ART matters 4: How a Reporter Turns Into an Artist

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One of the amazing things about Deer Isle is that 60 or 70 people show up once a month in winter to hear three artists talk about their work.  It’s remarkable because Deer Isle’s population is smaller than small, according to the government.  A couple thousand people live here, maybe, in the winter. Also, for four years, we haven’t run out of artists.

Hub White puts the discussions together at the Deer Isle Artists Association, and his wife Pat and Cindy Bourque-Simonds make cakes that can only be described as astounding. The artists yammer on for a while, then the audience asks questions, then everyone has cake and coffee and mingles.  It’s called ART matters.  (Hub likes to brand it with the typeface.)

In April, I got to get up and speak with Katy Helman and Carole Ann Fer for the ART matters 4 Altered Surfaces discussion. Katy also paints, and Carole Ann makes pots.

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Sink or Swim by Katy Helman.
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Plaid Porcelain dish by Carole Ann Fer.

ART matters

So what do I say, me, a self-proclaimed artist, to a group that includes some heavily credentialed artists? They’ve gotten art degrees, taught art in colleges, studied and worked at Haystack Mountain School of Crafts.

I decided my ART matters talk should describe how my training as a reporter influenced the way I do art.

And I used as an example my recent painting, Mail Boat.

Reporters’ minds are like radar, always searching the environment for a story. Always observing the familiar for some new spin, some new twist, that will suggest a story.

And reporters are always looking for story elements as well. Ledes, nut grafs, kickers, money quotes. One day when I was working for AP in Washington I sat through a Senate Commerce Committee hearing. Sen. Trent Lott got excited about something and said, “We’ve got to make it look like we care.” I thought, “There’s my money quote.” The editor took it out of the story.

So when I took the mail boat to Monhegan last year, I noticed the amazing morning sunlight. “There must be a painting here,” I thought, much the same way I thought that Commerce Committee hearing offered a story.

I took a whole bunch of photos, the way I’d take a whole bunch of notes in my reporter’s notebook.

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I didn’t realize I had a painting until well after I’d returned home and looked through the dozens of photos I’d taken.

So I decided on this guy:

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Putting It All Together

I brought Mail Boat and a few other paintings to ART matters, and I described the painting’s elements the way a reporter would describe a story.

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Mail Boat 

I view the lede as the sunlight on the crewman’s face. The lobster boat serves as the nut graf, or the paragraph that puts everything in context. And the reflection on the door works as a kicker — a tidbit that keeps the reader going.

Every news story should have a human element, but I don’t think I have to point out where it is in Mail Boat.

So…ART matters turned out to be great fun. Katy and Carole Ann gave terrific presentations, we all got our egos stroked with kind words from the audience and the cake exceeded all expectations.

That’s my story and I’m sticking to it.

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Incite Art, Create Community

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A bumper sticker that says “Incite Art, Create Community” decorates quite a few cars here on Deer Isle (along with “Fish Forever”). Opera House Arts (aka the Opera House) has been selling it for about 20 years, and I experienced its full meaning just the other day.

Incite Art, Create Community

It all started last summer, when my friend Katy Allgeyer decided to incite art, create community by staging an exhibit at her Art By Katy gallery for me and another Leslie married to a Dan, Leslie Anderson. I didn’t know Leslie well, but got to know her during our show, which Katy called Leslie Squared. (You can see my paintings here.)

Then one day in the fall Leslie asked me if I’d like to go painting with her. Of course I did.

So on a gorgeous day in late September we climbed Kezar Mountain in Little Deer Isle and looked down at a smattering of islands. The children’s book author, Robert McCloskey, lived on the island that looked like a pie with a slice cut out – Scott Island.

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That’s Scott Island in the background, Leslie Anderson holding her painting.

I’d actually interviewed McCloskey, sort of, when I was an Associated Press reporter in Boston. Some kid from Boston College had stolen one of the bronze Make Way for Ducklings ducks in the Public Garden. When they found it – in the BC library, I think – I called up McCloskey and asked him what he thought of the theft. “No!” he said. Then he hung up on me. I didn’t blame him one little bit.

