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  • Here's a piece I wrote for Yankee Magazine in 2006. Betsy Wyeth is my second-mother...she and her late husband, Andy, have been friends and second-family since I was very young, as you will read. I love them both.

    Andy, of course, got all the attention and limelight, but Betsy was always remarkable in her own right. Andy and I agreed that she never received enough credit or recognition for her contribution to all that the family has accomplished.

    A lot has transpired since I wrote this, but no matter, they will never be anything less than truly amazing people, to whom I owe so very, very much...including my life here in my querencia, Maine.

    Betsy's World:

    Islands are the perfect places for this dark, beautiful, brilliant woman. Of the numerous islands in her life some are metaphoric, created as home and refuge for herself and the man, the artist, she loves.

    But there are also the islands with actual moats of distance and challenge, the islands she has bought and lived on off the coast of Maine. Places perfect for keeping the world, literally, at bay.

    Every one of these "islands,” is an intensely personal place, and serves as muse and world to both Betsy and Andrew Wyeth, yet in perfect counterpoint to their privacy, for almost sixty years their lives have been shared with the outside world in the most intimate of detail.

    Since the age of seven, Betsy Wyeth’s islands have been elemental in my life. From my parent’s portion of an old Quaker mill property in Chadds Ford, Pennsylvania, I grew up playing down the hill on the Wyeth’s land, in the old mill itself, and particularly on their three islands in the Brandywine River. After intervening years of school, travel and sampling the diverse fruit of the larger world, I accepted Betsy’s invitation to come spend a Maine summer with them in 1978.

    There would be no going back. I willingly fell into Betsy’s arms which welcomed me to other islands just coming into her world. I was to be the apprentice of her newest alchemy.

    In 1978 Betsy bought 22-acre Southern Island set in the mouth of a small fishing harbor, and for 12 years she and Andy lived and worked there. Southern’s beautiful lighthouse was both home and model, if you will, for many of Andy’s remarkable paintings. Their first “real” island home, it fed a stirring in Betsy, and a year later, when she learned that just down the coast 450-acre Allen Island was for sale, she bought it. Just like that.

    And she said to me, “Well, I did it. Bought Allen Island. Now what the hell am I going to do with an island this size, five miles off the coast? You helped get me into this, she’s yours in all but title. Help me figure this out…and let’s have some fun.”

    Of course she knew perfectly well that I would take this incredible bait. And she definitely had an idea what she was going to do with this island. And, later, with Benner Island, literally a stone’s throw away, which she bought in 1989.

    She had a vision, her greatest yet…a vision as powerful as any ever imagined by any Wyeth.

    Betsy’s vision was that of resurrection, of re-establishing 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. In her mind’s eye she saw a 450 acre blank canvas there on the horizon.

    I had no idea that this place would completely change my life.

    Allen was then feral territory. Like nearly three hundred once year-round islands off the coast of Maine, it had lost its community, its school, its fields. It had become a seasonal home for two fishing families, living in decaying houses on the fringe of the fast encroaching spruce forest.

    The second time I landed on Allen was with a Yale School of Forestry graduate who was reputed to know something about Maine islands. He did indeed, and the three of us hit it off in a very big way. Betsy hired Philip Conkling to help us develop a plan to begin taming the northern end of the island and in the process she played a pivotal role in helping Philip and I create, in 1983, the Island Institute which is today one of the world’s premier island-oriented organizations.

    How Allen Island became a sea-station where we initiated research and strategies regarding how to reclaim and sustain communities is another story unto itself, but suffice it to say that it was there we helped Betsy create her newest world. We were, perhaps, her draftsmen, but the vision and gumption was very largely hers.

    We worked hard getting the bit in the teeth of this beast...taming it, but only to a certain extent. The other “islands” Betsy Wyeth has created in the wondrous strange galleries of her marriage have ultimately, perhaps, become too familiar, too safe, in their domesticity. The fact is that while Allen’s northern end has been somewhat tamed, one can never, ever, safely forget that this is an island, a fundamentally wild place, still a beast in many ways. And on islands, nothing is ever easy. On islands there is always an edginess underlying all.

    The other factor which cannot be ignored is the sense of confinement, even imprisonment, Andrew Wyeth 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.

    The edginess feeds these two people.

    Over the two decades of Betsy’s mastery Allen has been transformed from one of Stevenson’s wild, abandoned, godless islands into something right from the pages of John Fowles - sophisticated, mysterious, precarious, even dangerous. Hauntingly beautiful and yet possessed of a mystery that can easily leave one wondering what is real and what isn’t. Otherworldly.

    As Fowles once wrote, “More and more we lose the ability to think as poets think, across frontiers and consecrated limits. More and more we think – or are brainwashed into thinking – in terms of verifiable facts, like money, time, personal pleasure, established knowledge. One reason I love islands so much is that of their nature they question such a lack of imagination; that properly experienced, they make us stop and think a little: why am I here, what am I about, what is it all about, what has gone wrong?”

    Unlike her husband’s paintings that at some precise moment are finished, here the dynamic, the theatre, the Fowlesian play is ever a work in progress. Betsy has always responded to the siren call of challenge which would destroy many, she is no stranger to playing at the edge. Yet she is by nature a true New Englander, and there is a very practical side to her island nature. On these islands she can indulge her pursuit of intensely personal and significant business matters, and 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.

    These two islands are Betsy’s “other man.” This, more than anywhere else is where she has unleashed her passion and creative genius on their grandest scale. The comparison to her husband’s approach to his own work is, I suppose, inevitable. And just as in the constellation of Andy’s greatest works there are clear supernovas, so too, in the extraordinary pantheon of Betsy’s lifetime of accomplishment, this one, this place, burns brightest.

    The competitive tension in this grand union is palpable but critical, and I cannot help but think of the ancient Greek word for competition, "competra," which means "to rise together." And of "concerto," with its double meaning of joining together, working in concert, but also, from the Latin, to fight or to contend.

    Betsy’s 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. Their respective and combined genius has always fed on competition. They have worked in concert and they will each, someday, leave great masterworks behind, having risen together.

    Coda: thanks to my friend, Mel Allen, Editor of Yankee Magazine for encouraging me to write this "love letter" to Betsy. And thanks, ever, to Andy and Betsy for everything....everything.
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