Eric Hopkins Is Ready to Be More Than Just “the Pointy-Piney-Island Guy”

The acclaimed North Haven artist, known for his aerial paintings of Penobscot Bay, looks ahead to his career’s third chapter.

By Brian Kevin
Photographed by Tara Rice
From our January 2022 issue
Portrait of the artist as a cloud man: Hopkins, who prefers to be barefoot, in one of his North Haven studios.

Eric Hopkins was in the Black Hills of South Dakota, on the middle leg of an unplanned pandemic road trip, when he first made contact with the ghost of Theodore Roosevelt. The day before, Hopkins had climbed a high hill in the sagebrush country of northeastern Wyoming, in an area called Burnt Hollow, and sat atop its 4,400-foot summit, admiring the sky’s yawning measure and the breadth of the horizon. He snapped a few iPhone photos to jog his memory later on, when it was time to make the sketches that, later still, he might render on paper with watercolors or on canvas with oil paints. Or maybe on wood? Or some other medium? Hard to say. Lately, he’d been feeling the urge to branch out.

It was early June of 2020, and Hopkins had been out west since the tail end of January. Most of that time he’d spent in Anacortes, Washington, an artsy little harbor town overlooking the San Juan Islands, where he’d leased a studio the year before. He’d planned to work with an agent there to find gallery representation in the Pacific Northwest, finally planting his feet in a corner of the country where he’d dipped a professional toe for decades. But Anacortes is 80 miles north of Seattle, which is where, in late February, officials announced the nation’s first death from COVID-19. Before Hopkins knew it, he was under lockdown in coastal Washington, the country’s nascent pandemic epicenter, and his plans to establish Eric Hopkins West were up in smoke — yet again, and maybe for the last time.

Hopkins left Burnt Hollow with his Ford Expedition pointed east, towards Devils Tower, Deadwood, Mount Rushmore, the Badlands. As he drove, he admired the high, lonesome scenery and listened to the Grateful Dead and thought about what was next for his life and career. He was a few months shy of 70, and ever since his 30s, he had nursed a fantasy that he thought of as his “American dream,” a personal and professional ambition to spend half of each year in Maine, on his island home of North Haven, and the other half in the West, which had captured his imagination as a road-tripping 10-year-old and his heart as a 20-something art student, at an art colony outside Seattle.

But while he’d made countless trips over the years, his plan to go fully bicoastal never materialized. Life kept getting in the way. In the ’80s, the hurdles were mostly financial, and by that decade’s end, he was married and raising a young family on North Haven. In the mid-’00s, he was visiting Seattle regularly, using a day-rental glassblowing studio there, when a gallery space in Rockland fell into his lap, a deal too good to pass up. He likes to joke that he did head west from North Haven — but Rockland, twelve miles across Penobscot Bay, was as far as he made it.

Next came a divorce and the Great Recession. Then, in 2013, Hopkins’s youngest child, Evan, was killed at age 20 when his truck rolled over at high speed on North Haven. Devastated, Hopkins spent some of the next year on Washington’s Whidbey Island, grieving and making art and getting his head together. He thought then about finally putting down western roots — but his 90-year-old mother fell ill, and soon, he was back in Maine, caring for her until her death, in 2015.

He took spins through the West in the years that followed — did the national parks circuit, fell in love with Anacortes — but 2020 was supposed to be the year he made inroads with buyers and galleries, at last a successful relaunch of his “American dream.” When, instead, the pandemic dashed it, Hopkins waited to hitch up his trailer until June, when Maine started easing entry restrictions, then resolved to enjoy his journey home.

“I’m totally typecast as the Maine pointy-piney-island guy,” Hopkins says. “Ironically, there’s not a friggin’ pine tree around here — one scrawny little thing. It’s spruce and fir and cedar around here mostly.”

The drive into South Dakota he enjoyed immensely. The Dead serenaded him across rolling prairies, bright green with new spring growth, and into the cool, granite-strewn gulches of the Black Hills. It was almost midnight when he drove up a long gravel road, outside Deadwood, to camp on the side of a wooded peak called Mount Roosevelt. In the morning, he took a short hike to a stone tower commemorating the 26th president and onetime Badlands rancher. Then, back at the trailer, Hopkins grabbed his pen and a few sheets of loose-leaf paper.

