Artist and Philosopher Rockwell Kent on Our Existential Wanderlust

“Wander where you will over all the world, from every valley seeing forever new hills calling you to climb them, from every mountain top farther peaks enticing you… until you stand one day on the last peak on the border of the interminable sea, stopped by the finality of that.”

Artist and Philosopher Rockwell Kent on Our Existential Wanderlust

“Man* is by Nature a migratory animal,” the elderly Frederick Douglass reflected in an 1887 speech about his global travels. “It does not appear that he was intended to dwell forever in any one locality. He is a born traveler.”

A generation after him, Maya Angelou observed that “you only are free when you realize you belong no place — you belong every place — no place at all.”

Douglass, Angelou and the poet, artist, and printer are partway through time. Rockwell Kent (June 21, 1882–March 13, 1971) captured this vital interplay between freedom and belonging, between nature and human nature, in the preface to Wilderness (public library) — the exquisite record of the seven months he spent on a remote Alaskan island with his young son in the gloaming hour of the Spanish flu pandemic and the First World War, at the dawn of his artistic life.

Winter, MoonlightRockwell Kent. This book is also available as a paper and as stationery card.

We each have a particular style of wanderlust, pulled by particular types of nature that best speak to our own — those places where we most freely lose ourselves and, in consequence, find ourselves. They are for some the vast open spaces of red canyons and blue sky. I see them as the lush, old-growth forests in New Zealand and the American Pacific Northwest. Kent referred to the Great North’s greatness and power.

Understanding myself has always been difficult for me. I struggle to see why and how I do it. But it’s a good thing that they can learn to take care of themselves. Because I love Alaska, I moved here. I love snow-topped mountains, dark wastes and the brutal Northern sea, with its sharp horizons at world’s edge where there is infinite space. For the greater mysteries they uncover, the skies here are more clear and deep than in softer countries.

In a new preface to his journals, penned in the final year of his life, Kent looks back on the wanderlust of his youth — the roaming restlessness that had shaped his spirit, the spirit from which his art sprang, the art that established him as one of the most celebrated creators of his time — and exhorts the generations of wanderers to come:

You can wander wherever you like, all over the globe, every valley beckoning you to climb it, and every peak higher still enticed you. Always the distant land looks fairest, till you are made at last a restless wanderer never reaching home — never — until you stand one day on the last peak on the border of the interminable sea, stopped by the finality of that.

Star-LighterRockwell Kent, 1919. This print is also available as stationery card.

Contemplating the existential pull beneath it all — the rippling, resonant It is important to understand why of our wanderlust — Kent adds:

Our part is integral to the grand scheme of things. You are just an instrument recording in different measures your particular part of the infinite. It is what we take that gives us character. [our art].

These words are important to remember a century after the events of September 11, 2001. Our world has just begun to shake off its two-year terror grip and is becoming more free.

Complement with Rebecca Solnit’s wanderlusting history of walking, then revisit Kent’s breathtaking reflections on wilderness, solitude, and creativity.

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