Column: Art Safari by Kevin Murphy
Somewhere north of L.L. Bean there is an imaginary line that designates the start of Downeast Maine. Known chiefly for sailing, lobsters, and unspoiled landscapes, the area nonetheless offers outposts—roughly between Belfast and Bar Harbor—where visitors can see art that goes well beyond the clichés of tourist imagery.The curatorial and critical sensibilities of a handful of museum people and gallery-owners have put on view art in the best Maine tradition, inspired by the landscape that has drawn visitors downeast for more than a century. Although Maine’s coastline, mountains, and lakes have cropped up in endless stacks of tourist paintings, they have also catalyzed modernist art-making by the likes of John Marin, Marsden Hartley, and their followers.
Many of these arts institutions, in addition to presenting work that stands out from much of the rest of what’s on view in Maine, also help to preserve their local communities. The major tourist towns have thrived through economic booms and busts, but some of the most important nineteenth-century communities that find themselves off the well-worn tourist tracks, have fallen on hard times. These places have impressive brick and granite commercial blocks surviving from their heydays, but they lack beaches and other amenities that attract summer visitors. Rockland was such a place before the expansion of the Farnsworth Art Museum and the establishment of its Wyeth Center, which brought restaurants, shops, and New York hipsters to buy the lattés.
From Belfast, the coastal route winds its way over the newly-constructed Penobscot Narrows Bridge to the mill town of Bucksport. Its riverfront has been revitalized with a new park, and anchoring its cultural attractions is Northeast Historic Films, which shows vintage movies. From Bucksport, Routes 1 and 3 stretch northeast to Bar Harbor and Acadia National Park, but a detour onto the Blue Hill Peninsula takes the traveler to the village of Blue Hill. The historic shipbuilding village boasts a number of art galleries that reflect the long-time arts community in the area. Blue Hill may not have the kinds of old factories that make for great lofts and galleries in other New England cities, but it has its share of farmsteads with barns whose soaring spaces are just the thing for displaying art. Such is the case with the Leighton Gallery, which shows the work of Judith Leighton and a selection of other artists from the region, and mounts a number of group shows over the course of the summer season. Another farmhouse venue is the Turtle Gallery on nearby Deer Isle, established almost thirty years ago in Deer Isle village. The artists represented there include a number of local and regional newcomers, but also some established painters, printmakers, and sculptors such as George Bayliss, whose paintings are on view from August 23 to October 17. Bayliss, who has exhibited nationally, depicts many familiar local subjects—such as sailboats and coastline—but he abstracts these motifs into distinctive angular geometric forms.
Back on the beaten path to Bar Harbor, the city of Ellsworth straddles the Union River to the northeast, and is chiefly know to travelers for the perpetual tie-up on its main street, which funnels Route 1 traffic northeast to Mount Desert Island. Approaching Ellsworth from the south, drivers cannot miss the Courthouse Gallery. The gallery opened in the summer of 2006 and since that time has shown the work of both living and deceased artists from the area, including Robert Shetterly, whose drawings of Deer Isle and other Downeast locales has been featured this summer. The large, open spaces of the former courthouse lend themselves beautifully to gallery space, and on the upper level the gabled walls clad in old beadboard are punctuated with windows offering views of Ellsworth below. Another recent addition to Ellsworth’s downtown is the SevenArts Gallery on Main Street. One of the founders, silversmith Dede Schmitt, touts Ellsworth’s galleries as an antidote to the big-box stores that have sprung up outside of town: “There’s all kind of good evidence that the arts can and do revitalize whole cities and towns—artists move in on the first wave, for the cheap rents and infrastructure, and they are followed by the cultural followers in the second wave.” Among the artists and craftspeople represented is Marko Schmitt, a nearly self-taught painter whose views of the Penobscot Bay islands and other local motifs are raw and painterly.
Amid the ice cream-cone sellers and souvenir stands in Bar Harbor are a number of art galleries but perhaps the most significant arts venue in town is the Abbe Museum, which has grown from its trailside venue in Acadia National Park into the former YMCA building downtown. Its glistening galleries display both traditional and contemporary Native American arts in appealing installations. A travelling exhibition,North by Northeast, presents the “work and images of contemporary Haudenosaunee and Wabanaki artists” including basketry, beadwork, and other traditional forms. Among the Haudenosaunee nations are the Tuscaroras, whose reservation is at Niagara Falls. Their beadwork is compared by the exhibition’s curators to Victorian examples made for the market. Other works in the show demonstrate more contemporary interpretations of traditional media.
Complementing the Abbe’s historic building is The Circle of the Four Directions, a new conical-shaped structure. Constructed of wood and soaring to glass opening, the space symbolizes the engagement of Native Americans with the natural world. It is the appropriate culmination of a trip downeast, where there is so much art on view that documents the inspiration that Maine’s landscape continues to provide for ambitious artists.
Kevin Murphy is professor of art history and executive officer of the Ph.D. program in art history at the CUNY Graduate Center.