Maine Art in Season
Presenting eight southern Maine venues to see contemporary art at its best.
- By: Edgar Allen Beem
- Photography by: Benjamin Magro
Every two years, art lovers converge on southern Maine for the Portland Museum of Art’s Biennial, a juried show of some of the most interesting new talent in the state. What many of them overlook is the fact that just a short drive from Maine’s largest city, a variety of small-scale galleries and exhibit halls display the work of similarly exciting artists. Consider this a guided tour of a few more southern Maine stops you might want to make to find great Maine art this summer.
April 23 to May 29
George Marshall Store Gallery,
140 Lindsay Rd., York. 207-351-1083.
The annual “Momentum” exhibition features the winner and the finalists for the New Hampshire Charitable Foundation’s Piscataqua Region Artist Advancement Grant. This year, for the first time since its inception in 2002, the $25,000 grant was awarded to a Maine artist, Gail Spaien, who is showing a small installation that explores her fascination with our relationship to the natural world.
Spaien’s work takes the form of a garden bench, a plot of grass, and a selection of the artist’s schematic flower paintings — daisy-like forms in watercolor, gouache, and graphite that look almost as though they were created with a spirograph. “I’ve been doodling this flower since I was in high school,” Spaien says. “It’s a body memory.”
The repetitive nature of Spaien’s mechanical flowers speaks to the underlying meaning of her art. “The action of repeating the same mark is related to maintaining control of one’s world,” she says. “The natural world has always provided me with a sense of comfort, but I lived on a boat for ten years, so I know the natural world is not always comfortable. The outdoors has a little discomfort as well as being comforting. I’m trying to get that edge across.”
The grant finalists who will exhibit along with Spaien are conceptual artist Lauren Gillette, of York; sculptor and performance artist Kim Bernard, of Berwick; and photographer Bear Kirkpatrick, of Portsmouth, New Hampshire. Spaien, who chairs the Maine College of Art painting department, will use her grant to construct a new studio at her home on Kittery Point.
June 5 to July 6
Mast Cove Galleries, Mast Cove Ln., Kennebunkport. 207-967-3453.
With one of the largest stables of artists in the state (close to ninety at last count), Mast Cove features paintings and prints that appeal to a wide variety of tastes, though the strongest focus is on traditional figurative realism, landscape, and seascape. The first show of the new 2011 season is “Artist’s Choice,” featuring the gallery artists’ own selections.
Mast Cove’s best-selling artist is the venerable marine artist Frank Handlen, 94, who lives and paints in a little shingled house on the Kennebunk River just a block off Dock Square. His forty-foot topsail schooner Salt Wind is moored in the channel right outside his window. A self-taught artist, Handlen is best known for his romantic seascapes — waves crashing on the rockbound coast against pink skies, a kind of latter-day Winslow Homer. But Handlen’s inspiration is the lesser-known Frederick Waugh (1861-1940).
“He was the greatest marine artist we ever produced,” Handlen says. It was a visit with Waugh in Provincetown in 1938 that changed Frank Handlen’s life. “He told me I should come to Maine. That was where my subject was,” the artist explains. From 1940 until 1966, Handlen worked in local boatyards, the South Portland shipyard, and at the textile mills in Biddeford-Saco to support his painting, but he has been able to make his living as an artist since 1966, the year a Kennebunk bank purchased nine of his paintings and gave him the confidence to quit his day job.
“I’m still learning,” says Handlen, “but I’ll never be able to equal Frederick Waugh’s quality.”
North Dam Mill
2 Main St., Biddeford.
One of southern Maine’s emerging contemporary art venues, North Dam Mill comprises three of the five-story brick buildings that were once part of the Pepperell Mill complex on the Saco River. Wandering its metal-floored corridors is an adventure; you never know who or what you might find. There are more than fifty businesses and art studios in the complex. It is a place where art is made, and where it also can be seen. “If the door is open, people will stop,” says ceramic sculptor Cheryl Lichwell, whose studio is a menagerie of strange, anthropomorphic animals. “This is my work space, but I love to have people come in.”