Up on Kezar Mountain I painted Scott Island on an Arches watercolor block, which has a flap that protects the paper. Then I took it home, left it on the block and forgot about it.

Scott Island. Watercolor, 10″ by 14.”

Sea Times

Six months later, the Opera House presented Sea Times – local actors portraying Deer Isle old-timers who’d been interviewed by middle school students in the 1980s. They told 20 stories of winter on Deer Isle in the olden days. One reenactor portrayed Robert McCloskey, who talked about the first and only time he spent the winter on Scott Island with his wife and infant daughter.

“Sea Times” intermission at the Opera House. Note that red sweatshirt says, “Incite Art, Create Community” on the back.

The next day I was looking for something in my messy studio and came across the painting of Scott Island. So I posted it on my Facebook page and wrote, “Funny thing…” and told the story.

Then a friend who lives on Deer Isle wanted to know if the painting was for sale. Of course it was. She had gotten to know Robert McCloskey’s daughter Jane and grown fond of her, liked the painting and wanted to buy it.

So hours later Dan and I dropped “Scott Island” off at her home. We had a nice chat about our community and then left with good feeling all round.

By the way, I later painted Leslie painting on top of Kezar Mountain.

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Kezar Mountain, oil on canvas, 8″ by 10.”

That’s how it happens. Incite art, create community.

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Island Life, Island Light

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Island Life, Island Light is the way I’m characterizing my latest six paintings. You can see them for a while at the Blue Hill Congregational Church, where the Blue Hill Concert Association graciously invited me to be the featured artist for early March. On Sunday, the Calidore String Quartet was scheduled to perform, and I couldn’t wait to hear them.

One can get a little starved for classical music on Deer Isle. (But just a little.)

Island Life, Island Light

I’ve been used to making small watercolor paintings, so these are big for me: Wood panels, two feet by three feet. I bought them on sale last fall. I hadn’t decided what to do with them. Then Ron Stegall called me one day and asked if I’d be a featured artist for one of the chamber music concerts. Duh. Of course I said yes.

So I chose the March 10 concert, which gave me a few months to (a) find a studio (b) order plenty of oil paint and (c) decide what to paint. I knew I wanted to go beyond pretty landscapes, but I wasn’t sure how.

Then I remembered what Jules Maidoff once said to me in Florence, where I was painting portraits in a studio with the Art Students League. My roommate knew Jules’ daughter, and we visited them at his home. “Why paint in a studio?” Jules said. “You’re in Florence, so paint Florence.”

I’m in Deer Isle, I thought, so paint Deer Isle. It’s not quite like any other place in the world. Not by a long shot.

But actually, one of my paintings, Mail Boat, is about Monhegan Island, not Deer Isle. In the fall I’d taken a trip to Monhegan with my husband Dan and my parents. We took the first mail boat, which left very early in the morning. The light was spectacular. Liquid and golden. Almost unearthly.

So as I stared at my blank panels, I kept thinking about the light on that mail boat. Hence painting No. 1.

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In Mail Boat, I try to capture early morning island light

Two and Three

Then I looked for other subjects, different kinds of island light. Every day on the way to the post office I walk past the green house with the pier, the shed and the lobster traps. On a gloomy January day when I felt blue I noticed how a sliver of light through the clouds gave a glow to the front of the house. Painting No. 2, Gray Day.

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Gray Day, another kind of island light.

Just past that house is the Fish Pier, where fishermen unload their lobsters and scallops. Refrigerated trucks then haul the seafood off the island. I’ve always wanted to do a nightscape, and the Fish Pier from my studio window has a lot of exciting imagery at night. So I had three ideas. I decided they were coherent enough as “Island Light, Island Life.”

