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Why George Wasson is Worth Remembering

Pontine performs works by George Wasson

The last Wassonite

David Kaselauskas runs about 800 lobster traps out of his Kittery Point home. He used to run 1,400 pots, he says, but at 69 he’s not quite as young as he used to be. The business isn’t what it used to be either, he says. The lobsters are moving north to colder cleaner waters. The fishermen don’t buddy-up at the general store and swap colorful tales like they used to. It’s just not as much fun. But still, Dave’s only retirement plan is to die fishing aboard his boat, the Jersey Girl.

Dave winces when I mention Yale. Sure, he admits, he went to med school there for a piece, but he moved on. He studied toward his PhD in marine bacteriology at the University of New Hampshire.

“The big mistake I had was that my landlord was a lobsterman,” he says. “and it was like heroin going out with him. I just couldn’t see myself getting trapped in academia.”

Dave started a family and taught chemistry at Portsmouth High School for 13 years, fishing on the side, before he took to the sea full time. Like George Wasson, David was not born in Maine. He hails originally from the tobacco fields of Connecticut. Forty-five years of fishing and his Kittery colleagues still call him “The Carpetbagger.”

David lives next door to the former Wasson home on Pepperrell Road. He can see the house to the west over the top of his big-screen TV in his “man cave” on the water. David first got serious about Wasson seven or eight years ago, he says, when the late Kittery historian Joe Frost planted the seed. David began tracking down Wasson’s many paintings – visiting galleries and private homes and snapping photos. His Wasson catalog now fills a fat spiral-bound notebook. David met historian Richard Candee when he outbid him for a Wasson painting on eBay. It was Candee who encouraged Pontine to bring Wasson back to life by introducing them to Kaselauskas, now the most ardent living fan of the largely-forgotten artist. When I met him, Dave gave me a signed copy of one of Wasson’s books – signed by Dave, not the writer.

“Dave was our go-to guy,” says actor Greg Gathers. “He has been incredibly generous with his research materials. His passion for the subject has been very contagious.”


It’s all about the boat

Like David Kaselauskas, George Wasson was an educated outsider who chose the sea over scholarship. His father, David Atwood Wasson, was a Unitarian minister and poet who hung out with the Transcendentalists of Concord, Massachusetts. As a boy, Wasson lived for a while in a house owned by the famous writer Henry David Thoreau. He recalled Thoreau coming over to fix the pump in the kitchen sink. When George was 18 his father took him to Germany where the young man studied art among the great painters of the region. But George longed for the coast of New England, and was happier traveling the rivers of Germany in a flat bottomed boat that he built himself.

Wasson always had a boat. During his early painting years in Boston he kept a small yawl-rigged yacht that carried him and his painter friends on trips to the Penobscot where he eventually returned. During his Kittery years, Wasson sailed the Piscataqua and the York Coast in the Bonnie Doon and later the Lorna. As a boat builder and accomplished sailor, he had a designer’s eye, and his notebooks – seven of them still exist – are crammed with detailed drawings. It was after his marriage in 1885 and his father’s death in 1887 that Wasson fell in love with Kittery Point where he knew every boat and boat-owner by name.  Although he arrived in the white suit of an educated yachtsman, Wasson soon learned to dress like the locals. It was his ability to blend in that allowed him to capture the language and stories of the endangered village fishermen. He never revealed their actual names in the imaginary village of Killick, and by protecting their privacy, he was able to remain their friend.

Maine writer Fannie Hardy Eckstorm, a friend of George Wasson, recalled his special love of sketching wrecked ships. “If a vessel was driven ashore  at any point between Great Boar’s Head and York Nubble,” she wrote, “whatever the weather, George Wasson might be there sketching the wreck and the sea as he saw it in the storm.”

Wasson’s lack of fame, Eckstorm notes, may be just the way he wanted things. “It was largely his own choice to remain unknown,” she wrote.

Wasson often preferred the company of his fishing friends to hanging out with rich and famous people like the Howellses and Decaturs nearby. And he preferred the open sea over the company of men, with the exception of his two sons David and Lewis. But tragically, after a brief military career, Lewis died of tuberculosis in 1913. David became a successful journalist and even spent time as an editor of the Portsmouth Herald. He died of meningitis at age 27 two years after his brother.


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