New Writers’ Hall honoring a Maine artist helping to spur Aroostook’s cultural revival
PRESQUE ISLE, Maine – A prolific painter from Près Isle and Stonington will help inspire others in an artistic paradise in Aroostook County.
A resident of Almost Isle most of the year, watercolourist Evelyn Kok ran the Gallery of the Purple Fish in Stonington for 53 summers. She and her husband, Jan, a professor of music at the University of Maine at Près Isle, were staples in Aroostook County, where art and music brought people together.
A new partnership between the Almost Isle Public Library and Morningstar Art & Framing will create the Evelyn Kok Room at the library Griffiths House cultural Center. Library officials hope visitors will find inspiration when surrounded by works by local designers. This is part of the arts community’s effort to make Aroostook County a cultural hubsimilar to that found on the coast.
The county has a chance to become an arts hotspot, Morningstar owner Jim Carroll said, and he’s more than happy to contribute some of Kok’s works from his own collection to help.
“Some of the smaller communities in the state are fading away, but Almost Isle is still alive and retaining its identity,” Carroll said. “We have an opportunity to really sell ourselves.”
The library will host workshops and other gatherings at Griffiths House. To enhance the creative atmosphere, three specially named rooms will welcome visiting writers or artists.
The rooms will be dedicated to local authors and artists who have made significant contributions to the region’s culture, said library director Sonja Eyler.
Two other rooms will be named after longtime University of Maine Almost Isle writer and English professor, Nan Amodeo, and Près Isle author, artist, and teacher, Glenna Smith, who wrote the “Old Maine Woman” books.
Evelyn Kok’s painting, drawing and calligraphy are known both in the Down East and in the county, where the couple lived for decades. Eyler knew that Carroll had a collection of Kok’s work, so she talked to him about how to make the room reflect the artist.
The Kok room overlooks a garden, and the botanical paintings already in the room, on long-term loan from Morningstar, are those from the gardens of the artist’s aunt. Carroll will help hang the artwork, while the Koks’ niece Christina Shipps will add personal touches, Eyler said.
When Carroll took over Morningstar of its founders, Brian Brissette and his wife, Jane Caulfield, in 2020, he was captivated by a painting by Evelyn Kok that he discovered.
“In my mind, it’s the universe that brings some of these pieces together,” Carroll said. “The idea of inspiring other artists by immersing them in Evelyn’s work, that’s what it’s all about.”
He worked with Shipps, which continues with the Stonington Gallery, and helped Carroll acquire some of Kok’s pieces to display and sell at his Près Isle store.
Shipps said that with her aunt, the art flowed effortlessly, but she especially enjoyed interacting with people.
“My aunt was a watercolourist, medical illustrator, poet, composer, glass blower, photographer, she did it all. And that’s my message. That artists can thrive in many media without being constrained to just one,” Shipps said.
His aunt said that when you become really proficient at something, it’s better to stop and reinvent yourself and learn something totally new, in order to keep learning and growing, one of the favorite “pearls of wisdom” by Shipps.
The fact that Kok and Amodeo will both have rooms named after them in the Griffiths household is ironic, as the two were best friends, Carroll said. When the Koks came to Almost Isle in 1951 for Jan to interview at the local university, a terrible snowstorm hit. Amodeo saw the couple waiting for the bus from her apartment, and knowing the bus was stuck, she invited them to warm up. Thus began a long friendship.
Carroll has lent six paintings to the Griffiths house and has more available if needed.
Carroll is happy to see more of Kok’s work, and said her depictions of Aroostook County, its flora, and places on the Maine coast evoke a sense of being in the perfect place.
“I’ve seen a lot of artists dream of other places. But what I loved about Evelyn was that she didn’t just dream of other places, she celebrated where she was,” Carroll said.
Griffiths House has already hosted several author conferences and book signings. On Nov. 18, Caribou author ML Bell will talk about her book, “Coffee Gets Cold Fast,” and the staff are planning events for the upcoming holiday season.