Gordon Wilkins was just two when he first wandered into a charming little bookstore that would play a big role in his life. When the budding reader and future curator grew to the ripe age of 14, he was discovered behind the counter of the Personal Bookshop by a writer for McSweeney’s who was on vacation in Thomaston, Maine. Sean Wilsey had been on book tour to promote his memoir, Oh the Glory of It All. He wrote this back to his editor:
There’s also a bookstore near the union hall, in Thomaston. It’s called “The Personal Bookstore.” My book is a personal memoir, so I stopped in and introduced myself. The store’s owner was a middle-aged woman with a 1940s hairstyle sitting in a chintz armchair in the center of the store. Behind the cash register was a wonderfully awkward 14-year-old boy called Gordon.
“What’s your book called?” the owner asked.
I told her.
“We don’t have it,” she said.
Gordon, listening, said, “Whoa, that’s you—your book was in People magazine.”
I turned and said, “Yeah, you saw it in People?”
Gordon said, “Sometimes I like trashy magazines. Only in the summer.”
This story of Gordon’s McSweeney’s appearance circulated and grabbed my attention when Gordon started as as assistant curator at PEM last year. Just who was this guy? This precocious, singular, odd-ball, nearly over-the-top figure who joined the museum’s staff, waltzing in like a character from a Wes Anderson film. I wanted to know more, help flesh out the origin story of one of our youngest curatorial staff members.
The book shop owner, Marti Reed, enchanted Gordon, with her giant feather pen and ability to lure everyone from artist Andrew Wyeth to children’s book author Norton Juster to stop in during the summers months. Marti Reed remembers those early days fondly, “He was a beautiful child with a shock of curly blonde hair and eyes that took everything in. He made himself quite at home with this first visit. My shop was very appealing visually, for I too love art and have practiced art in many ways. For both of us, it was no turning back.”
Behind the counter, along with the shop owner’s soft coated wheaten terrier and the cat Sir Thomaston, Gordon went from small tasks like handling greeting cards to arranging book signings, making countless pots of tea for visitors and learning the protestant work ethic that he says has stuck with him to this day. “Marti is truly a perfectionist (she would call it being particular), and from a really young age I learned how to do things the right way the first time,” he says.
His mentor discovered Gordon’s love of art.
“From that time on, he learned to do anything and everything that I believe had a lot to do with his development. People often marveled at this boy, of mine. In a little sitting area when it was quiet Gordon and I would share many books together. We would share reading as he got older and go through lots of art books sharing what we liked and why. I would say Gordon was born with an innate sense of art and appreciation for it.”
Gordon began to get “paid” in art. He loved the posters on the walls, advertising an annual art show in Port Clyde where the painter Greg Mort sold his work. Reed gave Gordon a piece of art that was hanging in the shop and soon Gordon was saving up to buy a piece by of Mort’s work, called The Secret Drawer, thereby making him the youngest collector of Greg Mort’s work.
Visit Gordon’s home now, in the Salem apartment he shares with a friend who worked on PEM’s Strandbeest exhibition, and you can see his collection, hanging gallery style on the wall. The works are an eclectic grouping of new and old paintings, photographs, watercolors, drawings, a textile fragment, butterflies, a carved wooden basket, a commemorative Maine plate and a painted metal tray with a pigeon.
Over the years Gordon has collected everything from Red Rose Tea figurines, Abraham Lincoln memorabilia, obscure taxidermy, cased photographs and macabre postcards and says he developed a compulsion for collecting from his mom, who brought him through countless antique stores and to countless auctions as a child. Gordon grew up spending summers in Maine on Wheeler Bay — swimming, crabbing, collecting shells, pretending to run a hotel, pretending to run a restaurant, feeding chipmunks. No matter where he goes in the world for school, for jobs or to follow his curiosity, Gordon feels connected to Maine through Mort’s work.
“Greg’s work has always captured the essence of Maine and has always been able to evoke a great deal of nostalgia,” says Gordon. “The landscape paintings I gravitate towards capture the very peculiar light that has made Maine a site of pilgrimage for thousands of artists over two centuries — from Fitz Henry Lane to Andrew Wyeth. The rocky shores, shells, barren islands that he captures are the memories of my childhood.”
Greg Mort also knows what it’s like to discover a passion at a young age. At 13, he peered through the lens of a friend’s telescope and became fascinated by the craters of the moon. This lifelong fascination with astronomy, science — and especially the moon — have made it a constant theme in his artwork and has led to commissions from NASA and to three of his moon-themed works included in PEM’s fall exhibition Lunar Attraction, including a watercolor painting titled Space Aged — For the Crater Gouda. In addition, Mort’s moon globe sculpture will be shown for the first time in an exhibition, offering a close up three-dimensional view of the moon’s surface.
Looking back, Mort can remember being struck by the young collector.
“Gordon was one of the most sophisticated children I had ever encountered, with amazing adult-like manners and vocabulary. My impression was that Gordon was a grown-up person residing in the body of a child. Always calm and certain of his opinion and yet not bossy or presumptive in any way. I was a bit surprised when this precocious young man said he would like to purchase a work of art. He expressed this with such sincerity it was clear that he truly meant it.”
Mort says his relationship with Gordon has been an interesting measure of time.
“Gordon returns to Maine each summer and visits my annual open studio. This yearly exchange has given us an opportunity to talk and share thoughts about art and more. It is a unique connection because it is like taking an annual photo of someone on the same day each year.”