Charles Wait is a successful banker with a deep affinity for a famous Adirondack artist. The 67-year-old chairman of the board for Adirondack Trust Co. from Saratoga Springs is in love with all things from eccentric artist and author Rockwell Kent (1882-1971), who spent decades in the Adirondacks. Wait took time Monday to chat about Kent, a day before he gave an invitation-only tour of Kent’s work currently on display (through Sunday) at The Hyde Collection art museum in Glens Falls.
Q. Your Rockwell Kent collection is extensive with upward of 150 pieces and I’m told you kind of live, breath and eat everything Kent. Why?
A. Well, I came to Rockwell Kent because of sailing. My brother recommended I read a book called “North by East.” It is wonderfully written and beautifully illustrated about a sailing adventure he had. The whole book was a piece of art, as well as the literature being high quality. The more I read about him, the more I got intrigued by him. He was an artist, who actually graduated from the Columbia School of Architecture but was pretty gifted at art. He worked as a draftsman and then commercial artist. He finally decided he was going to be serious about art and moved to Monhegan Island (Maine) and built his own cabin and studio. Paintings he brought back from there did very well in a gallery in New York and he earned a reputation very quickly. About every decade, starting in 1918, he’d leave his family and go to some remote and wild place, get inspiration for artwork and then write a book about his adventures. Each got wilder and crazier than the next.
He’s a fascinating human being. He was a Socialist. He ran for Congress under the Workers Party. In the McCarthy era, he pleaded the Fifth Amendment. They accused him of being a Communist and they ended up taking his passport away and, unfortunately, that bitter experience meant he gave most of his private collection to art museums in Russia. He was the winner of the Lenin Prize. (Laughs) His breadth of knowledge, his ability to write, his beautiful drawings and paintings, he was just an enigma to me. The more I looked at him, the less I could figure out.
Q. I learned you have even traveled to some of Kent’s favorite places and former homes. What does it do for you to be where he was?
A. I’ve been to two places including Ushuaia in Argentina, the southern most city in the world. When he was there, it was inhabited by 1,000 people, most of whom were inmates in a penal colony. He sailed there from Chile in this beat-up old vessel he had. I took a much more luxurious route; I flew in. The population now is about 70,000, so it’s a different place. The other place was Asgard, his farm in Adirondacks, which is pretty much exactly how it was when he lived there. His third wife, Sally, died 10 or 15 years ago and still lived there when she died. It’s still a farm. They still make cheese there. It’s just a beautiful farm. What did it do for me? You could just see the inspiration that marked his beautiful paintings.
Q. Did you feel a kinship while at these places?
A. Not a kinship! Rockwell Kent would have hated me because he hated all bankers, even though his mother’s adoptive parents’ name was Banker and he worked as a bank teller for a couple years. At one point, the family needed money and he was off in Greenland or some place and his wife wrote him with great glee that she had managed to rent the Asgard farm for $5,000 for the summer to a banker. He wrote her back, saying send his check back because “I’ll not rent my farm to any banker.” He was a man who believed very strongly in the ethic of labor and the value of labor and didn’t have much value for money-changers. He was inspirational to me in that I don’t think I would have done the sailing adventures I did without first reading about how he did them with no money. He’d just go to these places, find a boat for $20, fix it up, steal supplies and go sailing. When I saw what he was able to do with no resources, I said, well, with the resources I have I could do some adventures and I did and I’m grateful to him for that. I sailed the Atlantic with my brother and I did the Newport to Bermuda Race, which is a 600-mile each way race from Rhode Island to Bermuda. I did that in a 32-foot boat, which is about the size boat he had sailing around Cape Horn. For the Atlantic, I signed on as crew with my brother on a 110-foot replica of a clipper ship circa 1812. We sailed from Annapolis, Maryland, to Falmouth, England.
Q. What is your favorite piece in your collection and why?
A. I wouldn’t have been able to answer that question until May of this year because my wife gave me, for my birthday, a drawing of a Greenland woman called “Mala.” It’s this half-crazed Greenland Inuit old woman who wasn’t a shaman or religious person but maybe closer to a witch. It’s a wonderful drawing.
Q. What item of Kent’s would be the Holy Grail for your collection if you could obtain it?
A. I’d love to have an oil painting, but I think that’s beyond my means. A decent-sized oil painting would be in the hundreds of thousands of dollars. I’ve seen small ones for $50,000. I’m a hit and giggle collector, not a serious one.
Q. Given Kent’s political leanings, what would he say about the state of the U.S. political climate now?
A. (Laughs) For me to put words in Rockwell Kent’s mouth would be the height of hubris, but I’d be pretty certain he’d be a Bernie Sanders guy. Make sure to put in there that me putting words in his mouth is the height of hubris!
Q. Given his aforementioned hatred of bankers like you, what do you think he’d say about you and your admiration of him?
A. Um (long pause). It wouldn’t mean anything to him. He wouldn’t dislike it but he wouldn’t care for it … His hatred of the profession of banking stems from early childhood. His mother was a bit rambunctious and her parents gave her up for adoption to a rich relative, named Banker, and who was associated with Cornelius Vanderbilt. He was very cold, had no children of his own and strict. She had a miserable childhood. When she met Rockwell Kent’s father, he disowned her. Rockwell Kent’s father died when he was just a 5-year-old. I think he had this visceral hate for that man and with his very liberal Socialist leanings, he didn’t have much use for money lenders. I don’t think he’d be interested in my attention. That’s my take. But I can admire people’s work who dislike my profession. There’s a lot of people who dislike my profession. Frankly, sometimes I don’t blame them. (Laughs)
Q. What does your wife think about your collection, which I’m told even includes Kent ceramic dishware you use when entertaining guests?
A. She’s supportive of it and amused by it. She’s not as drawn to it as I am. If my only introduction to him was his work, I wouldn’t be as drawn to him either, but it’s his breadth of abilities as a man that draws me to him — building his own houses, his drawings, his paintings, his books, his writing, he had a great sense of humor, which comes through in the writing — and his spirit of adventure, which, to be objective, I don’t think made him an ideal father (laughs). He would just abandon the family and go off.
Q. How about your kids? Do they worry their inheritance will be all Kent goods?
A. (Laughs) They worry they’ll have to get it organized. Again, none of them are as drawn to him as I am. Maybe that’ll come later in life, I don’t know.
Q. I collected sports cards as a kid, but haven’t collected anything into my adult life. Were you always a collector?
A. Outside of Rockwell Kent, I’m not a great collector. I’m not as intrigued by any artist or personality as I am with Rockwell Kent. I think there’s a little bit of a collector in all of us, but I never collected as a kid.
Q. When you aren’t collecting Kent items, traveling to where he traveled or banking, what can you be found doing these days?
A. Well, sailing is probably my principal hobby. I exercise regularly. Outside of banking, it’s sailing — and skiing with friends. And reading. I’m re-acquainting myself with all the great classic books I was supposed to have read or didn’t read for whatever reason. That’s a great joy and I’m reading some Kent as well.