Kent Cottage in Brigus looks imposing from afar, but it has a fascinating past
Everyone loves a good mystery. That’s what drew us to visit Kent Cottage on the north side of Brigus on a rainy — or should I say spitting tacks — day in late June.
As long as I can remember, I’ve been intrigued by the stark house sitting way out all alone on the far side of Brigus Bay. It looked so uninviting, as if its sole purpose were to ward off visitors.
But like many things which look inhospitable from afar (the Southside Hills are a fine example), once you get up close, they prove otherwise. Kent Cottage up close is most welcoming — even in driving rain.
“I want to live here,” said Ewan Kennedy, No. 5’s five-year-old friend, trying the locked front door as my husband puttered about the perimeter protected from the rain by a sleeveless garbage bag he had pulled over his head.
Unfortunately, we couldn’t go inside the cottage on this particular day, but what we could see by peering in the windows was awe inspiring.
Kent Cottage, which incidentally was named after Kent, England, and not after its most famous resident (see more on this below), is covered in cedar shakes and surrounded by lush foliage and bordered by rock walls and a picture-perfect stream flowing down to the ocean.
To get to the cottage, you keep as far north (left) in Brigus as you can and head up over the hill past the government wharf. There you can park and walk on a dirt road for about 15 minutes until you come to a gate announcing Landfall, a name given to the property by Bradley Jacob Folensbee, Jr. (Jake), of Seattle, Wash., when he bought the property in 1953.
He spent most summers there for the 50 years before he died. It is thanks to Folensbee, who preserved the cottage and acquired surrounding properties, that the current artist-in-residence program, in partnership with The Rooms, is a reality (www.therooms.ca).
Two Sundays ago, The Landfall Trust held an open house introducing more than 100 interested people to its latest artist-in-residence, Michael McCormack of Halifax.
Not sure if McCormack is as mysterious as Rockwell Kent, the American artist (1882-1971) who lived in the cottage in 1914-15.
Kent, who looked sort of like MHA Tom Osborne minus the mustache, was an exceptional visual artist.
In fact, in the first half of the 20th century, Kent was considered one of the best book illustrators in the United States, commissioned to illustrate later editions of famous novels like “Candide” (1759, by Voltaire), “The Canterbury Tales” (end of 14th century, by Geoffrey Chaucer) and “Moby Dick” (1851, by Herman Melville).
His illustrations are said to be the main reason “Moby Dick” is still so famous.
Stamp collectors may be familiar with a 2001 American postage stamp featuring a Kent pen-and-ink drawing from “Moby Dick.”
The largest collection of his work is housed at the Kent Collection at the Plattsburgh State Art Museum in New York, and some of it will be on display at The Rooms beginning in May 2014 — 100 years after Kent and his family came to Newfoundland with the apparent intention of setting up an art school.
His dream was never realized, however, as over the course of a year and a half, Kent managed to get under several people’s skin.
In 1914, as we all know, the world was on the brink of war and by October the first Newfoundland Regiment troops had been shipped overseas.
Since his arrival in Brigus, Kent let it be known that he was a German sympathizer and went about Brigus singing German songs he had learned from an Austrian childhood nanny.
From all I’ve read, Kent liked to play up his German affiliations so much that it took no time for people to suspect him of being a German spy. Small acts like sending a letter to a New York acquaintance with a German name, partially written in German, only added to the suspicions.
Was Kent sending German forces the locations of enemy installations? Probably not.
But did Kent bring his suggested departure upon himself? Perhaps.
Kent seemed to thrive on being an aggravator, sort of like Brad Cabana (if Cabana were an artist first, would-be politician second).
Kent liked to push buttons. Once, for example, he had to pay a fine for threatening to harm a local druggist. He later complained to the American consul that the local police were giving him a hard time.
My historian neighbour, Ed Roberts, wrote an excellent article in The Compass in January 2012 (www.cbncompass.ca) explaining that Kent brought suspicions upon himself and perhaps deserved the fate he suffered, which was a suggested brisk departure from Newfoundland in July 1915.
“Mr. Kent has himself created the unpleasantness in which he is involved. … The very openness of Mr. Kent’s expression of sympathy for Britain’s enemies and his contempt for the British residents of the town where he temporarily resides, proved that he is not a German spy, because no spy would be guilty of such indiscretions. …”
This wouldn’t be the last time Kent stirred up politics. In the 1950s, while living in the United States, he was suspected of being a communist and had his passport revoked.
He fought the decision in court and won.
Although this made the popularity of his artwork in the States suffer somewhat, the Russian people, to whom he donated 80 paintings and 800 prints and drawings, couldn’t get enough of him. Russia presented Kent with the Lenin Peace Prize in 1967.
Kent lived in many places — places with inhospitable climates like Alaska, Greenland and Tierra del Fuego on the southern tip of South America, from which he drew inspiration for his art.
The year before Kent lived in Brigus, he lived in Winona, Minn. This year, the residents of Winona held a Rockwell Kent Centennial Festival, and next year Carew Halleck, an actor who played Rockwell Kent in a stage play, hopes to ride his motorcycle with four others to Newfoundland in May to take in the Rockwell Kent festivities here.
(I bet arriving in Port aux Basques on a motorcycle in May will be an interesting experience —perhaps so inhospitable as to inspire Kent to have produced a painting were he still with us.)
So next year Newfoundland and Labrador will mark 100 years since Rockwell Kent set up house in Brigus — 100 years since Kent Cottage has been an inspirational place for artists to create.
Beginning in May 2014, The Landfall Trust and The Rooms will combine efforts to celebrate 2014 Kent Centennial, a Commemoration of Rockwell Kent in Newfoundland
An exhibition of Kent’s artwork will run from May 30 to Aug. 27. If you have never seen his pen and ink drawings or wood cuts, you will undoubtedly remark on the similarities between his and David Blackwood’s works.
A Rockwell Kent documentary will screen June 8, with producer/director Frederick Lewis in attendance, and Dennis Costanzo will lecture June 4 on one of Kent’s famous pieces created during his time in Newfoundland, an oil painting called “House of Dread.”
Celebrations in Brigus include a play written by Mack Furlong and the late Fran Locke about Rockwell Kent, called “I Want it All”.
The Baccalieu Players will perform the play at the end of July and the beginning of August.
Brigus will also host Day 1 of a two-day symposium on Kent’s life in Newfoundland and the art he produced here, including readings by authors who have included Kent in their fiction: Michael Winter, Jane Urquhart and Mack Furlong.
Print-making workshops will take place in partnership with
St. Michael’s Printshop.
The most exciting Landfall Trust activity I’ve read about is the commissioning of an artist to carve a replica of the figurehead that Kent installed above his door in Brigus in 1914 (it looks like a maidenhead on a ship and is visible in Kent’s sketch “Newfoundland Home”).
Milly Brown is chairwoman of the Kent Centennial Committee. She recommends that interested people keep checking www.landfalltrust.org for dates and details.
And if you have questions, you can email her at email@example.com
In the meantime, take a stroll out there and see how intriguing the property really is. You may run into a five-year-old banging on the door.
Susan Flanagan is a communications
specialist who is finally reading Michael Winter’s “The Big Why.” She is happy that premier Smallwood invited Kent back to Newfoundland in 1968 and Kent took him up on the offer. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org