Perhaps the most remarkable thing about Henry Isaacs packing up his wheelchair and heading off to Nepal to paint Mount Everest is that this upcoming once-in-a-lifetime adventure won’t even be the most remarkable thing that’s happened in the painter’s life.
Isaacs, a Maine artist who paints lively and wildly colorful landscapes, is resisting the effects of a creeping brain disease that has diminished his energy and mobility, and accepted a commission to paint the world’s tallest peak. He and his wife, Donna, will head to the Himalayas on Monday so Isaacs can make what likely will be his grandest painting of all. A private collector is paying all his expenses for an 8-by-8-foot oil painting of Mount Everest for a vacant wall in her Vermont home.
Despite the uncertainties and challenges of his voyage, Isaacs sees it as an opportunity he cannot pass up. He admits to feeling terrified about his trip, and says members of his family, including his grandkids, have urged him not to go. It’s not worth the risk, they say. What if something happens?
“It’s something I sort of have to do. I just know that to decline the commission would be wrong. It would be arrogant to decline,” he said. “How could I turn it down, even though I am not particularly well? What am I going to do? Wait until I am 80? I am 68. Who is going to ask me again?”
If his journey goes as planned, it will be one among many remarkable adventures of his life. His father was friends with the abstract expressionist Jackson Pollock, whose paintings often hung in the Isaacs’ home before they ended up in world-class museums. He was studio mates with Tina Weymouth and Chris Franz of the rock band the Talking Heads when they were students at the Rhode Island School of Design, and he’s taught art across the world, including in Cuba during the height of the Cold War when he arranged an academic artist exchange program.
“Henry has always been a very adventurous artist,” said Dennis Gleason of Gleason Fine Art in Boothbay Harbor. “He was in Cuba before it was really possible to go there, he’s painted in Rwanda and South Africa. He’s been willing to go wherever the spirit takes him.”
He and Donna will fly into Kathmandu and work their way, with the help of local guides, to various vantage points that are about 50 miles from Everest. He expects to view the mountain, which tops out at a little more 29,000 feet, from an elevation of about 12,000 feet along ridge lines that offer the expansive views of the mountain that he seeks.
Isaacs will travel with a wheelchair, and hopes he can get by with his cane. “Nepal is not going to be handicapped accessible, so I won’t have a choice,” he said. “I can walk about a kilometer with a cane, if I rest. Maybe a kilometer and a half. I’ll go slowly.”
There are several locations where he thinks he will go, but until he arrives and gets a sense of the geography, he really doesn’t know what to expect. He and Donna are building enough time in their schedule to allow for the uncertainty of the weather and his energy. They are planning to spend at least five weeks.
His client, who has asked to remain anonymous and declined to talk about the commission, is a mountain climber and outdoor adventure enthusiast. She has given Isaacs broad discretion with this painting. Her primary request is that the piece reflects a clear view of the mountain.
Gleason said he will worry about his friend on this trip – and he trusts his judgment. “I am a little concerned for him health-wise, given the elevation. But I am sure he will make the best of it,” Gleason said.
Wherever he paints, from the sands of Scarborough to the volcanic ash of Guatemala or the plains of Africa, Isaacs travels with a small backpack and several small panels, brushes and a few tubes of paint. He sits for a while and records his sensory responses to his surroundings with quick, tiny brush strokes that measure time, reflect color and convey movement and emotion. When he returns to his studio, he treats those painted sketches as notes, or snapshots, and translates them into much larger finished paintings.
Shop manager Roy Germon hangs works by Portland artist Henry Isaacs at Greenhut Galleries. “Travel Notes,” which includes 45 of his smaller works, will be exhibited through March 30. Brianna Soukup/Staff Photographer
That will be his approach with the Everest project. “At different times of day, we could have different kinds of light, so my way of working might be just perfect, to have different surface sizes, from very tiny, where I might have 2 inches where I have to work quickly, to 18 or 20 inches for a day where I have six or eight hours,” he said.
Those long work days are becoming less frequent. Lately, he has the stamina for an hour or two of work at a time.
Isaacs began feeling unwell in October 2017. He and Donna were hiking in Cape Breton, and he became dizzy and disoriented. He couldn’t move his right leg, which suddenly lacked sensation. He sat to rest and waited for the feeling to pass. It did, enough for him to walk back on his own power.
But he knew something was wrong, and the medical investigation into his condition began when the couple returned to Portland. Isaacs is being treated by the neurology department at Maine Medical Center. He said his doctors cannot pinpoint his condition, but they believe it is in the family of multiple sclerosis and Parkinson’s. He’s also lost confidence in his judgment, and surrendered his car keys after he turned the wrong way onto High Street in Portland.
Because of his illness, Isaacs is approaching his work with urgency. Fearful of losing his ability to create the sweeping, gestural paintings as he has done for most of the past 40 years, the Portland painter is working furiously to get as many projects done while he still can. In addition to preparing for his five-week trip to Nepal, he’s also just opened an exhibition of 45 small paintings from his travels, called “Travel Notes,” at Greenhut Galleries in Portland, and also published a small book of the same name recounting his life and painting adventures. Daniel Kany, a freelance art critic for the Maine Sunday Telegram, wrote the book.
In preparation for this trip, Isaacs has been studying artists who have painted Everest and has come to admire to a semi-obscure Russian painter named Nicholas Roerich, who in addition to making many treks through Tibet and Nepal in the early part of the 20th century, also painted on Monhegan off the Maine coast.
Born in Chicago, Isaacs has lived in many places, including England and Italy. He grew up in Cambridge, Massachusetts, and considers Vermont his home.S
But Maine is his base. He and Donna spent many years on Little Cranberry Island, where they championed the career of and watched over their longtime friend, the artist Ashley Bryan. The Isaacses recently put their Portland home and studio on the real estate market because he needs a more compatible living situation given his unstable physical condition, but they will stay in Portland, where his medical care is based.
When he comes back from Mount Everest, he will be an artist-in-residence at Cove Street Arts, a new community arts center in East Bayside owned by Kelley Lehr and John Danos, who also own Greenhut. There, in a large open studio, he will begin the process of turning what likely will be hundreds of painted notes of Everest into a single cohesive painting.
Doctors scan Isaacs’s brain every few months for signs of change. He wishes he had a prognosis and wishes he knew what was coming next, but accepts the uncertainty of his circumstances.
That uncertainty has helped fuel his motivation to keep working.
“Things are slowly deteriorating, but nothing too dramatic,” he said. “At the moment, knock on wood, I am pretty lucky. Lately, I am having more good days than bad. Fatigue and pain are my biggest enemies, but I am blessed with a lot of friends who have a lot of patience.”
His symptoms have leveled off to the point that Isaacs feels comfortable with what will be a journey of a lifetime to a place he’s always dreamed of going to paint a mountain that has tempted and eluded many artists over time, just as it has thwarted many ambitious climbers.
And as challenging as the trip to Nepal will be, Isaacs will face a larger challenge when he comes home. He has to make the painting.
Bob Keyes can be contacted at 791-6457 or at: