Jeffery Becton holding up a print of "Olivia's Room," one of his photomontages

The Art of Being Jeffery Becton

Long content to toil in obscurity from his quiet perch on Deer Isle, the septuagenarian master of photomontage drives fast, takes chances, and wonders whether he’s getting somewhere.

By Jesse Ellison
Photos by Cig Harvey
From our January 2024 issue

We were heading out toward Jericho Bay and Eggemoggin Reach on a clear, chilly evening last fall, just before dusk, when our captain, the artist Jeffery Becton, announced that his wife was worried he had dementia. This was right after he’d revved the rigid inflatable boat’s twin 300 horsepower engines and had us skimming along at close to 44 knots (more than 50 miles per hour) “just to get it over with,” and it was before he started doing donuts in the cove near his Deer Isle home. He’d had an MRI in the spring and was told that his brain looked like that of a 76-year-old man, which he is. It had shrunk, which it does. But not to a worrisome degree. He wasn’t worried. Maybe, he wondered, it was just that he’s an artist, and artists think differently — they have a different relationship with reality. “I mean, it’s a very permeable membrane between dream, sleep, and reality,” he says. “And the ambiguity of what’s going on leaves a lot of room for the psyche to roam.”

Becton has been exploring boundaries between the real and the imagined, the conscious and the unconscious, for virtually his entire career, which now spans five decades. Technically, he’s a photographer, but he calls his work “digital montage.” He takes his digital images, then layers and manipulates them until they become something entirely new. The effect is usually something that looks both deeply familiar and deeply surreal. 

Jeffery Becton leaning his back into a burning bush

Like many artists who live and work in Maine, Becton casts the ocean as a recurring character. Sometimes it’s violent, and sometimes it’s placid. Sometimes it’s merely hinted at by sea smoke glimpsed through a window. Almost always, it’s there. Chris Crosman, a former curator for the Farnsworth Art Museum and now its director emeritus, compares Becton to none other than Andrew Wyeth, who also found everything he needed right where he was. Their subjects — shorelines, ordinary belongings, empty rooms — are similar, as are the restrained, muted palettes and the wispy hints of nostalgia that run through their work. A “painter without a paintbrush” is how Crosman describes Becton. “These are images that haunt you,” he says. “They are also just drop-dead beautiful.” 

But if you haven’t heard of Becton before, you’re not alone. “I think he has, for some years, until relatively recently, been fairly content to be under the radar, just making his work,” says Dan Mills, the curator for the Bates College Museum of Art, which put on a solo show of Becton’s large-scale photomontages in 2016. “And he’s made an incredible body of work. It’s kind of slow-cooked. It comes from having a deep, deep connection to the coast of Maine. Knowing it and seeing it and living it and smelling it for a long, long time, while he was developing a very sophisticated, cerebral way of making work that isn’t straight ahead. His pieces are poetic, utterly beautiful, but simultaneously highly charged. They speak to moments of danger — rising waters and environmental disaster, without being specific.”

Becton has lived on Deer Isle, on a large, sloping lot on French Camp Road, for nearly 50 years now, ever since finishing his master’s degree in fine art at Yale. He’d been advised by Robert Motherwell, the renowned American abstract expressionist and teacher, to go to New York City if he really wanted to be an artist, because that’s where all the action was. Instead, on account of “the arrogance of youth” and being “a butthead,” Becton says, he moved to Maine, where he had spent summers as a kid. He arrived in the early 1970s, fresh off protesting the Vietnam War, along with a slew of back-to-the-landers clutching Ivy League degrees and copies of the Whole Earth Catalog.

Becton has been on Deer Isle pretty much ever since, and he only ever leaves reluctantly. The notion of driving down to Boston, or even Portland or Rockland, holds no appeal. He’s a homebody, and he loves where he lives. At the end of October, all his boats — a Center Harbor 31 designed by Joel White (E. B. White’s son and the founder of Brooklin Boat Yard), a Selene 53, and a classic lobsterboat, among others — were still in the water. He keeps them there for as long as he possibly can. If he could, he’d keep the rigid inflatable out all winter, but he’d need a slip for that, and the fishermen won’t give those up.

For years, Becton worked out of a studio on the third floor of the main house, where he lives with his second wife, Hillary. His first wife, with whom he has two children, now both in their 30s, lives next door, an arrangement he describes with a shrug. “It was good for the kids,” he says. That old studio is still there, above the main bedroom and the room that seems to belong to their two Abyssinian cats, which look like tiny leopards. It’s a stark and messy space, with piles of paper on the floor around a table holding two giant monitors. These days, Becton works elsewhere, in a building with a little sign out front that identifies it as “The Farthest House.” It’s a few minutes’ drive away, by a home he and Hillary bought for her mother, which she promptly rejected, and which they now use as a guesthouse. 