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It’s very dark on the island at night, except when there’s a full moon and down at the Fish Pier/

Glazes

I wanted rich color, but I didn’t want to do wet-into-wet painting, which reminds me of frosting a cake, something I’m not good at. I remembered I’d written a story for the New England Historical Society about Maxfield Parrish’s glazing technique. So I researched glazing, and I bought a bunch of galkyd paints and solvents and mediums to go with. Then I put on my work clothes and spent a couple of cold winter months painting all day.

I started with underpaintings, or grisailles, either of acrylic or galkyds. I chose grays for some, umber for others and cadmium red for the most muted paintings.

One evening I walked past the old sardine factory and saw it glow in the late island light. Painting No. 4. The old factory is used for parking now, as the sardines are gone and the sardine factories mostly moved to the Far East. There are people on Deer Isle who’d like those jobs back. I think of this painting as Ruin Porn.

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Island light at the end of the day transforms the old sardine factory.

Island Life

I also had a bunch of photos in my cell phone of LDI Lobster, the lobster shack at the end of the bridge. They have, without doubt, the best lobster rolls I’ve ever tasted. I love the look of lobster shacks, how they evoke the glories of a sunny summer day. I’m sure no one has committed suicide while waiting for a lobster roll to come up. Painting No. 5.

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Best lobster rolls ever.

I wrestled with what to do for painting No. 6. One day in the summer I had gone to East Point for a book club meeting. It was hard not to notice the gorgeous views (I think that’s Cadillac Mountain in the background). So I returned the next day and hung out on the bait dock for an hour or so. I took a lot of pictures of the charming ruffian in the painting. We talked about the Wyeths and about cool stuff around the bait dock – the fish bones, the hidden salt marsh at low tide, the driftwood.

His image kept haunting me. I was struck by the almost magical light and the contrast between the tender way he held the fish bones and the offputting message tattooed on his fingers: FUCK OFF!

So I took elements from all the different photos and voila! Painting No. 6.  I thought about painting in his tattos, but then I decided I preferred a G rating. Maybe I’m just a coward.

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The amazing island light down at the Bait Dock. It does something to reds, so I had to include the bait shovel.

Anyhoo, that’s the story of my latest six paintings. I hope you like them!

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Working in the Winter Studio Toward a March Deadline

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During the dead of winter in Downeast Maine I feel a bit like the farmers who plant their crops and repair their tools. It’s time to stay indoors, order supplies and paint my butt off.

I’m fortunate to have a winter studio above the Island Agency on Stonington’s Main Street (thank you, Morgan!).  With a southern exposure the light is great for eight or so hours, and the window overlooks Fish Pier. So there’s always something going on as the fishermen jet off in their skiffs or bring in loads of lobsters. Even when I’m not looking out the window, I’m soothed by the glug-glug-glug of marine engines.

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The view from the window of my winter studio. Always something doing.

Winter Studio Work

I’m lucky to have an early deadline to work toward this year. The Blue Hill Concert Association asked me to be their feature artist for their March 10 concert. Of course I said yes. It’s a world-class chamber music concert at the Blue Hill Congregational Church, and I’m excited to be part of it. I especially like the pressed tin walls and ceilings that I’ll hang my art against.

I’ve wanted to paint bigger, so I ordered six 2′ by 3′ wooden panels. Then I struggled with what to paint. My friend Katy Allgeyer challenged me by asking, “What do you want to do? Just paint pretty pictures?” And I did want to move on from picturesque landscapes.

I decided to paint scenes of island life, emphasizing island light. Just by happenstance I gave them all two-word names: Mail Boat. Gray Day. Bait Dock. Fish Pier. Lobster Shack. Sardine Factory. 

After thinking about how I’d paint them, I decided the best way to capture island light is to paint in layers. I’ve always admired the paintings of Maxfield Parrish, and I thought his technique of glazing would work in replicating the intensity of island colors — when the sun’s out, that is. Glazing would  also create rich, warm grays, which is what we get here when the sun isn’t out.

I start off with a grisaille, a monochrome underpainting.

