Eric Hopkins

Following the artist's journey from his spiritual homeland on North Haven.

The flight from Knox County Regional Airport to North Haven takes only eight minutes, but it follows a path that offers centuries of perspective, both geographic and historic. Crossing Owls Head in the six-passenger Cessna operated by Penobscot Island Air pilot Jeremy Harmon, we see the Camden Hills crawling along the coastline to our left. The Penobscot Bay islands made famous by Rockland-born poet Edna St. Vincent Millay lie like stepping stones beneath us. Far ahead, we see Stonington and Deer Isle, and to the right, Isle au Haut. As we near North Haven, and her sister island, Vinalhaven, artist Eric Hopkins points out the Morrow residence, former home of author Anne Morrow Lindbergh and her husband, aviator Charles Lindbergh. “We connect to the planet through flying,” says 65-year-old Hopkins, who began learning to fly in 1983 and received his recreational license in 2004. “Flying changes the way we look at the earth and gives us a sense of migration—the lives of the birds and the fish.”

From the plane, we are privy to the unique aerial landscape that appears in the strong lines of Hopkins’s watercolors and the languid curves of his glasswork. For Hopkins, perspective is everything: his unique visual interpretation has contributed to success in his vocation, and his emotional perspective has enabled him to move beyond a series of tragedies, including the early deaths of his brother, father, and son. “As long as I’m moving, I’m alive, and I choose life,” says Hopkins.

Our plane touches down on a grass landing strip, as a tractor mows a path parallel to ours on a field nearby. For a brief moment, it seems we are racing against that land-bound vehicle. The plane stops and we disembark, ducking under the wing. Hopkins strides ahead to the station wagon that he has parked under the evergreens near the field. He is lean and hard- muscled from years of working outdoors. “I have the chronological age of a 65-year-old but the developmental age of a 30-year-old,” he says. In the backseat of the station wagon is a large ovoid rock patterned with lichen from the forest floor. Hopkins says that this will be his son’s gravestone. Evan Hopkins died in a car crash on March 26, 2013, at the age of 20. Eric hopes to scatter Evan’s ashes near the outcroppings of rock in the Fox Island Thoroughfare known as the Sugar Loaves. “Evan isn’t gone. He’s just in a different form,” says Hopkins.

Driving across the farmland that constitutes North Haven, Hopkins provides an ongoing narration of the island’s history—a history interwoven with his own and that of his family. Dr. Theophilus Hopkins of Marshfield, Massachusetts, first arrived here after the Revolutionary War. “Back in the early days, there were three Hopkins brothers. One was a farmer, one was a ship captain, and one was a fisherman,” says Hopkins. “They rotated.” We stop at the North Haven Oyster Company leaving $20 in a can on top of the fridge after helping ourselves to a mesh bag of bivalves whose shells look like ancient stones. “People have made a living in so many different ways on North Haven,” says Hopkins, driving past what was once a mink farm and mentioning the relatively new addition of Nebo Lodge and the recently opened North Haven Brewing Co. “It’s amazing that we have oysters here now, too.”

Although he has lived in other parts of the state (and the country), Hopkins calls North Haven his “spiritual homeland.” For many years, it has been his physical home as well. Born in Bangor, Hopkins is the second of five boys. His father, William “Bill” Hopkins, a local school principal, writer, and English teacher, also operated the North Haven marina and ferry. His mother, June, ran the Hopkins Wharf Gallery and North Haven Gift Shop for 60 years. She died in December 2015 at the age of 92.

The gallery and gift shop (which had at one time been the W.S. Hopkins General Store, owned by Bill’s grandfather) are located near the North Haven landing in the town center. Hopkins’s brother, David, now operates the gift shop and gallery with his partner, artist David Wilson. These have just closed for the winter season, and the rooms are quiet and dark. A few pieces of June’s furniture are tucked in a corner, each labeled with the name of the family member who will be giving it a new home. Hopkins leads the way upstairs, where his family lived in the space above the gift shop when he was growing up. He shows me the room he shared with his younger brother, Stephen. Hopkins chose the blue flooring upon which we now stand. He remembers waking up to the thump of the postmaster hand-cancelling letters in the post office across the street.

Hopkins also remembers the day that Stephen’s body was laid to rest in that same room, pulled from under the wharf in the back of the house. Bill Hopkins had been out on the ferry and thought that Stephen was with June; June thought that Stephen was with Bill. The family soon learned that the five- year-old had wandered away and drowned.

Stephen suffered from developmental delays, possibly as a result of problems with his birth. He could not speak like other children, but Eric was always able to communicate with his brother. “We had our own special language,” says Hopkins. “Right after he died, the church ladies came and said his spirit had left his body, but Evan and Stephen are still around, downloading things to me.”

We walk through the now-empty kitchen to a room that overlooks the place where Stephen died. Brown’s Boatyard is to our left. A fisherman is taking advantage of a rare day of November sunshine to scrub the bottom of his dinghy, and a Boston Whaler motors into the dock. This is similar to the view that Bill Hopkins had in 1979 when he took his last breath in this room at the age of 54. He died of throat cancer.

“My father taught me that it’s really important being of here and from here,” says Hopkins. “We need to make an investment in where we live, but also get out into the world to see what it has to offer.”