“All through this recent trip, I’ve been amazed, excited, and sometimes overwhelmed by this Great American Landscape,” he wrote. “I can imagine water — oceans — covering these Wyoming hills and mountains and wonder if this hilltop I’m sitting on was (or could be) the top of an island. I can feel Earth processes at work.” He went on, cataloging his observations from Yellowstone, the Bighorns, the coal country around Gillette. Then came a sentence with several underlines: “My Big Question to myself is: ‘What am I going to do with all I see, feel, and think about?’”

It was right about then that the spirit of Theodore Roosevelt, gone from this plane some 101 years, took over Hopkins’s pen. The wayfaring artist felt the presence of the old Bull Moose as surely as he felt the breeze atop the mountain, and he let it flow through him, channeling the dead president on the page as Roosevelt delivered a sort of pep talk.

“Yes, Eric — T.R. here,” the spirit began. “This is a very good trip for you.” Roosevelt told Hopkins that he was guiding him, that their missions were similar and their purviews bigger than any one locale. “You’re on the Right Road, my friend,” Roosevelt declared, acknowledging that Hopkins was riding on it with his “Grateful Dead soundtrack.” Then, the departed statesman offered a surprisingly groovy, if clunkily phrased, analogy. The Dead, he said, “are about a lot more than psychedelic rock and roll — as [are] you, with your Pointy-Pine Treed Islands.”

In closing, Roosevelt gave a perky answer to Hopkins’s Big Question. “Keep on moving,” the president’s ghost declared. “Don’t worry about How, When, or Where to process it! Just keep doin’ what you’re doin’!”

What Hopkins has been doing during his 50-year career has shifted and evolved, sometimes in dramatic ways. But he is undoubtedly best known for those “Pointy-Pine Treed Islands,” vibrant watercolors and oils depicting aerial views of Penobscot Bay, its waters eddied, its skies cerulean, its islands studded with lively green triangles. The paintings have helped make him one of Maine’s most successful working artists. They’re what you’ll find on the covers of the two monographs devoted to his work, and should you enter his name into a Google Image Search, they are the results that will saturate your monitor in green and blue.

The sky was gray-ish the day I stepped off the ferry to meet Hopkins on North Haven, in October 2020. He’d been home from the west four months, and a couple of weeks prior, he’d had surgery to fix a rotator cuff injured in a spill on a Washington trail. His right arm in a sling, we elbow-bumped with our lefts, then he led me across Hopkins Wharf to show me around the former W.S. Hopkins General Store, once owned by his great-granddad. Today, the building comprises an art gallery and a gift shop, both run by Hopkins’s brother David and his brother’s partner, David Wilson, who’s also an artist.

Hopkins is spry and gregarious, with a bohemian streak. I’d not been with him a half hour before our discussion turned to matters spiritual. We were touring the upstairs floor of the gift shop, an island institution that his mother ran for more than 60 years. Hopkins gestured into a room and said it was where his family had laid out his younger brother’s body after he drowned, in 1961, at age five. Hopkins, at the time, was 10. “Today, we don’t like to see death,” he told me. “We try to sanitize it, but not back then.”

Stephen drowned off the dock outside while each parent thought he was with the other. “The church ladies,” Hopkins said, “they told me, ‘Oh, he’s gone up into the sky. His spirit’s gone, and his body is just a shell.” Those comments seeded a fascination with both the sky and shells that has persisted for 60 years.

Left: the upstairs studio in Hopkins’s North Haven cottage. Right: Hopkins’s larger, waterfront studio, full of bright works in progress. “His work is full of joy and light and color — and, in a way, that’s what sets him apart,” says author and critic Carl Little. “The art world likes edgy, sometimes darker work, and I think there’s a bit of a prejudice against Maine landscape painters, with some exceptions, like Lois Dodd and Yvonne Jacquette. Hopkins deserves to be in their company.”

