Painting in Maine
Growing up in Maine affords a person an environment with a wealth of natural beauty along its rocky eastern coastline, and no shortage of landscape painters who have drawn inspiration from the state’s rugged terrain. For those looking for a simple life and a lot of natural beauty, The Downeast just might be your kind of place. And if you’re a painter, all the better. As a younger artist, I did very few andscape paintings of Maine. I suspect that was somewhat of a missed opportunity for me back then.
The state has historically been a fertile source of inspiration to landscape painters. The style of paintings from Maine have historically been Realist and Modernist works, but regardless of style, a commonality of simplicity pervades those works. They don’t speak of majesty or the sublime visions captured by Hudson River artists, or the artist’s who travelled west to document America’s manifest destiny. Paintings of Maine are about harmony with what is simple and small.
In the summer of 1883, Winslow Homer moved from New York to Prout’s Neck in Scarborough, Maine, (my childhood home). Except for vacation trips to the Adirondacks, Canada, Florida, and the Caribbean, where he produced dazzling watercolors, Homer lived at Prout’s Neck until his death. It was there that he painted the great themes of his career: the struggle of people against the sea and the relationship of fragile, transient human life to the timelessness of nature. Despite Homer’s themes, so much of what defines the state is not captured in most artworks, which is a toughness of living. From the extreme winter climate, to many of the people’s involvement in the fishing and timber industries, the living in Maine is hard. That difficulty is regarded as good for the human soul to the mostly white, Protestant inhabitants. This aspect to Maine living is integral to the perception of specialness of place.
Marsden Hartley did many paintings of coastal regions of Maine and Mt. Katahdin in Acadia National Park. His simplified forms and palette reflected not an illustration of actual Maine, but rather a generalized sense of place evoking the promise of Shangri La. Maine served greatly for Hartley’s regionalist approach in painting, and no doubt the social climate of Maine helped incubate some of Hartley’s more radical ideology. Dr. Donna Cassidy (from my alma mater the University of Southern Maine) has written an excellent book “Race, Region and Nation” on Hartley’s affinity for racist, totalitarian ideology espoused by the Third Riech following Hartley’s trips to Germany in the late 1930’s. Maine has its own wretched past of brutal ethnic cleansing of Native Americans in the early 1600’s.
Another spot that has been marketed to the point of it becoming mythical in public perception is Monhegan Island. Some have even gone so far as to dub it “The Artist’s Island“, which is not an unfair moniker. Robert Henri wrote of Monhegan “this is the real deal”, referring to it’s dynamic topography and vistas along each coast, after visiting it for the first of many times in the painter’s lifetime. Hundreds of artists since the 1800’s have ventured to Monhegan for artistic inspiration and source material. Rockwell Kent and John Marin drew heavily from the island in their paintings. There is today a thriving artistic community on the island during the summer months. There’s also the Monhegan Artists’ Residency administered every year by the Farnsworth Museum, in which two beginning artists are granted the opportunity to spend six weeks on the island to work on their art. It’s an artist’s Galapagos Island, which I was fortunate to have visited in the summer of ’90 during my residency. Monhegan, and Mt. Desert have both been instrumental in continuing and fomenting Maine’s idealized sense of place, especially within New York state. Many New Yorkers continue to gobble up property in Maine for their summer vacations.
There are a few painters living and working in Maine today who do some fine work that continues in the tradition of landscape painting. Alan Bray creates mysterious paintings of tucked away places in Maine that are exceptional. There is a quality of fetishism in his works that spooks, but which is part of a naturalist’s experience. Eric Hopkins does wispy aerial cartoons of the many islands that dot the coast of Maine. Peter Poskas has done wonderful paintings of Monhegan Island, and other locations in New England. James Wolford does wonderful illustrations of various locations in Maine, with an emphasis on the architecture of Maine, repleat with sentimentality, but beautiful nonetheless. And I haven’t even mentioned Neil Welliver, Andrew and Jamie Wyeth, Alan Magee, or many many others. For such a small state, it has produced many artisans and crafts people, and lured many others from outside Maine to visit and draw inspiration from.
This is not to say that there aren’t other forms of painting in Maine. There are working artisans and teachers in Maine who work in various abstract forms of painting. The colleges art departments in Maine all have strong emphases on modern art and an effort to pursue one’s individual creativity. There is a summer program, the Skowhegan School for Painting and Sculpture, which is nationally recognized as one of the best summer programs in the country for exploration in painting. But most younger artists who work outside the traditional form of landscape painting, who don’t tow the line of marketing Maine’s idealized sense of place, are forced to leave Maine to find an audience for their works, Richard Prince, Dozier Bell and Astrid Bowlby are of particular note. While Maine is mostly inhospitable for sustaining artists professionally and financially, it’s abundant offering of inspiration for creative endeavors is virtually unparalleled across the U.S.