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Detail from a grisaille

Right now I have four grisailles finished, with two more to go. And on days when the wind blows and the snow falls, I comfort myself by thinking it will almost be spring when I complete all six paintings.

 

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Holiday Pop-Up Market at DIAA

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Some brand-new cards along with old favorites of mine are on sale for a one-day only pop-up market at the  Deer Isle Artists Association from 10 am to 5 pm on Saturday, December 1 at the DIAA Gallery.

I’ve been wanting to paint a snow scene of Stonington for a long time, so this fall I buckled down and painted this watercolor of the town from the harbor.

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Stonington Winter, watercolor

I made cards of the painting, which are on sale at the pop-up market.

Cindy Bourque-Simonds, DIAA’s most tireless board member, runs the pop-up market by herself. “This is a different kind of a show for us, because many of our artists are trying something new and pricing them as affordable gifts,” she said for the official press release.

New Oil Paintings

For me, something new is an oil painting of the kayak launch at the Wooden Boat School in Brooklin, Maine.

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Wooden Boat, oil on canvas

That, too, is on sale at the pop-up market, along with a small oil painting of my friend Leslie Anderson. We painted together last fall on the top of Kezar Mountain in Little Deer Isle.  As you can see I painted it loosely, which was quite fun.

Next on my agenda: I have some big — for me at least — wooden panels. They’re two feet by three feet, and I plan to finish them over the winter.

 

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Essence of Island Life, the Last DIAA Show for 2018

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Part of the essence of island life, at least in Maine, is that summer comes to a screeching halt. All of a sudden the take-out shacks close, the summer homes close up and lobster gear (including fishing boats) start to fill the yards.

On Sept. 25, the Deer Isle Artists Association opened the final show of the season, “Essence of Island Life.” I don’t always pay as much attention as I should to the  DIAA exhibit themes, but this time I did.

Essence of Island Life

I submitted three oil paintings and three watercolors, and all arguably depict the essence of island life. Two small oils feature Eggemoggin Reach, which separates Deer Isle from what William Butler Yeats once called ‘the old bitter continent.’

And then the biggest oil painting I’ve ever done: Naskeag Point. OK, Naskeag Point is a peninsula in Brooklin, Maine, which isn’t exactly an island. But I think the trees, the islands, the water and the clouds do give a fair representation of the essence of island life.

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Naskeag Point, oil on canvas

My watercolor Powder Island shows a familiar scene in Stonington Harbor. Fishing boats and dories pass it all day long on the way to and from Fish Pier.  The quarries on Crotch Island used to store powder on that middle island for blasting rock. The island quarries are a whole ‘nother story that can wait.

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Powder Island, watercolor

The vantage point for Powder Island is from Inn on the Harbor. Dan and I stayed there while deciding exactly which coastal town in Maine we should move to. The inn helped us make up our mind.

One of the inn’s new owners, Dana Durst, was walking on a sandbar in Smalls Cove late one afternoon in July. Smalls Cove faces west and gets tremendous sunsets, but I almost prefer the quality of the pre-sunset light. I really like this painting, and I kind of hope no one buys it. Which usually means someone will.

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Smalls Cove, watercolor

So if you’re in Deer Isle, stop by and see The Essence of Island Life: An exhibit of baskets, painting, photography, pottery and weaving.The reception with artists (which, sadly, I will miss) is on Sunday, Sept. 30, from 3-5 pm at the DIAA gallery in Deer Isle.

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Oscar and I Hold a Closing Opening Party

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Our Closing Opening started with the salmon. My sister Christen, who lives in the Pacific Northwest, sent Dan and me a honking big smoked salmon for Christmas. We didn’t think we could eat it all before it went bad.

So one day Oscar Turner and I were toiling away at the Deer Isle Artists Association gallery when Hub White stopped by. We joked about how many artists have drawn or painted the Church of the Morning After. We should have an exhibit here and invite the musicians to play at the reception, we joked.

Hell, Oscar and I should have our own closing opening on our last day, we said. We could serve that salmon.

So Oscar and I asked Cindy Bourque-Simonds if we could have a party. We promised up and down to clean the gallery and to get it ready for the ART matters 2 session the next day. Cindy said yes. She’d even bring brownies.

On our last day as artists in residence, Oscar and I cleaned after I finished my painting of Mom and the champion yellow birch. We left our paintings up on the wall.

Most if not all the work Oscar and I finished by our closing opening.

We took some of our stuff home and packed some of it away in the closet. So sad to end our artist-in-residency.

Still, there’d be a party.

We had sent out invitations.

We counted plastic glasses, napkins, paper plates and plastic cutlery hidden away in the DIAA cupboard. Oscar and Diana brought tablecloths, flowers, wine and more hors d’oeuvres.

Dan made little lobster pizzas (we’re hoping to introduce them in grocery stores this summer). I made salmon hors d’oeuvres. Lots of them.

In the end Oscar and I were grateful and happy so many people came out on such a wintry night. Though sometimes I think Deer Isle year-rounders in winter will go anywhere that’s warm, light and contains another mammal or two.

You can go to a party on Deer Isle and not one person will ask you where you work — unlike, say, Washington, D.C. Of course everyone already knows what everyone else does here. Don’t have an affair unless you want everyone to know about it.

Our guests included artists– Buzz Masters, Sarah Doremus, Peter Beerits; Rebecca Daugherty, Deborah Lothrop (aka Blossom’s mom), Maureen Farr, Judy Rader, Katy Helman and Cindy Bourque-Simonds – as well as a surveyor, three innkeepers, a jam-maker, a physiologist, teachers, a salesman, a Maine guide and novelist.

Spoonmaker Bob Gillmor came all the way from Blue Hill. Leave it to Bob to tell us about Gallery Punch. It’s a concoction of vodka, whiskey, champagne and something else designed to get art patrons drunk so they’ll buy expensive paintings.

No Gallery Punch. Just wine, beer, seafood and chocolate.

We weren’t selling our paintings, but perhaps we would have if we’d known about Gallery Punch.

Diane Horton took our photo. With a real camera, too.

Oscar had a blast. “What a great night,” he said.

Plus the salmon was all eaten.

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Painting the Champion Yellow Birch

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I began painting the champion yellow birch on my second-to-last day as artist-at work in the Deer Isle Artists Association gallery in January.

The Champion Yellow Birch

I had vowed to do a painting in oil in the DIAA gallery because I can’t do it at home, at least in the winter. The fumes concentrate in our gas dryer and our gas stove, making our clothes and food stink — something to which Dan strongly objects. Imagine that.

I brought some canvases, paint, oil brushes, miscellaneous solvents and an easel to the gallery in early january. For three weeks they taunted me. Finally on Day 22 I took the plunge.

I had an image in mind. In the fall of 2016 I took my mom, visiting from Cape Cod, to the Yellow Birch Farm on the Reach Road in Deer Isle. It’s an amazing place, owned by Missy Greene and Eric Ziner. It has goats, vegetables, Missy’s amazing ceramics and Eric’s wonderful metal sculptures.  I met Missy at the Stonington Farmers Market, where she kindly offered to sell our frozen clam chowder pies from their farmstand.

But I digress. Mom and I ran into Eric at the farm, and he told us how to find the champion birch tree in the woods. It’s actually a former champion; Eric said they delisted it because people were taking too many pieces from it.  So we found the tree in all its autumn glory. I took a few photos of Mom admiring the champion yellow birch and tucked them into my subconscious.

When I got out my oil paints, I knew I wanted to attack it with bold outlines of black paint. That approach worked with a painting I did in Florence a few years ago.

Florentine Trapeze Artist

Anatomically she’s a little off, but I like it anyway.

Oil is a very different medium than watercolor. It seems to take a lot more time to finish an oil painting (and definitely more time to clean the brushes), but less time to master the medium.

I’m not sure if I want to leave The Champion Yellow Birch the way it is, or work on it some more this summer when I can paint outside. Stay tuned.

 

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