Carroll Thayer Berry at his printing press
Born in New Gloucester, Cumberland County, Maine, the son of a dairy farmer, Carroll Thayer Berry’s early adult life was a result of his determination to trade in a farming career for his own path as an engineer before he ultimately came to realize his natural talents as a multi-faceted artist. After years away from Maine for both education and various job opportunities, he eventually returned to New England where for decades he was a locally beloved and well-known illustrator, printmaker and later-in-life photographer in mid-coastal Maine.
Carroll Thayer Berry
4 Sep 1886 - 20 Jan 1978
Berry initially left his home state in 1905 to study at the University of Michigan where he graduated four years later with a degree in marine engineering. He worked first in Cambridge as a mechanical draftsman and then for an architectural firm in Portland, Maine before being sent to Panama as an inspection engineer during construction of the Panama Canal. The disease of malaria found him, however, and after one year on the job he returned to the U.S. to recuperate from the illness.
It was at this time that he acted upon his interest in art and enrolled in classes at the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts, thus essentially altering his life’s course. Upon his later return to the Canal site--sent this time as a construction inspector--the government commissioned him to execute a series of large murals of the canal project for the walls of the administration building in celebration of the opening of the canal in 1914. Berry’s impressive artistic talents were now on full display and, it would seem, the artist and engineer in him were working in harmony.
Berry’s career as a commercial artist blossomed and his return to the U.S. in 1915 led him to New York City, where he learned engraving and illustration. In 1916 he married the future Newbery Award-winning author and children’s book illustrator Allena Champlin (whose pen name, later well known, became Erick Berry). When the United States entered World War I in April of 1917, Carroll volunteered for service and was commissioned a First Lieutenant in the Army. He was one of the first officers assigned to the American Camouflage Corps designing camouflage for vehicles and uniforms of the First Army Camouflage Regiment. He worked alongside Homer Saint-Gaudens, son of the premiere sculptor Augustus Saint-Gaudens, whose high-relief bronze monument of Robert Gould Shaw and the Massachusetts 54th Regiment remains today alongside the Boston Common. Berry and his unit were subsequently shipped to the front lines in France where they spent the remainder of the war until they were released from duty in 1919.
Chicago became Berry’s new home upon his return from the Great War and it was there that he married for the second time. His wife Janet Laura Scott was by then an accomplished artist in her own right, illustrating greeting cards, calendars, magazines and children’s and baby books--including the Bobbsey Twins series and Raggedy Andy stories. At this time, Berry had formed a design group creating interiors and installations for office buildings. He also reconnected with his boyhood love of sailing and purchased a small sloop, which he and Janet and friends took out on Lake Michigan. As time passed, and with the Great Depression upon them, the couple eventually returned to Maine (where Scott had also previously lived and worked for a time) and bought a house in Wiscasset, before eventually relocating permanently to Rockport.
While in Wiscasset and with World War II looming, Bath Iron Works commissioned Berry to paint a series of oils of their wartime shipbuilding program, documenting their production of Navy destroyers and other fighting ships in preparation for war; Berry was the only artist permitted to do so. “The delivery of a destroyer every other Friday” was a common slogan of the time. Berry also captured BIW’s pouring of the lead keel for Ranger, the America’s Cup defender, in 1936. Upon completion of these projects, Berry traded his brushes in for tools and began work at the Camden Shipbuilding Yard; thus as with the Panama Canal, Berry had once again used his artistic talents to record history in the making.
Post WWII mid-coast Maine became home to a number of artists over the ensuing decades, all working in various mediums. After the war, Berry and Scott had bought an older three-story brick building near their new home in Rockport and used it as joint studio space; Berry’s early 19th-century Acorn printing press was moved in and it was here that he perfected his skills and techniques as a printmaker and woodcut artist. His iconic wood engravings encompassed a variety of artistic skills: first, he carved on wood blocks the images he wanted to print in ink (sometimes using multiple blocks for the same print) then he made color choices for the blocks before printing out the final product, often in different sizes. As demand developed for a particular image, Berry could print out more images while some were never recreated again after their first run. Although he never kept a record of the number of prints he created (some were reworked and issued years later under a different title), Berry’s block prints received significant attention in major art shows over the years and today can be found--among other places--in the permanent collection of the Library of Congress.
“I seemed to have the special talents that printmaking demanded” he said of himself at one point later in life, though for many years Berry’s prints were so underpriced that his contemporaries pleaded with him to make an adjustment so that they could be competitive and make a living. Carroll had wanted his prints to be available and affordable to as wide an audience as possible so he charged only a bit more than the cost of the matboard to which they were affixed. He also kept his studio open on Friday nights when passengers disembarked from the cruise ships laying over in Rockport harbor, thus increasing the overall distribution of his work as few customers could pass up the reasonably priced Berry photo or print of the iconic Maine coast.
Eventually, the Maine Coast Artists group was formed, and the organization purchased a building for public gallery space in Rockport which later became the Center for Maine Contemporary Art. Berry’s studio also became home for the Knox County Camera Club. Berry, Scott and many other local artists benefited from their close proximity and collaboration. Today the area is heavily populated with studios, galleries and various forms of support for artists.
At the age of 60, Berry shifted his talents to photography and spent the next twenty-plus years making “a record of the last of the coasting schooners” and the people and places unique to the Penobscot Bay area. It was the precision of this artistic form that intrigued him and the resulting portrait from the late 1940s to the early/mid 1970s chronicles a changing way of life in coastal Maine. Before his death, Berry donated this body of work to the Penobscot Marine Museum and the photos are now available online through their website.
Berry was a pupil of Eric Pape of Boston, a member and President of the Maine Craft Guild and exhibited his work in various galleries in Maine and New Hampshire over many years. His work reflected the times in which he lived and his continuous progression as an artist and craftsman. It evolved in format and affordability and was no doubt influenced by the artistic community in which he and his wife spent decades of their lives. His love of coastal Maine, of sailing vessels and the water, of the people who inhabited and thereby embodied the region’s particular traditions and character are both preserved and honored in his art. Berry’s work provides his audience with a glimpse into a time and place in which he was truly “in the moment”.
“Genial to the core...modest and unassuming about his career...a center of gravitation” for those whom he both admired and inspired, Carroll Thayer Berry had led an active and fruitful life when he died in 1978 in a Rockport hospital at the age of 91.
Carroll Thayer Berry’s prints are included in the Canton Public Library’s permanent art collection. The seven woodcut prints depicting Camden and Rockport, Maine and the surrounding coastline can be found hanging adjacent to the Large Print Reading Room, at the end of the Fiction Stacks. Enjoy your Maine escape.
Dearborn, Elwyn. Carroll Thayer Berry: a catalogue raisonne of his wood engravings, woodcuts & linocuts. Camden, ME: Down East Books, 1983.
Moore, Jim. Maine Coastal Portrait. Rockland, ME: Seth Low Press, 1959.
Munson, Gorham. Penobscot Down East Paradise. Philadelphia and New York: J. B. Lippincott Co., 1959.