Because there is no lighting and no security, the exhibitions in the halls of North Dam Mill tend to be of community art, an expression of a grassroots spirit. They are curated by Tammy Ackerman, the executive director of Engine (Propelling the Creative Community), a new non-profit that aims to promote the arts in Biddeford. Engine organizes the Final Friday Biddeford ArtWalk, a monthly open-studio event that attracts about four hundred art lovers to North Dam Mill on the last Friday of each month. “Nobody has marketed Biddeford specifically to artists,” Ackerman says. “That’s what Engine is going to do. You can revitalize downtown through the arts.”
Point of Departure: Paintings by Diane Bowie Zaitlin
May 7 to September 4
Saco Museum, 371 Main St., Saco. 207-283-3861.
The Saco Museum is a small, regional museum of fine and decorative arts that has carved out a distinctive place for itself on the contemporary art scene, often by co-presenting exhibitions with other arts groups. The feature exhibition this summer is an historical show, “Voyages and the Great Age of Sail,” undertaken with the University of New England.
The museum’s hallway display cases, meanwhile, will be devoted to small works by Saco artist Diane Bowie Zaitlin. “Point of Departure” is focused on a new body of work created during Art Week, an artist residency program operated by painter Anina Porter Fuller, a niece of Fairfield and Eliot Porter, on Great Spruce Head Island in Penobscot Bay. Zaitlin was one of a dozen artists selected for the Art Week program.
Though Zaitlin works a great deal in encaustic these days, she spent her time on Great Spruce Head taking photographs, drawing, and making small collages and acrylic paintings. “Most of the painters were plein air painters. I was kind of the token abstract artist,” she says.
While the other artists were out exploring the island landscape, Zaitlin was captivated by a huge stump, which she drew almost as a human torso, and by the island farmhouse’s antique kitchen, where she made rubbings of graters, shredders, and other domestic utensils that supply the texture and content of her expressive collages and acrylics.
Critters, Farm Animals, Wildlife, Pets
April 10 to July 20
University of New England Art Gallery, 716 Stevens Ave., Portland. 207-221-4499.
Curator and former gallery owner Nancy Davidson has now organized eight art exhibitions around the subject of animals. “Critters, Farm Animals, Wildlife, Pets,” her latest edition, features animal art by more than one hundred artists filling all three floors of the little modernist cube and spilling out onto the gallery grounds.
“Whether people are very erudite and sophisticated or know nothing at all about art, animals appeal to everyone. That’s why I’ve always done this show,” Davidson explains.
This fun, accessible exhibition includes a lively mix of critters created by artists ranging from Maine icons Bernard Langlais and Dahlov Ipcar to sculptors such as Lise Becu, Ed Gamble, Carole Hanson, Cheryl Lichwell, Cabot Lyford, and Steve Lindsay and even some emblematic Weimaraners by photographer William Wegman.
In the early 1960s, before there were any serious art galleries in Portland, Davidson helped organize the Temple Beth El art shows that brought modern art to Maine. She managed the Cry of the Loon Gallery in Casco, had her own gallery, Davidson & Daughters, in Portland, and spent nearly a decade running Studio E Gallery in Palm Beach Gardens, Florida. Having grown up in a Portland relatively devoid of art, Davidson marvels at the contemporary art destination the city has become. “The First Friday Art Walk,” she says, “is a positive culture shock.”
First Friday Art Walk
May 6, June 3, July 1, August 5
Portland Arts & Cultural Alliance, 549 Congress St., Portland. 207-772-6828.
The energy surrounding Portland’s First Friday Art Walk, is palpable. As many as eighty-six venues — from galleries to coffee shops and jewelry stores — organize openings on the first Friday of the month. The streets are filled with people, the galleries glow with art, street performers, and vendors crowd the sidewalks. “There are two thousand people wandering around the city on First Friday who wouldn’t be here otherwise,” says Jennifer Hutchins, the new director of the Portland Arts & Cultural Alliance, which has coordinated First Friday since 2007. “The restaurants look like the North End of Boston on Saturday nights. There are lines out the door.”
