Painters Bo Bartlett and Betsy Eby Find Peace and Inspiration On Wheaton Island

Andrew Wyeth, and his wife, Betsy, unwittingly led the couple to their 1905 home on the remote Penobscot Bay island.

Artist Bo Bartlett rows his skiff, the Conrad K, in Matinicus Harbor toward Wheaton Island

Artist Bo Bartlett rows his skiff, the Conrad K, in Matinicus Harbor. Behind him is 20-acre Wheaton Island, where he and his wife, artist Betsy Eby, live and work part of the year.

By Joyce Kryszak
Photos by Greta Rybus
From the May/June 2020 issue of Maine Homes by Down East

Like yin and yang, realist painter Bo Bartlett and abstract painter Betsy Eby are opposites working in perfect harmony. But the dualism extends beyond their art, to the two paradoxical locations they choose to practice it — Bartlett’s native Columbus, Georgia, in winter, and, in summer, a tiny island 23 miles off the coast of Port Clyde, in Maine.

Wheaton Island is a 20-acre granite outcropping neighboring larger Matinicus Isle. For the couple, traveling there involves a 21-hour car ride to Rockland, then a 90-minute charter boat trip to their wharf. Bartlett says his mentor, artist Andrew Wyeth, and his wife, Betsy, unintentionally led him here. “We were on Benner Island visiting Andy and Betsy in 1995 and she started pointing out islands. I squinted and said, ‘Whoa, what’s that dot way out there?’ Betsy said, ‘Oh, that’s Matinicus — do NOT go out there!’” citing its remoteness, even as islands go. 

From left: A bed frame Bartlett crafted from salvaged posts and driftwood graces a guestroom; Alabaster walls, sea-smoke floors, and sheer curtains create an ethereal vibe in a guest/sitting room, minimally furnished with beach and thrift store finds; Bartlett steams lobsters gifted from a Matinicus fisherman friend..

Naturally, Bartlett headed out the next day and was smitten. Five years later, kayaking around Matinicus, he spotted a For Sale sign on Wheaton — for the entire island and its 1905 main house and guesthouse, which lack indoor baths. He snapped it up and hired Freeport builder John Libby, a Matinicus neighbor, to build him a “fancy” two-seater outhouse. In 2010, Bartlett called Libby back to create a pair of studios for him and his new bride, Eby. Simple yet elegant, the 18-by-24-foot, post-and-beam structures — gabled and white-shingled like the houses — rise from the ledges atop seemingly floating decks; skylights capture the northern light that is crucial for their work. Sited about 300 feet apart, Bartlett’s studio is nestled in a sheltered hollow, embraced by rugosa roses and rock, while Eby’s soars from the highest peak, fully exposed to the sky and migrating birds.

Libby says the studio project was pretty “straightforward.” Er — all it took was three months of planning, two months of building that included scribing into granite and bulldozing pathways, and a helicopter to carry 600-pound bundles of lumber to the island. These were coded with his-and-hers, blue and pink ribbons to avoid mix-ups. Libby lauds his 10-man crew, who lived at his Matinicus home for the duration, for persevering despite Mother Nature’s occasional fury. “When the fog rolls in, you can’t even see your feet,” he says. “Waves reach 40 feet and the wind can be fierce, sometimes 100 miles per hour.”

Pulsing lines in Eby’s Boulder Study subtly repeat throughout the modest living room, furnished with seating and a table Bartlett made from sea detritus and one of a pair of antique metal stars — the other is in their Georgia home. The log roller, recovered from the island’s demolished barn, appears in Bartlett’s work, as does his hat.

With nothing between Wheaton and Portugal except that tempestuous sea, Eby admits theirs is “an impractical love affair with real estate.” But she says her encaustic paintings, created using resins and fire, benefit from the seclusion and unbridled gestures when she’s here. “That energy and those rhythms get into my paintings,” says Eby, a classically trained pianist who also practices at her studio piano every day. Island life manifests in more tangible ways on Bartlett’s wall-size canvases: surfers in repose, a family and its massive catch, a lone rower combatting mountainous waves.

From left: Freeport builder John Libby gave Eby’s studio (pictured) and Bartlett’s barn doors that give way to expansive decks, skylights, and oculus windows that keep a watchful eye over the open seas. Eby’s finished Garden Riot paintings blossom color against the stark-white walls in her studio, where she primes a canvas. The Albatross receives a few last brushstrokes. 

In contrast, the couple’s routine seems rather mundane. Up at sunrise, they walk to the “Portugal shore” to meditate before heading to their studios to work. At lunchtime, they meet at the house, outfitted sparsely with whitewashed pieces, daybeds Bartlett constructed from found wood, a kitchen table he made from a ship’s door that washed ashore, and diaphanous curtains on windows and doorways. “Everything is minimal in service to the clarity needed for studio focus,” Eby says. “We both believe in beauty. But, like a sunset, the beauty is in the simplicity.” Afterward, they might take a walk or practice yoga on the deck, then it’s back to work until the sun says, “stop.”

“The muses can be tough on us,” Bartlett says. “They crack the whip. We just try to stay open and alive in the moment to whatever reveals itself.”

May 2024, Down East Magazine

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