In another room, Hopkins picked up an old figurine from a shelf. It was a foot tall and made from bleached-white lobster shells — a claw for its head and mouth, a tail for its stomach, lichen for hair. He made batches of them as a teenager and sold them to tourists (Down East even wrote about his venture in 1968: pdf link). “I didn’t know much about art,” he said. “I just liked making stuff, you know? Working with wood and paints, all that stuff.”

En route to his house, Hopkins talked me through his checkered formal arts education, which included stints at Gorham State Teachers College (now part of the University of Southern Maine), Deer Isle’s Haystack Mountain School of Crafts (where he was a night watchman), Vermont’s Marlboro College, and what is now the Montserrat College of Art, outside Boston. At Haystack, he watched a visiting artist blowing glass and was captivated by the dance-like process and otherworldly material. After matriculating into Rhode Island School of Design as a sculpture student, in 1973, he transferred into the school’s nascent glass program.

Hopkins at Pilchuck in 1986 with sculptor Italo Scanga (left) and glass artist Dale Chihuly (center). “When he enrolled as a student at RISD and joined my other students in the hotshop,” Chihuly recalls today, “he charmed us all with his enthusiasm for exploring and manipulating molten glass, and I knew his background as an islander would contribute to a unique perspective.” 

There, he launched his career’s first chapter, as an up-and-coming experimental glass artist. He studied at RISD under Dale Chihuly, today a renowned name in blown glass, with installations around the world. In 1974, Hopkins spent the summer at Chihuly’s back-to-the-land-y arts colony, Pilchuck Glass School, on a farm north of Seattle, where he fell even deeper in love with the craft (and with the West — he would return to Pilchuck as a visiting artist and instructor in the decades to come). After graduating RISD, he went all in on glass and quickly built a reputation. He made intricate, luminescent shells that were a hit with collectors and shown in big-deal galleries in Boston and New York. He mounted a mobile furnace on a trailer and performed glassblowing to music at festivals and events. He made abstract pieces he called “pyros,” arcing ribbons of molten glass onto sheets of particle board, searing in ghostly-looking swoops and lines, then painting around them.

Soon, we pulled up to Hopkins’s home, an unostentatious clapboard-and-shingle cottage on what had been a family plot, more or less at the center of North Haven. Hopkins moved back in 1981 — “for the summer,” he says, and then never left. His father had died of throat cancer two years before, but his mother was there, and of course he knew everyone on the island, even after a decade away. North Haven’s year-round population, then as now, was around 400. It more than doubled when summer residents arrived, and because many of those have historically been artists and scholars and bluebloods, the island never felt provincial to Hopkins. Anyway, his hopes were to spend part of each year out west. “I just didn’t want to be stuck in a friggin’ glass shop in a damn city, which is where most of them are,” he said. “And growing up right here, with the beach at high and low tide, all these dynamic forces, the sun in the morning and afternoon, the clouds, the seasons — all of that was very close to me.”

Hopkins walked me inside and introduced me to his girlfriend, Sharyn Pohlman, who lives in Rockport but came out to the island to have lunch with us. He gave me a quick tour of his upstairs studio, a white-walled room with three skylights and one window for natural light (Hopkins can’t work without it); a drafting table with a monitor in front of it, for viewing reference photos; and a controlled confusion of brushes, paint tubes, palettes, and mixing trays. Along the walls were document shelves and cabinets, filled with dated sketches and studies and with watercolors in various stages of damp. “I paint until they’re wet, stack them up to dry, then move onto something else and circle back later to add details,” Hopkins said. “It ain’t exactly Henry Ford, but it works.”

Center: Hopkins’s 1981 piece “The Earth is Blue!” Cried Yuri Gagarin is one of his early pyros, made with molten glass.

Back downstairs, he showed me a desk piled up with file folders, each one thick with loose-leaf paper. He’s been keeping journals for almost 50 years, since he was the night watchman at Haystack, and says he has thousands of folders and legal pads filled with his writings. He grabbed a folder off the desk. “These are some of the downloads I get,” he said. “Words of wisdom from my wise ones — my brother, Evan, my old man.” It’s a little like the I Ching, he said, or tarot — messages from his “board of directors.” He told me about hearing from Theodore Roosevelt recently; sometimes, he said, he gets a download from Buckminster Fuller, a former mentor who summered on an island nearby. Hopkins said he’s working on assembling them into a book.