Jeffery Becton's photomontage prints rolled up into cylinders

On land, Becton can seem a bit timid or unsure of himself. He tends to lose his train of thought, and as he gave a tour of his various properties, he seemed to fumble over how to even talk about his career. As we entered the guesthouse, he said, “When Hillary’s mom said no to the house, we started thinking about what it was going to be like to get old and die.” Then, he stopped speaking, as if the thought was complete. Perhaps it was. 

On the lower level of his current studio, his work is laid out all over the floor in loose, overlapping piles. He was preparing for a show, Framing the Domestic Sea, on display at the New Bedford Whaling Museum, in Massachusetts, from mid-January to early May. Some images are glossy, some matte. Some are enormous, some much smaller. One series shows a roofline against a variety of backgrounds — in some iterations the windows are visible, and in others they’re not. He can’t point to where the images begin or where they’re going. “What I’m looking for is some kind of feeling that’s strong enough that it takes you in,” he says. “Sometimes, it’s complicated. This one has so many pictures because I haven’t found what I think I’m looking for.”

 “Most artists don’t understand how fascinating their work is to other people,” Crosman told me. “They’re all a little nervous about what they’re doing and how they’re doing it. And Jeff is very self-deprecating. He sticks pretty close to home. The kind of work he does does not have as ready a market as other artists. He’s not young anymore.” 

Even when he was younger, his interests always seemed to fall ahead of or outside the mainstream. In his undergraduate days, for instance, he became interested in automatic drawing, the act of supposedly suppressing consciousness in order to let the subconscious control artistic creation. He was also always an early and enthusiastic adopter of new technologies. Standing out on his deck on Deer Isle, he mentioned that he designed it using a Macintosh computer he bought in the 1980s. When the whole genre of photomontage evolved from literal cut-and-paste jobs into increasingly sophisticated digital processes, Becton was at the leading edge. In Crosman’s words, he’s a “mad scientist.”

Charles Altschul, the former president and a current faculty member at Maine Media Workshops & College, went to the same schools as Becton — Deerfield Academy, Yale. And the two of them overlapped at the Center for Creative Imaging, the Kodak company’s now-defunct photography school in Camden. Altschul was the school’s director when Becton took a Photoshop course in the ’90s. It was only a few years ago, though, that Altschul finally met Becton in person. He was familiar with his work and had assumed, based on Becton’s use of digital manipulation, that the artist was decades younger than he actually is. It’s unusual, he says, to find someone his age so conversant with the medium. “Maybe living on Deer Isle you can still focus on things and not have all the distractions,” Altschul says. “But he’s working in a medium and a form that is a younger person’s world, and he was doing this in the early days of it.”

Sitting on one of two white-leather couches in his studio, sipping a bottle of Diet Coke, Becton talked about some of his work showing last summer at Photo London, a major European art fair. “It was the closest I’ve gotten to getting somewhere,” he said. One of his dealers suggested he attend, and though he doesn’t like to travel, he agreed to go largely because it would be “a way of facing the actual truth of the market,” he says. “I learned that I am worthy of that crowd. I’ve never done a show like that before. I’ve never been invited to a show like that before. It did feel good. It just did.” 

That was actually the second time in as many years he’d been lured to London. Previously, one of his pieces was included in the Royal Academy of Arts’s annual Summer Exhibition (the theme of the show was climate, and Becton’s selected work, The Pilot House, depicted the ocean intruding into an old house, water lapping across the hardwood floor). He got to attend “Varnishing Day,” when all the artists are blessed in a service at St. James’s Church, near Piccadilly Circus, and presented with a lavish buffet and bottomless champagne. Every included artist’s name is then inscribed in a book that dates back to the 1740s. “My name will be in the book,” he says, dropping his voice to a near whisper. “You know, we don’t get enough validation. There’s really never enough. We want more. Artists are especially vulnerable to that, because our place in society is sort of strange and malleable.”

Becton’s place has certainly always been somewhat strange. He doesn’t seem inclined to talk much about his family history, but, in 1897, his grandfather cofounded a medical-equipment manufacturer called Becton, Dickinson and Company, which became one of the country’s largest corporations. Becton doesn’t have to make a living selling art. But money works in strange ways in the art world. Will the pursuit of it stifle an artist’s erstwhile creative drive? Does having plenty of it breed complacency, or is it liberating? Its virtues and vices affect different artists in different ways.

