Artist Robert Cendella talks about the history of Burying Island, seen in the background — which his father bought with two friends during the Great Depression — while boating back to the mainland. PHOTO BY STEVE FULLER

New York artist rediscovers island and his father



FRANKLIN — Burying Island sits in the middle of Taunton Bay, its 40-plus acres covered with trees and dotted with several small structures that blend in among the branches and leaves.

There is no electricity and water has to be collected from a spring along the northern shore. Residents and visitors must plan their trips to the mainland around the tide to avoid the mud flats exposed at low tide.

With no running water on the island, Cenedella and his wife, Liz, must collect water from a mall spring on the north shore.
PHOTO BY STEVE FULLER

It hardly sounds like the place for a New York City artist, much of whose work has captured the character (and characters) of the Big Apple, to call home even for a season.

Yet it is just where painter Robert Cenedella and his wife, Liz, have spent their summers for almost 40 years, grateful for a break from the lights and noise that surround their Canal Street home in New York.

“You feel like you’re in a different country,” said Cenedella of the contrast between the two locations.

It is not the only occasion in which Cenedella, 77, has felt both a part of and apart from the places he calls home. He said he became “accustomed to not fitting in” at a young age, such as being forced to switch from his natural left-handedness to being right-handed and struggling with dyslexia.

Cenedella once overheard an argument between his parents in their Connecticut home about his father wanting to take Cenedella and his two sisters to New York. His mother blurted out, “Well you’re not going to take Bobby, he isn’t even yours.”

And so it was, at the age of 6, that Cenedella learned the man he believed to be his father — the blacklisted head of the Radio Writers Guild, also named Robert Cenedella — was not. It was only years later, as a young adult, that he learned who his biological father was: Colgate University English professor and longtime Cenedella family friend Russell Speirs.

The first in many boxing paintings that Cenedella has done, his 1977 work “Father’s Day” depicted his biological father (Russell Speirs, at left) and his mother’s husband (also named Robert Cenedella, at right) slugging it out in the boxing ring. ROBERT CENEDELLA

It was through Speirs that the younger Cenedella later came to spend his summers on Burying Island, though it was not until after Speirs was dead that the annual visits began.

Speirs’ ties to the island stretched back to the 1930s. Two professor friends of his, Perley Perkins and Porter Perrin (Colgate alumnus and famed CBS correspondent Andy Rooney later called Perrin “probably the best teacher I ever had”), were dating two sisters from Sullivan and had come to the island for picnics.

The island was for sale for $1,200, but between the two of them Perkins and Perrin could only come up with $800. So they approached their friend Speirs who chipped in the remaining $400, which led to their shared ownership of the island.

Though Cenedella visited Burying Island on occasion — one photo taken there when he was 3 shows Speirs holding him alongside Cenedella’s sisters, mother and her husband — it did not figure prominently in his life when he was younger.

Instead he became immersed in art, which in a 2016 film about his career titled “Art Bastard” he called “the special part of life, the part of life that was above the gutter.”

When he was 4, Cenedella discovered the work of Rockwell Kent whose illustrations filled the pages of the edition of “Moby Dick” that his family had in their home.

“I remember as a kid being fascinated by that book,” Cenedella said during a recent interview on Burying Island. “I related to images from day one, I would say.”

Cenedella’s 1965 painting “Southern Dogs” was created in response to violence against the Civil Rights movement in Selma, Ala. Cenedella switched the heads of the dogs and policemen, and he said it “caused a lot of discomfort.”
ROBERT CENEDELLA

As he grew up he used both words and images to share views outside of the mainstream. As a student at Manhattan’s Music and Art High School he was expelled after writing a satirical piece about atom bomb drills. When the rest of the world went crazy for Elvis, Cenedella made a button featuring Beethoven’s face and the caption “I Like Ludwig”.

He sold thousands of the buttons, which were mentioned in The New Yorker and featured in the Peanuts comic strip, and used the proceeds to put himself through The Art Students League of New York (where he is now one of the school’s instructors).

Having the summer off like his late professor father — Speirs died in 1975, leaving his share of Burying Island to his son — Cenedella is able to spend his summers in the middle of Taunton Bay and has done so since the early 1980s. The other two families also spend time in their respective buildings there.

When the three professors would bring their families there decades ago, they created a tennis court using clay from the island and a homemade roller. There was a backstop for a small baseball field, and Speirs would stage works of Shakespeare with an all-island cast.

These days snowshoe hares inhabit the mile-long island instead of Shakespearean characters, along with red fox, deer or moose. Cenedella said the wildlife varies from year to year, depending on how cold the winter was and if the bay froze over, which determines which animals were able to make it across.

The island is thought to take its name from a rumored Native American burial ground, though Cenedella said it could just as easily be called “Berrying Island,” as it is home to blueberries, raspberries, gooseberries and northern mountain cranberries, among others.

Though Cenedella’s work is varied — he said he is different from many artists who have a singular style and do only one kind of work — the paintings he creates in Maine distinctly differ from his other paintings.

Cenedella works without an easel on Burying Island, instead using skinny, vertical canvases (some as narrow as only a few inches and as tall as 5 feet) and hanging them from tree trunks while he works. He calls these paintings, of which he has done perhaps 100, “Slices of Maine.”

Cenedella creates what he calls “Slices of Maine,” tall, narrow paintings that show scenes from life on Burying Island.
ROBERT CENEDELLA

The slices are bright, colorful, sunshine-filled glimpses of life on the island: a dead tree where a woodpecker has been working, two small boats with outboard motors among the rockweed-covered shoreline and an old stone chimney where Speirs’ cabin once stood (the Cenedellas built a new building in the late 1980s, after camping in a tent for most of that decade).

Smaller in scale than other work he has done — Cenedella once painted a crowded, filled-with-faces 6-foot-by-9-foot mural for a New York restaurant — the artist said the slices make sense in the setting of the island.

“Clearly, being here, I’m not painting crowd scenes,” he said. “If I had a painting that was wide and tall, I’d never get the same effect.”

Much of the work Cenedella has done over the years is provocative, such as his 1965 work “Southern Dogs” (which shows police officers with dogs’ heads and puts the officers’ faces on the animals) or “The Presence of Man,” which shows Santa Claus nailed to a cross.

Painted in 1988, the latter work was not shown publicly until 1997. It prompted an outcry from religious groups, but Cenedella told The Associated Press that it was capitalism, not himself, that was “responsible for replacing Christ with Santa Claus.”

On a lighter and more local note, Cenedella in 2001 painted “The Tourist.” It shows a larger-than-life lobster seated at a dinner table with a steamed tourist sitting on his plate, about to be consumed. Designed as an irreverent L.L. Bean catalog cover, the work now hangs at Ruth & Wimpy’s in Hancock.

 

To learn more about Robert Cenedella and his work, visit www.rcenedellagallery.com.

Steve Fuller

Steve Fuller

Reporter at The Ellsworth American,
Steve Fuller worked at The Ellsworth American from 2012 to early 2018. He covered the city of Ellsworth, including the Ellsworth School Department and the city police beat, as well as the towns of Amherst, Aurora, Eastbrook, Great Pond, Mariaville, Osborn, Otis and Waltham. A native of Waldo County, he served as editor of Belfast's Republican Journal prior to joining the American. He lives in Orland.
Steve Fuller

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