We loaded some lobsters, a pot, and a propane cooker into Hopkins’s truck and drove to the edge of his property, on the water, where he has a small writing cabin and a larger studio in a gray-shingled outbuilding with a woodstove. As Hopkins boiled the lobsters and Pohlman set a table (plywood on sawhorses), I looked around at the works on the walls and easels, most of them Hopkins’s signature blue-and-green aerials.

When he moved back to the island in the early ’80s, Hopkins was still doing pyros, but he didn’t want to build a full-on glass shop. So he did some lobstering and focused on his painting, and in 1983, still fixated on the sky, he took his first flying lesson — something his father had done years before. “Seeing the Earth from the sky, from a plane — the boats in the water, the islands — it was just my life, my world, and I was fascinated by it,” Hopkins told me. “As soon as I started taking flying lessons, that clicked, and I went from molten-glass abstractions into pointy-tree–covered islands.”

Hopkins has been deep in his second chapter ever since. Critics in Maine and elsewhere praised the new aerials. Collectors, museums, and corporate clients came knocking. The State Department placed several of them in embassies around the world. And the media has long eaten up Hopkins’s approachability — he’s surely one of Maine’s most profiled and documentaried contemporary artists whose last name isn’t Wyeth.

Left: Hopkins opened his new gallery on Rockland’s Main Street last year, where he displays some early works (top) and stores some very early works (bottom). Right: One of Hopkins’s wood pieces in progress, a medium that allows him to further play with notions of “plasticity and space.”

Hopkins, for his part, is both humbled and reflective about the response to his work. “I’m totally typecast as the Maine pointy-piney-island guy,” he said, smiling, as we cracked into our lobsters. At shows, he told me, he has watched visitors walk right by his pyros, his glass work, his paintings and sculptures of fish and shells, making a beeline for his aerials. “That is the iconic Hopkins vision,” he shrugged. “That’s just the way it is.”

The response is understandable: Hopkins’s aerials have a magic to them. The swirl of his oceans and the repetition of his trees can be mesmerizing, the illusions of depth and curvature disorienting. And there’s a kinetic joy to his gracefully sweeping lines of shore and sky. “His knowledge of line is that of a calligrapher,” says writer and critic Carl Little, whose 2011 book Eric Hopkins: Above and Beyond deftly unpacks the artist’s history, practice, and appeal. “When I think of Eric’s art ancestors, he reminds me the most of John Marin. Both have enormous discipline — I wrote in the book that Eric had the discipline of a calligrapher and the confidence of an action painter like Jackson Pollock.”

What Hopkins loves most, he told me, is experimenting with “plasticity and space,” bringing contours and cambers out of a flat, white plane. “For me, it’s all that conceptual stuff,” he said. “For some people, when they look at some of these islands, it’s just a souvenir of Maine.”

With the last ferry beckoning, we agreed not to talk about Hopkins’s future until our next visit, but he couldn’t resist sitting me down in front of a sketchbook full of his “American dreams,” studies he’s made from recent years of traveling. He’d be painting them now if not for the shoulder, he said. We flipped through the pages: Washington’s North Cascades, Montana’s Paradise Valley, the Grand Canyon, Aroostook County — not a sketch in the bunch of Penobscot Bay islands.

“Purple mountain majesties,” Hopkins said quietly. “Amber waves of grain.”

In the months that followed, Hopkins and I sat down for two more interviews and carried on sporadically by phone, email, and text. He is delightful to talk to but hard to interview, on account of his mind seems to collapse past and present into a single moment: Hopkins’s brother drowned 60 years ago, yes, but also that occurrence is an inextricable part of his right now. And so he often answers questions with what seem like discursive detours. When I visited him last February, in a workspace he keeps on the Rockland waterfront, I asked if he could recap his transition from glass to painting. Eventually, he said more about the impact of those flying lessons, but not before discussing an early-20th-century Egyptologist who lived on North Haven and helped find King Tut’s tomb, his childhood exposure to Rockland sculptor Louise Nevelson, and his adolescent fascination with the space program. All of these contributed to his awareness of the possible, and so all were, in a sense, with him on that first flight over Penobscot Bay, one big conceptual jumble of a copilot.

