Five miles off the Gulf of Maine, two scenic islands in the Atlantic Ocean are enmeshed with the biography of one of America’s best-known painters, Andrew Wyeth. Called Allen and Benner, the adjacent islands are where Wyeth created some of his most iconic paintings. Purchased by his wife and collaborator, Betsy James Wyeth, between 1979 and 1990, they were her private terrain until her death in 2020 at the age of 98. Now, the historic islands have a new owner: Maine’s Colby College, which plans to reinvigorate them with a new generation of students, researchers, and artists.
The Waterville-based liberal arts college purchased Allen and Benner islands from the Up East Foundation and the Wyeth Foundation for American Art in a bid to preserve the area and make them home to a campus for arts and climate change research. A Colby spokesperson told Hyperallergic that the college paid $2 million for the islands while the rest of the property’s market value was contributed as a gift in kind by the two foundations.
Colby describes the deal as a natural extension of its five-year-long scientific research programs on Allen Island. Now, as the steward of both islands, it plans to expand its activities to multidisciplinary programs that will combine bird research and climate monitoring with studies of sculpture, film, and visual arts. The college is also planning outdoor orientation trips, leadership training, and retreats on the islands.
Allen Island stretches over 450 acres of land that originally belonged to the native Abenaki tribe. It was the first stop of British colonizer George Weymouth in 1605 as part of his expedition to the area now known as Maine, and the site of one of the first Anglican services in North America.
Once home to a thriving fishing community that sustained a local school, Allen’s population dwindled over time to a handful of lobstermen and their families. With Besty Wyeth’s ownership in 1979, the island saw a revival as she developed landscape and forest management plans to preserve its natural habitat and restored and designed a series of buildings, including barns, fish houses, and a wharf to help boost the island’s fishing trade.
Her husband, who called the islands “Besty’s village,” had a studio in Benner, where he spent his summers. In the late stages of his career, he began featuring the islands in tempera paintings including “Pentecost” (1989), “Jupiter” (1994), “Airborne” (1996), and others.
“Allen and Benner islands are such an integral part of my family, our history, and our art,” Jamie Wyeth, Andrew Wyeth’s son and a painter himself, said in a statement. “I am convinced that Colby College is the perfect steward to carry on and maintain my family’s legacy on the islands into the future.”
Colby’s President David A. Greene said in the same statement: “These islands, which have been stewarded with deep respect for the land and the lives of those who have inhabited them over time, will now become laboratories for important research and places of quiet reflection and artistic creation.”
“Colby College will carry Betsy Wyeth’s vision forward through our commitment to the community, to the islands being centers of discovery, and to conserving a natural environment that is truly inspirational,” he added.
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