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Book about Presque Isle artist and her family wins state literary award

PRESQUE ISLE, Maine — When Christina Shipps inherited hundreds of paintings and drawings after the passing of her aunt, Presque Isle-based artist Evelyn Kok, she initially wanted to hold a retrospective exhibit of the artwork.  

But after many surprise turns Shipps found a unique way of sharing her aunt’s artistic talents with people from all parts of Maine and even beyond the Pine Tree State with a now award-winning book.

In 2016, Shipps met Don Tuskie, then the president of the Maine College of Art in Portland, when he stayed at The Inn on the Harbor, which Shipps owned in Stonington Harbor on Deer lsle. Shipps had hung many of her aunt’s watercolor paintings of the Stonington coastline in the inn and Tuskie expressed admiration for the work. He suggested that Shipps hold an exhibition of Kok’s work at the Maine College of Art and put her in touch with Donna McNeil, curator for the college’s Bob Crewe Gallery.

But when McNeil met with Shipps at her home in Patten, where she had stored her aunt’s expansive collection, both women realized that no venue would ever be large enough to showcase Evelyn’s artistic achievements or explain fully the personality behind the work. During that visit, the idea for the book, “There Has to be Magic: The Art of Evelyn Kok,” was born.

“I hadn’t told Don (Tuskie) who my aunt was and so when I first met Donna I told her that Evelyn had spent her summers in Stonington Harbor and that I had stored her artwork upstairs at my home in Patten because the collection was so large,” Shipps recalled. “She asked me what part of the harbor my aunt lived at and when I told her there was dead silence.”

McNeil later revealed that she had met Evelyn Kok at the artist’s summer home studio, formerly called the Gallery of the Purple Fish, where she displayed her work for community members to view.

“Donna and one of her friends, who ended up being the editor for ‘There Has To Be Magic,’ had wandered into my aunt’s gallery and talked with her for awhile. They loved her art and they loved talking with her,” Shipps said. “And so 20 years later Donna and I are together and she tells me, ‘What I would love to do is make a book about your aunt.’”

This 1938 school photo of artist Evelyn Kok is one of many family photographs to be featured in the book “There Has To Be Magic: The Art of Evelyn Kok,” which won the Excellence in Publishing Award from the Maine Writers and Publishers Alliance in June. The book, co-written by Donna McNeil and Christina Shipps, Kok’s niece, features photographs of Kok’s paintings and drawings and tells the story of a family whose artistic talents spanned four generations. (Courtesy of Maine Authors Publishing)

Over the next year, McNeil and Shipps gathered information not just about Evelyn Kok’s art and life but that of the prior three generations of her family. Kok’s great-grandfather, Simon Wing was a photographer and inventor while her grandfather, Harvey Wing, was a musician, photographer and inventor and her mother, Cora Wing Olsen, was a sculptor.

While McNeil wrote the vignettes about Evelyn Kok and her family, Shipps provided her with old family items such as Olsen’s wooden ship sculptures, the Wings’ camera equipment and photographs, many of which are on display at The Wing Fort House in East Sandwich, Massachusetts. Shipps said that she was happy to work with someone who was immersed in the art world and shared her enthusiasm for sharing stories from Evelyn Kok’s life as well as her relatives.

“Donna would lay out the chapters and ask me if there were any family photographs or objects that could go along with the stories and I sent her objects from the museum to take photos of,” Shipps said. “The process of creating the book went very smoothly and she was wonderful to work with.”

“There Has To Be Magic” was published in 2017. On June 14, 2018, McNeil, Shipps and Jane Karker, president of Maine Authors Publishing, which published the book, received the Excellence in Publishing award from the Maine Writers and Publishers Alliance, a nonprofit organization that “works to enrich the literary life and culture of Maine.” The book is available for purchase at the Evelyn Kok gallery at Stonington Harbor and the Mark and Emily Turner Memorial Library in Presque Isle, which featured an exhibit honoring Kok in December. The book also is available through the Maine Authors Publishing website and Amazon.

Shipps has used the book as one of many ways to educate people about Evelyn Kok’s artistic and personal legacy. In June, she re-opened her aunt’s gallery in Stonington Harbor under the name “The Art of Evelyn Kok Gallery,” where she sells numerous original watercolor paintings, pen and ink drawings, bookmarks and greeting cards. Though many of the paintings are of the Stonington coast, Evelyn also drew much inspiration from the northern Maine potato fields, rivers and landmarks such as Quoggy Jo Mountain and Mount Katahdin.

Evelyn and her husband, Jan Kok, were much admired members of the Presque Isle community. Jan Kok taught math and music for 38 years at the University of Maine at Presque Isle and he and Evelyn were part of many local music groups. Prior to marrying Jan Kok, Evelyn attended art school in Boston and worked as a medical illustrator. She was known as a “larger than life” figure who rarely sold her work, not even to family members, and wanted everyone to appreciate the beauty of the art itself.

Shipps has met people from all over Aroostook County, the state and the country who have admired her depiction of Maine’s northernmost landscape, many of whom are former students of Jan Kok.

“There was a man from Buffalo, New York, who came to the gallery recently and said, ‘Was Evelyn Kok related to Jan Kok?’ He turned out to be a former student of my uncle,” Shipps said. “I’ve seen many people from Aroostook County and other places who knew both Evelyn and Jan.”

Evelyn Kok passed away in 2014 at age 91 while Jan Kok passed away in 2017 at age 96. Shipps said that while receiving the publishing award was an honor, the most rewarding part about publishing “There Has To Be Magic” is having a written version of her aunt’s story that captures her spirit and creativity.

“The book’s message is very inspirational — that if you feel creative you should express that creativity and not let anything hinder you. That’s what my aunt did every day,” Shipps said. “Publishing the book has been a way to share her story with people who never had a chance to know her.”

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