“He will just go off on a riff and take you to a place where you weren’t expecting to go,” says Little, who interviewed Hopkins extensively for his book. “He’s like that — a man of tangents, just incredibly engaging.”

But even when our conversations drifted to, say, the westerns he binged while laid up from surgery or our mutual fondness for the Grateful Dead, they often circled around to relevance. Once, over text, we namechecked some of our favorite Bob Dylan songs (his: “New Morning” and “Spirit on the Water”; mine: “Desolation Row” and “Bob Dylan’s 115th Dream”). Then, Hopkins turned reflective. “One thing I like about Dylan is the way he constantly reinvents himself,” he wrote. “No moss under that rolling stone. I could take a lesson from him.”

The last time we got together was in October, at Hopkins’s new gallery on Rockland’s Main Street. Inside, he’d set up a kind of retrospective, incorporating work from every phase of his life, from a fish he’d painted as a five-year-old to several blown-glass shells from the ’70s to a series of recent watercolors of bowls and other vessels filled with sea and sky. There wasn’t a piney island to be seen.

We spent much of the visit talking about Hopkins’s “downloads,” the quasi–spirit writing he incorporates into his journaling, his conversations with the “wise ones.” I wanted to understand: Were these dreams? Metaphorical exercises? Or did he suppose he was really communicating with the dead?

Left and center: Hopkins’s writing cabin overlooks North Haven’s Southern Harbor. It’s where he journals in the morning and writes out his occasional “downloads.” “I think in a way,” Little says, “this sense of being in contact with the dead keeps him going.” Right: Outside Hopkins’s waterfront studio.

“It’s a nebulous thing,” he said. “I have these dialogues, conversations with a cast of characters. Some are sort of dreamlike. . . . The import of them could be a dream, or it could be a download, or it could be a spirit. To me, it doesn’t matter — it’s just information.”

His first download came to him two months after Evan died, in 2013. He was addressing his son in his journal, telling him about the book he hoped to write someday and how he would like to dedicate it to him. Then, suddenly, his son’s voice was there on the page. “Yeah, dad, right — dead-icate it to me?” his pen wrote. “I’m not dead, I’m right here with you!” Hopkins kept writing, and the rest of the message was full of advice and encouragement. Write the book, Evan said. Write many books. Go to Whidbey Island and make your art. Don’t waste time. Know that you were a good dad.

Then, suddenly, Stephen was there on the page too, then Hopkins’s dad, then Chief Seattle, the 19th-century Salish leader — none of them dead, only transformed. “We’re here for you,” they said. “Keep doing what you’re doing.”

These days, Hopkins told me, his board members tell him that it’s time for chapter three. They’ve urged him to work on the projects he’s most excited about. A few years ago, he started making relief paintings on wood — pointy-piney islands in three dimensions, the geometry of the cuts calculated to allow more play with notions of plasticity and space. Hopkins loves doing them and wants to take them large-scale, and his wise ones are encouraging him to go all in with a sawmill. He wants to pick up with a series of blown-glass globes he started making in Seattle 15 years ago. And although he says that his third chapter will be set in Maine, he’s excited to keep traveling and to paint his accumulated sketches from the road. Hopkins’s American dream isn’t dead, only transformed.

He’s also looking forward to the premiere, hopefully this winter, of Eric Hopkins: Atmospheres, a documentary years in the making, by Maine filmmaker Dale Schierholt and supported by the Center for Maine Contemporary Art. He told me a little about the film as he walked me around his gallery, showing off some older pieces, occasionally interrupting himself with a story. Then, at the back of the room, we came to one of his new wood reliefs, its raised islands hovering like phantoms above a blue plane. Hopkins looked at it and paused. “You know, historically, a lot of artists have done their best work in chapter three,” he said. “And my guys, they’re encouraging me. ‘It’s chapter three, and you’ve got stuff to do!’”