Down East 2013 ©
By Carl Little
Excerpted from The Art of Dahlov Ipcar, Down East Books, Camden, Maine; 144 pages, $50.
When I visited Dahlov Ipcar at her home on Georgetown Island near Bath in midcoast Maine in the fall of 2008, the then ninety-one-year-old painter insisted on making me breakfast. Maneuvering in her kitchen with the help of a walker, thanking me for, but refusing, my offers of help, she made crêpes accompanied by orange juice and coffee. I was humbled and appreciative.
When we moved to Ipcar’s studio, the humbling continued. A painting sat on the easel, one of her classic jungle compositions, about midway to completion. While she admitted her advanced age had slowed her down somewhat, Ipcar noted that she was at the easel nearly every day. When I suggested that she may have painted every creature on Earth, Ipcar replied, “I’m always looking for new animals.”
In our morning tête-à-tête, we covered many subjects, including the election of Barack Obama, which excited the artist, who was born during Woodrow Wilson’s second term and has lived through the Great Depression, two world wars, Vietnam, Watergate, and the closing of the Maine Yankee nuclear power plant. She spoke with some bewilderment, but also satisfaction, of her stardom in recent years. “I am amazed that I have been so recognized and appreciated here in Maine,” she told me, “because I’m just quietly going my own way and I rarely paint Maine subjects.”
Ipcar’s husband and life-long partner, Adolph, died in 2003, at age ninety-eight; they had been married sixty-seven years. For many elderly, the loss of a loved one late in life can spell the end, but Dahlov grieved and then moved forward, her art a continuing source of energy.
In her lifetime, Ipcar has witnessed the coming and going of dozens of isms and scores of schools of art. She has acknowledged her connection to some of them, especially in her early years as she sought to establish herself as an artist, but in the long run she has been a true independent. The consistency of her vision is astonishing.
“My daughter Dahlov grew up painting. When people asked her if she was going to be an artist when she grew up, she said, ‘Certainly.’ ”
—William Zorach, Art Is My Life, 1967
Dahlov Ipcar was brought up, in her words, “in a sort of atmosphere of modern art.” Her parents, William and Marguerite Zorach, were well-known artists and their home was filled with bright colors. “We had gay parties and sings, and Tessim [the Zorachs’ son] and Dahlov slept peacefully through it all in a corner of the studio,” Zorach wrote in his autobiography.
The artist credits her parents with inspiring her lifelong passion for color. “Color had gotten into my soul so that I felt that was . . . the way art should be, which is quite different from most children’s upbringing in art,” Ipcar once stated. Even as her parents struggled to make ends meet, they surrounded themselves with beauty, which helped them survive through the Depression and other tough stretches.
The Zorachs first traveled to Maine in 1919, spending the summer in Stonington. While there, they saw a good deal of another renowned American modernist, John Marin (1870–1953), who had arrived in the harbor town around the same time.
Some years later the Zorach family spent a week on Mount Desert Island as the guests of the John D. Rockefeller family. Marguerite had been commissioned by Mrs. Rockefeller to create a tapestry that would show the family and their surroundings in Seal Harbor. Zorach later recalled how one night the Rockefeller cook made butter-pecan ice cream especially for Dahlov. “It was so salty no one could eat it except Dahlov — she ate it,” he recounted. The cook had mistakenly used salted pecans.
Dahlov was influenced by her parents’ working habits. She witnessed their discipline, creating art while trying to make a living. They worked at home in the early years; her father began renting a separate studio only when Dahlov was twelve or thirteen. They also helped their daughter with the practicalities of painting without trying to influence her approach.
Surrounded by art and artists, supplied with paints and brushes, but left to her own devices, Dahlov Zorach embarked on her artistic journey. She was no naïve “wild child” when it came to modern art. Through her parents she was exposed to cubism, fauvism, and surrealism to social realism and “primitive” and folk art. She took it all in without aligning herself with any one school.