Hopkins seems to float between the past and the present with ease. His stories, which may begin in the reality of today, often circle back through previous decades before landing on his hopes for the future. His art is similarly circuitous—and he is incredibly prolific. In his North Haven studio, on the shore of Southern Harbor, scores of watercolors, sketches, and plans for upcoming projects are stacked upon sawhorses and leaning against the walls. “Making one piece can give me two ideas, or 20,” says Hopkins. Although he says that he is known as “the guy who paints pointy pines,” Hopkins also creates dimensional wood cutouts and experiments with pyrographs— pieces that begin with the burnt lines of hot glass cast upon birch panels. “My medium is ideas,” says Hopkins. “I want to get that Earth energy. You know, the whole atmosphere— land, water, sky. It’s a pretty dynamic little planet we got here. I’m re-presenting it, not representing it.”

Hopkins has had an education both traditional and not: he has learned equally from within and outside of academia. After his brother died, his family (including brothers Will, David, and Thomas) established a more permanent presence on the nearby mainland, where he eventually graduated from Rockland District High School in 1969. Following a short stint at Gorham State Teachers College (now the University of Southern Maine in Gorham), Hopkins took classes at the Haystack Mountain School of Crafts in Deer Isle and the newly founded Montserrat School of Visual Arts (now Montserrat College of Art) in Beverly, Massachusetts, before ending up at the Rhode Island School of Design (RISD) in Providence. Along the way, he was highly influenced by architect Buckminster Fuller (whose family has a home on nearby Bear Island), and pursued an interest in invertebrate zoology at Brown University while he was in Providence. Hopkins earned his degree from RISD in 1976.

While at RISD, Hopkins worked with internationally known glass sculptor Dale Chihuly, who founded the Pilchuck Glass School, north of Seattle (which was modeled after Haystack). “We were pioneers in glass in those days,” says Hopkins. “It wasn’t just something we came to the classroom and saw. We didn’t invent it, but we figured out how to use this material.” Hopkins has maintained close ties to his colleagues on the West Coast and still has an affinity for that part of the country. “My goal for the last 42 years is to have the base camp here on North Haven, and on the mainland in Rockland, and also out on the West Coast somewhere—around Pacific Northwest in particular—so I can be closer to big, wide-open spaces,” says Hopkins.

Hopkins has spent much of the past several decades focusing on a different sort of creativity—the creativity of caring for home and family. In 1981 he returned to North Haven, opened a gallery, and married a local woman, who was already the mother of two children. They had three children together: Eva, Ian, and Evan. “I remember distinctly feeling that we were outnumbered,” recalls Hopkins. “They say one kid is a hobby, two kids are a job, and three is just trying to get through the day. We came through with our cargo intact, and I’m proud of that. Living on an island is work, double time.”

The difficulty of balancing work and home eventually put a strain on the marriage. Hopkins moved to Rockland in 2006 (where he opened a second gallery in the space where the Center for Maine Contemporary Art is now located) and was divorced in 2008. “I always had a place and a presence on North Haven and Rockland,” says Hopkins. “And I still do.” By 2013, he was living on Mount Desert Island when he learned that his son, Evan, had died. “When my brother died, it brought up a lot of questions, but he was always there with me,” says Hopkins. “Then my son died. It knocks the crap out of you, but at the same time, he and my brother are still both right there.” Hopkins closed his Rockland gallery temporarily after Evan died. He drove west in 2014, attempting to reconnect with his earlier desire to see the country, before he was called home to be with his ailing mother. “I am first and foremost an American,” says Hopkins. “When I am out and about in America, I appreciate North Haven—and Maine—more.” Hopkins eventually reopened his Rockland gallery in a new space, near the Journey’s End Marina, and began showing his work through the Portland Art Gallery and Art Collector Maine. “The Portland Art Gallery gives me a bigger audience,” says Hopkins.

On the island today, Hopkins helps us appreciate the North Haven that has nourished him and his family for generations by preparing a rustic oceanside repast. In addition to the oysters—which he shucks without a glove and lines up on the weathered picnic table for us to retrieve—he has lobsters steaming in a pot on top of a camp stove. He leaves his shoes inside his one-room cottage, which does not have electricity or running water. “I don’t like to wear shoes. I need to stay connected to the earth,” he says. When it is time to eat, we crack the lobsters with smooth stones, extracting the meat with our fingers. There are no plates or forks. Knowing of my interest in wellness, Hopkins gives me his definition. It is at once poetic and practical. “Wellness is the ability to pat yourself on the back and kick yourself in the butt at the same time,” says Hopkins. Given his history, I know he has put these words into practice more than once.

On our return to the field where we will be meeting our Penobscot Island Air transport, Hopkins shows us where Evan’s truck hit a fence and rolled over before coming to rest in a stand of trees. “This is where he took his last ride,” says Hopkins. As we climb back into the Cessna, I ponder the words that Hopkins earlier shared with me, written as a posthumous conversation between himself and his son: “It’s time for you to fly; to soar; to rocket-propel yourself out of the world you’re in and into the orbit you want to be in.”

The plane tugs its way free from gravity, carrying Hopkins and us away from the land that has given life to his body, and into the air that provides inspiration for his soul.