. His son, Ray, now owns the camp with his wife, Muriel. Both embraced a rural lifestyle, and raised their two children, Woody and Forrest. They lived off the grid, without electricity or plumbing. Woody and partner, Jen Hall, helped Ray restore the camp’s main lodge and outbuildings. Ray and Muriel still live in a house they built on the property, and Woody and Jen live in the former ice house.
“We probably have one of the best views of the Katahdin range from our property,” said Jen Hall. “We’re right on the lake and have a beautiful beach. When I first visited here, and then came to live here, I still had the feeling that, yes, we are in the year 2011, but there’s such a connection — even for me who isn’t an artist — living in a historical place. I think of the other people who lived here.”
Guests stay in two bedrooms in the main lodge, three private cabins and two enclosed lean-tos.
Workshop attendees have to feel comfortable using an outhouse and traveling to the lodge basement to pump water from a bubbling spring. A windmill and backup generator to power batteries is their only source of power. But the simple lifestyle and the seclusion of the camp simply “makes people happy,” Dunphy said.
The lake is so shallow that a boat rarely disturbs the water.
“So many people repeat the workshop. It’s just one of those unforgettable times,” Dunphy said.
Dunphy’s no stranger to roughing it for the sake of painting. For several years, she has taught at Kejimkujik Park, the oldest lakeside wilderness retreat in Nova Scotia. She also teaches three-day watercolor workshops in the winter and watercolor classes three days a week when the weather warms at her home studio in Bath.
“Everyone in my classes are so excited about painting,” she said.
Post-workshop evaluations have produced only one request: a shower. So this year, they will rig up a shower for the fall workshop. The summer students swim.
“In August, I look around my class and see heads bobbing in the lake,” Dunphy said, laughing.
As expected at a Maine camp, they sit around a fire and talk after a late supper — when it grows too dark to paint. And in the faint glow of early morning, they tread across the dewy grass to erect their easels for the glorious moment when the sun peeks above the horizon.
Dunphy is used to waking in the dark to hike to an ideal painting location before sunrise, but at Rhodora, the view is right outside the door.
SNProductions captured the first workshop in October 2009 in a 30-minute film, “In the Footsteps of Frederic Church,” which has been shown during the Longfellow Days in New Brunswick and at the Fryeburg Performing Arts Center. A 10-minute version is available on YouTube.
“The film he made was shown here in Millinocket on a local TV station,” Hall said. “I was actually stunned [because] that whole summer I’d be at a yard sale or shopping and strangers came up to me to say, ‘I didn’t even know that place existed.’ It was odd to me that people didn’t know about it, even locally. On the other side, it’s nice that we are still somewhat sheltered and it’s not a huge tourist attraction.”
Dunphy, originally from Halifax, decided she was an artist at 3 years old and she has painted in Japan, Africa, the southwestern United States, Newfoundland and Labrador, where she plans to return this spring to paint the images of icebergs.
“I’m always trying to get better and better and trying to have a voice of my own,” Dunphy said. “But the big thing is to try to make a painting that no one else could paint but me.”
Her artwork has been exhibited in juried exhibitions throughout the United States, and has won several prestigious awards such as the Edgar Whitney Memorial Award for watermedia and the Dorothea and Albert Gordon Memorial prize at the Adirondack National Exhibition of American Watercolors. Her work has been featured in International Artists magazine, American Art Collector and Watercolor magazine.
The subject of her art can be a pitcher plant, a lakeside scene or stump, but she’s really just painting space and light. Color and technique dictate the mood, she said.
One of the main reasons she admires Church’s work is because he chose to paint the northern region of the continent — the same landscape she’s attracted to.
In 2004, Dunphy decided to focus on one thing in particular — Mount Katadhin. Since 1997, she had hiked through Maine forest while hauling an awkward easel to Katahdin Lake and Daisy Pond each year. Over time, she has become passionate about Maine’s largest mountain, which is nearly a mile high. Now she’s completed more than 100 paintings of the mountain, recording moments in time when it is under snow, bathed in sun, masked in rain clouds, at the crack of dawn and in the glow of sunset.
Soon after she committed to the mountain — as if by fate — she was asked to paint for the Katahdin Lake Campaign to conserve Katahdin Lake and 4,000 acres of surrounding land by adding it to Baxter State Park. She auctioned her paintings to earn money for the $14 million campaign, which was successful in uniting the lake with the state park.
“I’ve always believed that people could make a difference,” Dunphy said. “Never, though, did I believe that I could make a difference except on a smaller scale. In hindsight, [the Katahdin Lake Campaign] taught me a lesson that’s really beyond words.”
Dunphy was selected as the first “Visiting Artist” in Baxter State Park and was the first artist to receive the Natural Resource Council of Maine’s “People’s Choice” award for her contribution to conservation.
During the campaign, Dunphy received e-mails from people all over the country and attention from media outlets including The Boston Globe, The Associated Press and The New York Times. The campaign helped her build a reputation as a Katahdin painter, but she was chosen to teach at Church’s camp for a different reason — her charm and good sense of humor, and her enthusiasm for the camp.
Dunphy first visited the camp six years ago. Before then, she didn’t know the Church’s camp existed, though she now says that it should be as famous as Winslow Homer’s house in Prouts Neck.
“When I went there the first time, my husband and I were walking by one of the cabins, one of the original bathhouses the Churches used, and there was this claw-footed bathtub outside with flowers planted in it,” Dunphy said. “I turned to my husband and said, ‘Can you believe this? Frederic Church might have put his bum in that.’”
After overhearing that comment, Hall knew that Dunphy was the right artist for the job.
Dunphy expects the three workshops — Aug. 11-14, Aug. 25-28 and Sept. 29-Oct. 2 — to be filled by April. She requests that people who register have some experience with watercolor painting because it’s difficult for beginners to start with plein air painting, which means “open air” or painting in the outdoors using natural light. For information about Dunphy and the workshop, visit www.evelyndunphy.com, call 443-5045 or send an e-mail to email@example.com.