“I don't want petty self-expression; I want the elemental, infinite thing; I want to paint the rhythm of eternity.” — Rockwell Kent
Rockwell Kent isn’t exactly a household name today. But in the first half of the 20th century, the New York-born Kent was the definition of a Renaissance Man: painter, illustrator, author and adventurer would have been some of the occupations to appear on his CV.
A transcendentalist in the mold of Emerson and Thoreau, Kent had a particular fondness for the cold, remote corners of the world, traveling to such far-flung places as Alaska, Tierra del Fuego and Greenland.
It was in 1930s Greenland where Kent produced a series of photographs—turned into lantern slides that now reside in the Plattsburgh State Art Museum in New York—that would eventually inspire photographer Denis Defibaugh to follow the artist nearly 90 years later. Defibaugh is the principal investigator on a National Science Foundation-funded project for a comparative study of Greenland then and now—culturally, historically, environmentally and otherwise.
“I just thought [the slides] were so beautiful; this was something I could actually wrap my interests around,” explains Defibaugh, a tenured professor at Rochester Institute of Technology who has also traveled extensively, conducting workshops and holding solo exhibits around the world.
A Participant in History
“For an American to be in Greenland in that era was just unheard of, and it wasn’t easy for [Kent] to get into Greenland,” notes Defibaugh. In fact, Kent’s first foray to Greenland in 1929 was more in the mold of Ernest Shackleton’s Endurance expedition, the most famous tale of survival to emerge from the Heroic Age of Antarctic Exploration. In the Greenland version, a storm wrecked Kent’s ship while moored in a fjord, forcing him to hike to a nearby town for help. He eventually found aid in the small village of Narsaq.
“That was his first interaction with Greenlanders, and he became infatuated with the people,” Defibaugh says.
Kent wasn’t just a bystander to history. This was 1930s Greenland, and its people were under Danish control, with all of the social and political upheavals typically associated with the colonial rule of indigenous people.
“Kent was highly critical of Danish policies in Greenland, evidenced in both his writings and in the absence of colonial presence in his paintings,” says Susan Vanek, a doctoral student in anthropology at Binghamton University who is a co-PI on the project. “His views reflected his background and political opinions, which adds to an understanding of 1930s Greenland that has largely been told from the perspective of the Danish colonial authorities.”
That Kent chose to live in some of the smaller town and villages, such as Illorsuit, also provides a unique perspective.
“Kent was also special because he chose to settle for a long period of time in one small community. He tried to live as part of that community and participate in local practices, such as the whale hunt and dog sledding, unlike other travelers and explorers who often were more interested in Greenland as an ‘exotic’ or ‘unexplored’ place,” adds Jette Rygaard, another co-PI on the team and an associate professor at the University of Greenland who has conducted research there for 25 years.
Participants of Modern Life
Since 2016, various members of the team have primarily visited four towns where Kent spent most of his years in Greenland—Illorsuit, Uummannaq, Sisimiut and Nuuk.
Defibaugh is in the midst of culling through photographs, many taken from similar vantage points or themes that appeared in Kent’s photographs and paintings, for a couple of planned books and upcoming exhibitions.
“There were three things that Kent addressed in his photographs and in his paintings,” Defibaugh says, “the primal landscape, the landscape in relationship to people and settlements, and then people—he would paint people, photograph people. His paintings that incorporated people were primarily to express scale and to show a sense of place and people in the environment.”
The people in the local communities were also a major focus of the three-year field project. The team made public presentations about their work, reintroducing Kent’s images of their country to a new generation, particularly to the local youths who also participated in photography workshops. Photo exhibitions of work by both Kent and the students were hugely popular, according to Vanek.
“Even if people did not know or remember Kent, they remembered the people and places pictured in his works,” she says.
The researchers also did some deep dives into local archival collections. For instance, Rygaard examined letters (like the one at left) at the Ilulissat Museum from the famous Danish Arctic explorer Knud Rasmussen to his daughter Hanne, warning her about Rockwell Kent.
“To have letters like that in your hand is really a unique experience, especially in our time of e-mails and texts,” she says.
Value of Comparative Study
Vanek and Rygaard just completed their final round of field work where they revisited many of the communities and schools. The students had produced about 10,000 photos during the course of the project, some of which will appear in a published book featuring their work.
“Each student will receive a copy of the book when it is produced, and a number of people we have talked to about the book are impressed that all the proceeds from any sales of the book will go to children’s charity in Greenland,” Rygaard says.
Comparative studies, like the Rockwell Kent project, provide a variety of insights, according to Vanek.
“On one level, they allow us to examine how people see their pasts and how they translate that into understandings of their lives today and how they envision their futures,” she explains. “By working with individuals from different age ranges, genders, and social groups, we can also move toward an understanding of the past that is more nuanced—a past that [is] constructed in multiple ways by various individuals and groups in the present, highlighting their concerns today.”
The insights also serve as a catalyst to discuss the contemporary issues facing the communities, according to Vanek, such as population movements from smaller villages to larger towns, as well as the lack of education and employment opportunities.
“One of the saddest things for me is that the settlements are kind of going away,” Defibaugh says. “The hunting culture that was a big part of Greenland when Kent was there, in terms of hunting for whales, walrus and seals—using seal skins as a way to create income—has very much been depleted. Not that there aren’t plenty of seals but there’s no market for the seals anymore”
Vanek says that the seismic changes underway today are part of larger processes that were already underway in the 1930s.
“Some towns established during the colonial period were becoming more prosperous while others were shrinking; the fishing industry was beginning to outpace marine mammal products in economic importance; [and] the population was growing and numerous other changes were taking place,” she notes. “So, when talking about challenges faced by communities today, it is important to remember there were significant changes and transitions going on in the early 20th century as well, some of which continue today.”