Monday, May 23, 2011

Everything You Ever Wanted To Know About Johnathan Kendall

Anyone who has driven down Main Street over the past
thirty plus years has had the opportunity to admire the doors on Wellfleet’s former Catholic Church, now re-purposed as Preservation Hall, our new community center. Ever since 1976, when the colorful woodcarvings first attracted my eye, I have wondered about the artist who created the soulful images. Who was Johnathan Kendall? What happened to him? Was he a native of Cape Cod? These questions and more were answered Friday evening at a talk by Mark Gabrielle, curator of an unusual show, which will showcase 30 woodcarvings from June 30 to September 5, Prez. Hall’s first.

At the beginning of the talk, Mark warned the audience that the story he was about to relate was not a happy one. Kendall had a difficult early life, although he did travel to Europe where he was exposed to religious art. His mother disowned him on his 18th birthday, an event that made the son leave New England and move west where he lived in a cabin and made icons. The “woodcarving nomad” visited Cape Cod in 1976. He created our doors in exchange for a small food stipend, and the right to pitch a tent in the churchyard. Barter became a way of life. Kendall often visited monasteries and discovered a certain kinship with the monks. It was in the late 1970s, Gabrielle reported, that Kendall started a workshop on icon-making at an “experimental monastery” in Arizona. (Read more here.) It was there that he fell in love with John Kreyche, a “strong silent type.” The two married and were inseparable until 1991 when Kreyche disappeared without a trace. Kendall was heartbroken. “He wanted to make a living from his art, but it never worked out that way,” Gabrielle said sadly. Kendall died in 2004 in a New Mexico nursing home.

As part of the renovation project, workers removed the doors, which were stored away once Brailsford Nixon and Jean Nelson had painstakingly brought the art work back to its original glory. I saw the doors once during a Preservation Hall garden tour. They served as inspiration for this gingerbread house, on sale three years ago during Deck This Hall, as well as marvelous ginger cookies that looked too good to eat. That same year I bought a transfer of the image, now on my window.

While Wellfleetians have grown to love these doors, they also hold meaning for visitors. I discovered this fact when one of our regular cottage guests asked why the doors had been removed from the shuttered building. Fortunately, I was able to organize a special visit that year, thanks to Simone Reagor. It turns out our guests used the doors every summer as a yardstick for their son. The photo to the left was taken in 2008. “When I first started taking this shot, Cory was in this same pose, but reaching up to grab the end of the door handles, about at the lower black bar,” my friend Robert reports by email. It’s a marvelous tradition, don’t you think?

Johnathan Kendall’s doors are one of Wellfleet’s special treasures. I’m grateful to Mark Gabrielle for the painstaking research he did on the artist, answering all my questions, as well as for putting together a show of Kendall’s work. Visitors to Wellfleet can look forward to seeing some of Kendall’s other woodcarvings this summer. Since the artist was prolific, picking up a piece of his art at the flea market also remains an intriguing option ….