Betsy Wyeth's World is an Island in Maine
Betsy hired a Yale School of Forestry & Environmental Studies graduate to help us develop a plan to begin taming the northern end of the island. His name was Philip Conkling, and the three of us hit it off in a very big way. (Betsy later played a pivotal role in helping Philip and me create, in 1983, the Island Institute, which is today one of the world’s premier island-oriented organizations.)We were, perhaps, her draftsmen, but the vision and gumption to create her newest world were very largely hers. She had a vision — one as powerful as any ever imagined by any Wyeth. Betsy’s vision was that of resurrection, of reestablishing a community at sea. She envisioned a place where men could base their fishing operations, and she saw a home for herself and her husband — an ultimate refuge. To create this refuge, she has worked with the same intensity as Andy working with a single-haired brush on a master tempera. Her palette: bulldozers, boats, skidders, barges, work crews, fire, land, sea, and challenge. Always challenge.
Allen and Benner Islands are Betsy’s “other man.” These islands, more than anywhere else, are where she has unleashed her passion and creative genius on their grandest scale. The comparison with her husband’s approach to his own work is, I suppose, inevitable. Unlike her husband’s paintings, which at some precise moment are finished, here the dynamic — the theater — is ever a work in progress. And just as in the constellation of Andy’s greatest works, there are clear supernovas: In the extraordinary pantheon of Betsy’s lifetime of accomplishment, this one — this place — burns brightest.
Still there is a sense of confinement — even imprisonment — that Andy can end up feeling in these worlds Betsy constructs for them. The muse as prison, if you will, provides the setting, yet also builds the creative tension that has inspired some of his greatest works. Betsy and Andy’s long life together has often been tumultuous, but their carefully managed frisson has kept these two lovers passionate, edgy, and astonishingly productive. The competitive tension in this grand union is palpable but critical, and I cannot help but think of the Latin word for competition, competitio, whose root, competere, means “to seek together.” And of concertare, with its double meaning of “to join together, to work in concert,” as well as “to fight or to contend.”
Their respective and combined genius has always fed on competition. They have worked in concert and they will each, someday, leave great masterworks behind.