“It comes down to why people make art,” Altschul says. “For some, you have to make a living at it. You’ve got to be able to create stuff that’s saleable. That’s not as important for Jeff. In the art world today, you not only need the talent and drive to be making work, that’s a given, but there has to be a strong marketing arm to it. Jeff’s not boastful. He’s quiet and reserved. The very fact that he doesn’t really respond to emails, that just doesn’t go a long way toward selling work. You have to be out there beating the bushes. You don’t get known by sitting in your studio not showing your stuff to people.”

A selection of Becton’s works, clockwise from top left: Grace, On the Cusp, Simple Gifts, Spring Tide, Far Shore, and Hardscrabble. Interiors include his mother’s farmhouse, friends’ Deer Isle homes, and a run-down Bar Harbor mansion. The title Simple Gifts, Becton says, was inspired by the eponymous Shaker hymn and by his experience of Deer Isle: “The rhythm of life, the passing of the seasons, birth and death.”

Over the course of the afternoon, Becton returned repeatedly to the subject of Motherwell’s advice to move to New York. It is, for him, clearly a pivotal point in his life story. “Now, I look back and I think about how having gone right out of grad school to New York would have been the right thing to do,” he said, leaning into those last five words. “But that’s only because I’ve changed my stripes. Now that I’m 76 years old, I want to have some recognition. It doesn’t have to be of the glorious kind. It’s just, we all get up and do our jobs in the morning, more or less. My job is not to go earn a salary. My job is to do my work. And it’s a wonderful thing to have that be your primary job, to do the thing you love.”

Becton’s work, though, is so steeped in a sense of place that it’s hard to imagine what it would look like had he not settled on Deer Isle. (“He couldn’t make these images if he didn’t live in Maine,” Crosman told me.) From the water creeping into so many of his montages to the austere New England home interiors, his work belongs squarely in the Maine canon. 

Becton said that when he was a kid, his mother would make him and his four siblings go out on the water whether they felt like it or not. It was like a “double-edged sword,” he said. “We loved being out on the water, but we were also really scared of it.” The ocean is like that: beautiful, with an undercurrent of ever-present danger. He knows the waters around his house inside and out, he says, though admittedly not as well as the fishermen who rely on it to make their living. “I’m just playing out here,” he said as we skipped across the surface in his high-speed rigid inflatable boat. 

Becton had been suggesting we get out on that boat all day, and it became plain as to why: he is happiest and most at ease offshore. His wife worries about him going out alone. But he can hardly help himself. “It’s like you’re going to a place where the energy is all oriented in the right direction,” he says. “I can’t quite put it into words really. It has to do with feeling one with nature even if you’re pounding along at 50 miles an hour over a rough chop. You can get a feeling of these waves. They actually give you energy. They give you a feeling that you’re in control.”

On the way back in, with the sun starting to set, Becton realized the bow line was trailing off the boat, so he cut the motor and climbed forward. As he leaned out over the bow, it seemed for a moment that he might lose his balance and fall into the water. But after fishing out the line, he nonchalantly took his seat at the helm. “That was a minor operation, but if you’re alone . . . ” he trailed off. “That’s why everybody’s worried about me. I’m only going out because that’s the way you can photograph the waves.” 

Jeffery Becton on one of his boats with his face to the wind

Becton takes every willing visitor out on one of his boats. Among friends, he’s as well-known for that as he is for his reclusive nature. When Mills, the Bates curator, had a show of his own work at the Center for Maine Contemporary Art, in Rockland, the only way he persuaded Becton to come was by telling him he could travel by boat. Altschul has a theory: “The thing about boats,” he says, “is you cast off. You leave the world behind. You’re in your own cocoon. I think there’s sort of a solitude and an introspection that can happen. It’s a comfortable place for him — on the boat but also in his own head, his own world. His photographs are like that too. These fabricated worlds that exist for him, that he creates and controls and dreams of and inhabits, without all the other distractions of the world.”

Back on shore, the sun had dipped below the horizon, and the sky was softening into pinks and purples. “One aspect of why humans are fascinated by the sunset is because it’s the end of something,” Becton says, in a sort of offhand, absentminded way. “Everything in our lives that has an end is a mini end of our lives. At least that’s the way I see it. We all have a philosophical engine that’s chugging along inside us, trying to make sense of things, trying to make sense of why we’re even aware. It is one of the things that makes my work what it is: that I’m such a butthead and that I came to live here.”

May 2024, Down East Magazine

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