Colby College in Waterville has become the new steward of two historic islands where renowned American artist Andrew Wyeth painted some of his greatest works, inspired and influenced by the landscape and architecture that were curated by his wife, Betsy Wyeth.
Colby has taken ownership of Allen and Benner islands from the Up East Foundation and the Wyeth Foundation for American Art as part of an initiative to preserve these extraordinary areas and continue to utilize them as centers for learning, research, and creative inspiration.
Allen and Benner will allow the college to establish a dynamic island campus and provide Colby with a significant presence on the coast for a range of academic programs and activities, including critical research related to climate change.
Allen and Benner are adjacent private islands five miles south of Port Clyde in Penobscot Bay. Betsy Wyeth purchased Allen Island in 1979, and in 1990 acquired Benner. There, she established a model for conservation and the preservation of Maine’s working waterfront and created an extraordinary built and natural environment.
“My grandfather N.C. Wyeth produced many important works on and around this island archipelago…”
Over the last five years, Colby College has partnered with the Up East Foundation to develop projects and programs on Allen that complement Colby’s academic program and have involved important discoveries, especially in the sciences. Colby will now be able to significantly expand its work there in a wide range of disciplines including social sciences, humanities, and natural sciences—from sculpture and cinema to bird research and long-term climate monitoring.
“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,” said Colby President David A. Greene. “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. We are humbled by the opportunity to create the next chapter in the incredible story of Allen and Benner islands.”
Allen and Benner will also be available for a wide range of programs and activities—from Colby’s outdoor orientation trips to leadership trainings and retreats.
“Allen and Benner islands are such an integral part of my family, our history, and our art,” said Jamie Wyeth. “My grandfather N.C.
Wyeth produced many important works on and around this island archipelago. Of course, my father, Andrew, not only painted on the islands, but he lived on them every summer. Finally, my mother, Betsy, deeply loved and left an indelible mark on these unique islands through her great vision to protect and conserve them and the surrounding community. 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.”
Allen Island has an important cultural legacy that includes being used by the Abenaki, the Native American community that resided in the region. It was the initial stop that British explorer George Weymouth made in 1605 as part of his expedition to the area now known as Maine, and it was also the site of the first Anglican service in North America.
Allen Island grew into a thriving fishing community that supported a school, but like many year-round islands off the Maine coast, the population declined until only a handful of lobstermen and their families resided there.
Betsy Wyeth purchased 450-acre Allen Island and 50-acre Benner Island to create surroundings that supported and inspired her husband’s work, and over a 40-year period, she unleashed her creativity and thoughtfulness to resurrect them.
This involved developing a landscape and forest management plan to highlight and preserve Allen and Benner’s natural beauty; restoring and designing a series of buildings, including barns and fish houses; and building a wharf to support the livelihoods of local lobstermen and re-establish a fishing outpost that had been an important part of the island’s history.
Her vision influenced the art of one of the 20th century’s most important American painters and resulted in the creation of subjects for some of Andrew Wyeth’s final works and inspired major paintings, including Jupiter, Airborne, and Pentecost, among others.
Allen and Benner islands offer year-round easy access and undisturbed environments that are ideal for conducting research. This has created important opportunities for Colby to measure and assess a series of major issues and crises, including:
• the impact of climate change on the Gulf of Maine, one of the fastest-warming bodies of water in the world;
• the broad-scale impact of poor air quality and atmospheric pollution that is pushed to Maine from pollution producers across North America;
• decreasing biodiversity and the role of genetic structure in how species survive or become extinct.
The lobstering community that uses Allen Island and that Betsy Wyeth helped re-establish will continue to have access.