Already the artist is focused on animals, but she also addresses subject matter of the time in several remarkable pastel drawings of World War I German soldiers. The stylized realism of later work, as well as a delightful sense of humor, are already at play, as is the artist’s uninhibited approach to painting.
“Maybe that’s why I like Brueghel, because it’s like Maine.”
In volume IV of his landmark Islands of the Mid-Maine Coast, historian Charles McLane categorizes the eight-mile-long Georgetown as a “macro-island with extensive and ongoing communities.” Had McLane carried his lists of island residents into the twentieth century, an unusual name would have appeared in the census for 1923, among the Campbells, Emmonses, Olivers, Rogerses, and Tarrs: Zorach.
On a trip to Georgetown in 1922, Marguerite was shown the John Riggs house and property on Robinhood Cove by Isabel Lachaise, wife of the French-American sculptor Gaston Lachaise (1882–1935), a good friend of the Zorachs. The former sea captain’s residence had served as a boarding house and as the post office for Riggsville, which had been renamed Robinhood. The Zorachs bought the place the next year, with help from their patrons, the L’Engles.
The Riggs house was set back in the woods above Robinhood Cove, on the northern part of the island, about half a mile from the town road. The house, originally built in 1820, was in good shape despite having been unoccupied for thirty-some years. The Zorachs later bought an abutting property, the Baker farm, eventually owning nearly a hundred acres of what was predominantly woodland.
In some ways, as art critic and Down East contributing editor Edgar Allen Beem once noted, the Zorachs were the original back-to-the-landers. In his autobiography, Zorach described the life: “We made hay for the winter; all in the old-fashioned way with a one-horse mowing machine, hand rakes, bull rakes, a hay wagon painted blue with vermilion trim.” Dahlov loved Maine, the water, the shore, and the woods. Country life also meant she could have more animals.
Dahlov Zorach added to her remarkable name when she married Adolph Ipcar in New York City in 1936. They first met in the summer of 1932, when Ipcar and his three sisters were renting the Baker farm in Robinhood Cove from the Zorachs. Adolph was an accountant and a teacher, and he had studied philosophy.
The couple moved to Georgetown for good in 1937. Dahlov’s parents paid them fifty dollars a month to look after the farm. Life in Robinhood was close to subsistence and it was rugged: They dug clams, picked blueberries, caught fish, hunted squirrels, and grew vegetables. They often learned as they went along. “It was like a return to the nineteenth century,” Dahlov once said, “but we liked the challenge.”
The first years were the most difficult as the couple eked out a living as farmers. They eventually started their own dairy operation, building up a herd of Jersey cows. They also welcomed sons Robert, in 1939, and Charles, in 1942. To start a dairy farm and raise a family in the midst of the Great Depression and during a war offered challenges, but, like the Zorachs, they managed to survive hard times through hard work.
The Ipcars became a part of the Georgetown community. Adolph, in particular, was accepted by the locals. “Once you go around and peddle milk door to door [as Adolph did],” Ipcar once explained, “you’re no longer just a summer person.”
Dahlov set aside time for her art, inspired by the example of her parents, who pursued creative endeavors whatever the circumstances. “Despite dawn-to-dark chores,” Margaret Hammel wrote in a 1974 profile of the artist in Down East, “Dahlov seized time to paint.”
Ipcar started out painting her surroundings, including portraits of her husband and children. Two Fishermen, 1941, shows Adolph and son Robert hand-lining for mackerel out of a skiff with a weir in the background. Much of her early work is marked by a strong sense of realism. The painting Cream Separator, 1945, for example, depicts a farmhand working the complex apparatus (according to the artist, the machine had forty-two separate parts).
Ipcar’s early work received favorable attention. In 1939 two paintings were accepted for the Corcoran Museum of Art Biennial in Washington, D.C., and she was included in a group show at the Detroit Institute in 1943. Under a U.S. Treasury Department program similar to the Works Progress Administration, Ipcar also received commissions to paint murals for post offices in LaFollette, Tennessee, and in Yukon, Oklahoma. The murals reflected aspects of social realism, but also her exploration of surface design inspired by studying the art of muralists José Orozco and Diego Rivera. As a teenager in New York she remembers watching Rivera painting one of his murals.
