In 1950, Arthur Kellam, an aeronautics engineer, and his wife, Nan, a former Wisconsin socialite, abandoned the amenities of modern living and removed themselves to tiny Placentia Island to live a shared life of relative seclusion.
It seems somewhat ironic that since their deaths, the reclusive couple and the self-sustaining home they built on Placentia have been the subject of several books and newspaper articles and a brief but intense controversy. Now they are the topic of a handsome Mount Desert Island Historical Society exhibit “Portrait of an Island” at the Somesville Museum.
But one gets the sense this interesting, odd couple would not have minded the attention. While the Kellam’s were certainly reclusive, they were not exclusive and enjoyed talking about their circumstances in the company of a select group of friends. Among them are Northwood Kenway and his wife Rita, who first visited the Kellams in the summer of 1950 while honeymooning on nearby Great Gott’s Island. The two couples formed a friendship that lasted throughout the Kenway’s long marriage.
Northwood, who was widowed three years ago, was at the opening reception of the Kellam exhibit for which he served as an advisor, as was Somesville resident Peter Blanchard, who got to know the Kellams toward the end of their lives on Placentia. His book “We Were an Island” also served as a resource for creating the new exhibit. Not present, but also credited as an important resource for the exhibit, were journalist Nicols Fox and photographer David Graham, who entered the picture after the Kellams’ home had been left empty for several years. Art had died in 1985. Nan, who tried to live alone on the island for a few summers, died in 2001 in a nursing facility.
The couple had sold the island to the Nature Conversancy a few years before Art’s death.
Graham’s and Fox’s book “Alone Together” addressed the controversy surrounding the Nature Conservancy’s decision to demolish the Kellam home rather than let it be vandalized and become a potential hazard to curious visitors. Some disagreed with the decision and hoped the homestead could be maintained as a memorial to the Kellams’ life and lifestyle.
The exhibit, which was designed by College of the Atlantic student Jane Piselli, features blown-up photographs of the couple which offer glimpses of their life on Placentia. There are excerpts from Nan’s journals and the actual double-ended dory Art rowed into Bass Harbor for provisions every week. The “Portrait of an Island” exhibit will be open every day from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. in July and Aug. Several trips out to Placentia are being offered. He urged folks to call Virginia Mellen at 276-9323 for dates and times of these trips and to book passage.