January 23, 2019
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A family’s ties from National Geographic to art in a barn

“The most satisfying journey is one that is shared.”

So wrote award-winning National Geographic photographer and writer Thomas J. Abercrombie, who died at the age of 75 in 2006.

Last week I sat in a barn at a well-used art table, surrounded by a variety of whimsical artworks that cover nearly every vertical and horizontal surface throughout the Windover Art Center in Newburgh, Maine, which offers weeklong programs all summer to children age 6 to 16 (“or until they’re too old to have fun”). I was sipping hot chocolate with Thomas’ daughter, Mari, and his grandson, (Mari’s son) Isaac Fer. It was clear to me after spending a morning with Mari and Isaac, director and assistant director of Windover, that they are living exactly the kind of journey Thomas was talking about.

At first glance, Thomas’ life might appear utterly different from his daughter’s and his grandson’s. Thomas traveled through all seven continents and photographed worlds that many people had never dreamed of — even one out-of-this-world artifact, when his National Geographic team of explorers discovered a huge chunk of meteorite in the deserts of Saudi Arabia in 1966.

Mari has lived in Newburgh for 40 years. She moved the Windover Art Center to her property over 20 years ago and has been promoting the arts and running summer programs ever since. Isaac grew up attending the camp. He started darkroom lessons in photography at 6, and he laughed about his unusual trigger for childhood memories.

“It’s nothing traditional like Grandma’s baking; the smell of photographic chemicals brings back my childhood. It gives me this warm, nostalgic feeling,” he said.

The tying thread between all three generations in this family is a delightedness in learning about the world, thinking both inside and outside the box. When Mari was younger, she told me she thought she might go into music, then it was photography, then she taught piano and guitar. Like her father and mother, she said, she had a huge variety of interests. Taking on Windover allowed her to pursue a wide swath of them all in one place.

The Windover property has an almost magical feel to it — like a movie set or a small theme park. Several brightly painted barns are scattered through the area, muralled with scenes and identifying signage: Photo Studio, Theater, Pottery Barn. There are pottery wheels, glasswork, mosaics, a theater for stage productions, a station for building fairy-houses, a swimming pool, and a film and photo studio, including a huge darkroom with a very popular revolving secret door. And that’s just a start. It’s like a smorgasbord of creativity.

Although fun is a high priority, Mari and Isaac believe that creativity has a higher purpose as well. They are both born teachers, and they get fired up about how much growth and learning take place in the context of Windover’s various activities — in Isaac’s computer game design class, there is critical analysis and historical context; in photography, there is chemistry; in pottery, there is physics; and graphic design requires math and measuring.

“Creative energy is where we find solutions to problems. We teach kids to think.”

Mari and Isaac have wonderfully complementary skills, in addition to having a number of regular full-time artists who teach in their summer programs. Mari’s strengths are glass, nature studies and stop-action animation. Isaac is working on developing more of the art form of video gaming. Windover recently got a grant from Bangor Savings Bank, which will help them upgrade their digital media department, but they have big ideas for even more expansion to a full computer lab. They have offered winter classes, adult classes, and have even dreamed of opening a year-round school.

Entertaining dreams is kind of part of the package deal with the Windover family, but hard work is an equal player.

“It’s not baby food,” said Mari. “We give them some real meat to chew on. Kids have to work hard.”

“We don’t do much that you can just master right away,” said Isaac. “It takes time and effort, but there’s always a finished product at the end of the week.”

Each of the eight weeks of Windover’s summer programs finishes with an art show, including a stage performance by the children. It sounds like an exhausting schedule but utterly fulfilling for everyone. Not surprisingly, many children return year after year once they have discovered Windover.

A few years ago, Mari and Isaac, along with Mari’s mom, Lynn Abercrombie, finished work on publishing a book about Thomas’s life as a National Geographic photographer. It is a breathtaking collection of photographs and a great tribute to Thomas. But even more tribute, I think, is the work that Mari and Isaac are doing.

Thomas once said, “If I have added one plank to the bridge of understanding between countries, I feel my mission is complete.”

He would be pleased to know that his descendants are adding their own planks to the bridge of understanding, teaching people to break open up their thinking and explore the great worlds inside themselves.

For more information about Windover’s programs, call 234-4503 or visit windoverartcenter.com.

Robin Clifford Wood welcomes feedback at robin.everyday@gmail.com.


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