Until the 1970s, Ipcar numbered among a handful of successful women painters working in Maine, a significant accomplishment considering there were virtually no commercial galleries. She was a pioneer in another way as well: as Colby College Museum of Art Director Emeritus Hugh Gourley once noted, Ipcar was among the first twentieth-century artists to live in the state year-round.
Ipcar was one of only four twentieth-century women artists included in Colby College’s landmark Maine and Its Role in American Art: 1740-1963, joining her mother, Georgia O’Keeffe, and Mildred Burrage. Writing about her in The Diversity of Our Time, 1940-1963, art historian James Carpenter recognized the painter’s passion for animals “sometimes isolated for the graceful patterns they create, and sometimes seen in the context of a familiar Maine setting.”
“[Dahlov] always had the ability to draw any animal doing anything; certain children have this thing about animals,” William Zorach noted in his autobiography. He continued: “It came as naturally to Dahlov as breathing. She loved all animals and knew them in all their ways and movements.” He also complained about this obsession: “I used to be furious when I had to drive to Maine with a car full of cats and dogs and mice and guinea pigs and birds.”
Animals have been a constant subject through the years, but in the 1950s Ipcar began to focus on them almost exclusively. She has covered just about every habitat the world has to offer, sometimes resorting to research to render a particular ecosystem.
In Ipcar’s paintings, cocks fight, antelope are pursued by wild dogs, and foxes chase rabbits and partridge, yet the natural world is hardly “red in tooth and claw.” The laws of the jungle are sometimes acknowledged, as in a recent painting of a caribou trailed by wolves, but they are often superseded by the creatures themselves, leaping, galloping, winging, and even swimming across the picture plane.
From time to time, Ipcar has painted a Maine landscape, but these canvases also tend to be animal-oriented. One of her most outstanding Maine landscapes is Country Crossroads, 1985, a tribute to the Common Ground Fair, then held in Windsor. The painting offers a multi-perspective view of the animals and people that might be headed to a country fair. As she explained in a “Home Forum” feature in the Christian Science Monitor in 1985, the painting can be hung in four different ways (and she signed it four times).
For the past several decades, Ipcar has specialized in complex, colorful jungle paintings. She takes great pleasure in creating these wild canvases. “As I work on a painting,” she wrote on the occasion of her 1990 exhibition at the Bates College Museum of Art, “it is like a continually changing kaleidoscope of composition, color, meanings.”
An admirer of Pablo Picasso and Georges Braque, Ipcar practices a kind of latter-day cubism, developing a “prismatic dimension” in her canvases, superimposing the fluid lines of animals on hard-edge geometric backgrounds. The result is mesmerizing and quite unlike anything being created by an American artist today.
Whether painting an African jungle, a Maine farm, or a woodland scene, Ipcar brings her own personal flair to the treatment of the motif. “I am intrigued and inspired by the endless variety of patterns and forms in nature,” she has said. “They arouse in me the desire to create forms and patterns of my own.”
“I don’t relate as well to people as I do to animals.”
—Dahlov Ipcar, in the film Dahlov Ipcar: Maine Master (2002)
Dahlov Ipcar first became interested in illustrating as an eighteen-year-old and made a few unfruitful attempts to break into the field. Then Ellen Steel, who had been one of her teachers at City and Country School, contacted her to ask if she would be interested in trying to illustrate a book by Margaret Wise Brown.
Ipcar jumped at the chance. Her debut was an auspicious one: she illustrated Brown’s The Little Fisherman, published in 1945. Not long after that success she began to write and illustrate her own books, beginning with Animal Hide and Seek (1947), one of several books that illustrate the many ways in which animals camouflage themselves.
Ipcar’s fifth book, One Horse Farm, was the first of eight books of hers to be selected by the Junior Literary Guild. She remembers Adolph running down through the orchard waving a check for two thousand dollars. “That was the biggest check I ever had seen,” she said.