This summer, says Hutchins, Portland will close several blocks of downtown Congress Street to create a larger pedestrian area and a free trolley will make a loop from the Congress Street Arts District through the Old Port to the East End and back.
A typical First Friday art crawl might hit some of the major commercial galleries from Aucocisco Galleries on Exchange Street to Whitney Fine Art, June Fitzpatrick, Gleason Fine Art, and Susan Maasch Fine Art on Congress Street as well as several of the funkier galleries such as Constellation, 9 Hands, Sylvia Kania, and Two Point Gallery. The must-stops, however, are the Institute for Contemporary Art at the Maine College of Art, the not-for-profit SPACE Gallery, and the Portland Museum of Art, which offers free admission during the Art Walk.
Tim Clorius: Conversation Piece
May 18 to June 11
Aucocisco Galleries, 89 Exchange St., Portland. 207-775-2222.
Tim Clorius, a tall, articulate German painter, came to Portland a decade ago to study painting at Maine College of Art with Gail Spaien, Sean Foley, Honor Mack, and Ellen Lesperance. “Gail told me, ‘You have a very strange sense of color, but hang on to that,’ ” Clorius recalls.
Clorius is a rare breed of artist, one like the late Jean-Michel Basquiat, who is as comfortable in the street as a tagger or graffiti artist as in the studio as a fine artist. As SUBONE (Supplying Urban Beautification, Offering New Experiences), he creates legal aerosol art in Portland and cities all over the country. In his Congress Street studio, he paints small, exquisite, art historical paintings, dark, cryptic little narrative oils with an apocalyptic look and feel.
The title of Clorius’ Aucocisco show, “Conversation Piece,” refers to the eighteenth-century British convention of painting group portraits of people engaged in genteel conversation, usually outdoors. Both personal and political, Clorius’ small oils are informed by both his dread and his outrage. Several express opposition to genetic engineering. Others deal with an ambivalence about Christianity, the vagaries of how value is determined in the art world, and the anxieties of bringing a child into this perilous world, as Clorius did eight months ago.
“What the art world really wants is more work that expresses what is in the heart without compromise,” insists Tim Clorius. “We make art in this generation to express our fears.”
2011 Portland Museum of Art Biennial
April 7 to June 5
Portland Museum of Art, 7 Congress Sq., Portland. 207-775-6148.
There is no better occasion to take the pulse and temperature of the contemporary art scene in Maine than the Portland Museum Of Art Biennial. More than nine hundred artists submitted 3,600 entries to the 2011 biennial. Just sixty-six works by forty-seven artists, most of whom are full-time Maine residents, were selected by a jury consisting of New York art dealer Jim Kempner; painter David Row, who grew up in Portland, lives in New York, and summers on Cushing Island; and Joanna Marsh, a curator of contemporary art at the Smithsonian American Art Museum in Washington, D.C.
Knowledgeable viewers go to large, open, juried exhibitions such as the PMA Biennial both to see what’s new in art and to discover new talent. In 2011, Natasha Bowdoin is that new talent. Bowdoin grew up in West Kennebunk. Most of her relatives are lobstermen. Her late father was a well-known stonemason and racecar driver. She majored in painting and classics at Brandeis, earned a masters of fine art degree at Tyler School of Art in Philadelphia, and now teaches at Glassell School of Art in Houston.
Bowdoin’s subject is language and how we create meaning with it. Her entry in the biennial is a large conceptual wall painting on cut paper that resembles nothing quite so much as clumps of seaweed swaying in underwater currents. Upon closer examination, however, there are words written on the fronds.
In fact, Bowdoin’s installation, Untitled (Alice), is a work-in-progress, an evocation of underwater plant life upon which she is transcribing the text of Lewis Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and Through the Looking Glass. The biennial piece includes three-quarters of the former and a bit of the later.
Bowdoin’s fusion of text and natural forms is just the sort of painting that defines post-modern art. She is very much a part of the international art dialogue, but her Maine roots show. “I haven’t really gotten an opportunity to show my work in Maine even though that’s where I’m from,” she says. “I entered the biennial because I wanted to show my people what I’ve been doing.”
- By: Edgar Allen Beem
- Photography by: Benjamin Magro