One of Ipcar’s most popular children’s books, Lobsterman, 1962, is dedicated to “all the fishermen’s children of Georgetown, Maine.” She pays tribute to the Maine coast livelihood, from painting buoys to buying herring from a sardine carrier named Lou-Ann. Another book, Brown Cow Farm: A Counting Book, 1959, was inspired by Ipcar’s farming experiences. While a separate art form from her paintings, the illustrations have connections to Ipcar’s canvases. For instance, her 1965 children’s book The Calico Jungle led to a significant turning point in her evolution as an artist. Her enthusiasm for patterns in her oil paintings can be traced to the illustrations in the book. “I began to make the animals more decorative and designed and less realistic than they had been,” she has noted.
Ipcar’s many books, thirty-one titles in all, gained her national acclaim, including the University of Minnesota’s prestigious Kerlan Award for children’s literature and illustration in 1997 and the Katahdin Award from the Maine Library Association in 2002. Her original drawings and watercolors have been included in many gallery and museum exhibitions over the years.
Like her parents, Ipcar has been comfortable working in a range of mediums. She has made fabric collages, hooked rugs, needlepoint tapestries, quilts and “soft sculpture.” She began to make the latter pieces in the mid-1950s, designing stuffed animals using old-fashioned calicoes and Indonesian batiks. Simply designed at the start, these sculptures became more complex over time. Ipcar fabricated wondrous birds and fish, a camel and a pinto, as well as “St. George and the Dragon,” a mythological sea horse, a “pushmepullyou” from Doctor Doolittle, and a possum with its babies hanging from its tail.
Ipcar is also an accomplished printmaker. She first learned lithography while teaching at Florence Kane’s school in Rockefeller Center in the mid-1930s. For many years, she had them pulled by the renowned lithographer George Miller in New York City. In more recent times, master printmaker Frances Hodsdon, who lives in Whitefield, Maine, has printed all of her lithographs.
Ipcar has also created eight murals for schools, libraries, banks, and other buildings across Maine, several of them through the Maine Arts Commission’s Percent for Art program. A number of these large-scale works are easel paintings. As her canvases disappear into private collections and museums, these wall works represent a lasting public presence for her art and vision.
“I have come to feel that the reality created by the artist is more important than actual reality. The real world may come to seem oppressively dull and barren unless transformed and revitalized by imagination.”
—Dahlov Ipcar, artist’s statement, “Dahlov Ipcar: The Seventies & Eighties,” Bates College Museum of Art, 1990
If her early paintings at times recall those of Waldo Peirce, Rockwell Kent, or some of the social realists, she has never followed any trend or fit into any school. Indeed, Ipcar’s work has always defied categories. “Interesting in her work [is] the impossibility of locating the defined limits of a ‘school’ or style,” one critic wrote.
Ipcar had six solo shows in New York galleries early in her career but felt out of synch with the big city art world. The advent of abstract expressionism helped complete her withdrawal from the New York art scene.
“There is no gain in keeping up with the Joneses in art,” William Zorach once stated; “It is more important to find your own way than always to have your eye on someone else’s way of seeing and doing.” He felt, as Ipcar does, that a true artist doesn’t change, but on the occasion of an exhibition at the Ogunquit Museum of American Art in 1996, Ipcar stated, “See things fresh, as a child does. Be yourself.” Some years later, after having cataracts removed, the artist literally saw things anew.
Now ninety-two, Ipcar continues to paint with a youthful spirit. She is the energizer artist, entering her Georgetown studio to paint the gamboling wildebeest, the long-tailed monkey, the cheetah slinking through imaginary foliage.
“I can’t walk in the woods or go out in the fields any longer,” Ipcar told an interviewer in 2009, “but I can paint.” To this writer she confided, “If I run out of ideas, all I have to do is look at one corner of one painting and enlarge it.” To another interviewer she quipped, “I hope I die before I run out of vermilion.”