Arts in Maine

Architecture was no calling for a woman in the 1940s, but Mildred Johnson was determined. She earned a degree in architecture in Oregon, then worked in San Francisco and New York City before settling near Boston to raise her daughter.

artsAs a young mother, her creative muse took her in new directions. She began painting, watercolors mostly, and also explored ceramics and weaving.

Decades later, in 2004, she and her husband moved to Maine, not far from their daughter. Johnson, then 79, was nowhere near silencing the muse that followed her here. She found studio space in Brunswick where she happily creates sculpture using found objects, an art form she has pursued off and on for 40 years but now does exclusively.

“Moving to Maine was the best decision we ever made —the Brunswick area in particular,” says Johnson, now 86, who lives with her husband in Topsham. “I’ve never been able to put my finger on it, but there is something special about Maine. I have this feeling that I’m finally home. There are so many opportunities for artists, and a lot of support.”

Maine and Portland, its largest city, have received many “best of” designations and tourists come from all over to find out what the fuss is about. Artists arrive, too, but they don’t have to be told that Maine is special. They feel it in their bones and it spills out into the many art forms they pursue. As they settle in to work amid Maine’s beauty, they know that the state’s artistic tradition is almost as old as Maine itself — but even Winslow Homer and Andrew Wyeth were “from away”.

At the same time, cities and towns are promoting creative ventures as important parts of who and what they are. These ventures have given the public, especially retirees, an unparalleled opportunity to explore the arts. In all, 16 Maine communities now have regular art walks and 17 Senior Colleges often have courses in art. Museums and galleries add to the mix, some presenting world-class exhibits, such as the Bowdoin College Museum of Art’s recent Edward Hopper’s Maine.

A case in point: The arts have given life to downtown Bangor. The University of Maine Museum of Art moved from Orono nine years ago and, with 3,700 original works of art, it has taken on a new role as a regional fine arts center. This year the Downtown Bangor Arts Collaborative received official status as a nonprofit cultural organization which allows the city to pursue its “creative economy”.

Older artists have been buoyed by an art-friendly milieu in Maine and have found their places in it. “A half-dozen of my artists are in their 80s,” says June Fitzpatrick, who has two galleries in Portland. “They’re serious artists with national reputations.” Fitzpatrick, who is 73, adds, “There are a lot of seniors who take up art. Art opens up an entirely new vista to people who haven’t done it before. It’s another way of looking at things.”

Bev Bley was 60 when she landed in Maine from Virginia. When her daughter, a fine arts major at a Texas college, failed to produce the painting of Maine birch trees that her mother had requested, Bley decided to do it herself. It was no simple matter. She had to learn how to paint; she took classes in Italy, France and Ireland as well as in the U.S.

Eight years ago, Bley and her husband bought a summer house in Eastport, where the sun first shines in the U.S. It’s teeming with artists.

“We chose Eastport because of a cousin who discovered it, bought a home and raved about its beauty and wonderful people,” Bley says. “We visited the city, fell in love with it, and bought a small house with a view of the water and the Canadian islands. The sun rising in the morning is breathtaking, the lush warmth of color coating everything!”

“I do believe I am in paradise when there,” Bley adds. “The inspiration for painting is incredible, even on foggy days.”

Bley didn’t expect to exhibit her paintings: she wanted them to reflect her appreciation of nature and people. But she has had many shows, and was among the Maine and Canadian artists who opened their studios in this year’s “Two Countries, One Bay” studio tour ( “The light is fabulous in Maine,” Bley says. “The 45th parallel makes quite a warm and different light. The only light I have experienced like it is in France.”

Charles DuBack, 85, could hardly be called a “new” artist. His Maine connections go back to the 1950s, when he and two New York City friends, Bernard “Blackie”Langlais and Alex Katz, attended the Skowhegan School of Painting and Sculpture together. They bought houses in mid-coast Maine and settled in as permanent summer residents. Other New York artists followed.

“We came up here because it was cheap, and we could afford places,” DuBack says. “It was nice to get away from the city and live among nature while still enjoying the company of friends.” “We used to visit each other on weekends.” The three also signed up with a Wiscasset gallery.

All three did well in their individual arts. Langlais, a Maine native who died in 1977, created wood sculptures. Katz, known for his pop paintings, still lives in Lincolnville. DuBack is known for his exploration of nature, and his work continues to receive attention. Fitzpatrick exhibited DuBack’s work last year, as did the Portland Museum of Art.

The museum described him this way: “A devoted modernist inspired by the earlier paintings of Picasso and Matisse, DuBack was equally involved in the emerging color-field and Pop-Art movements of the day. It was these early works that first brought him critical acclaim in New York. His later watercolors translate his early love of color into a patchwork of bright brushwork that verges on abstraction. With a minimum of bravura brush strokes, DuBack can deftly describe a fir tree, sun glinting on the water, or the rising and the setting of the sun.”

DuBack and his wife settled in Tenants Harbor permanently in the early ’90s, and nature still has a claim on him. He paints daily. He hasn’t been back to New York City for more than a decade and sees no reason to go. “I’m happy right here,” he says. “It’s like a wonderland here.”

Johnson is following in the footsteps of Louise Nevelson, an internationally known artist who grew up in Rockland and created her first “found-art” sculptures using wood scraps from her father’s lumberyard.

"When you put together things that other people have thrown out, you're really bringing them to life—a spiritual life that surpasses the life for which they were originally created," Nevelson once said.

“I honestly can’t remember a time when I wasn’t making art,” Johnson says. “As a kid I used to find scraps of wood and other junk and make my own toys, so my interest in building has been with me for a long time! I guess I’ve never really grown up—I’m still playing with found materials—and I still feel the excitement of discovery that I remember as a child.”

DuBack says “a child-like awe” is essential to his work as a painter as well. “Enlightenment,” he once said, “takes place when one lets his innocence emerge and sees nature and life with a child-like awe and respect.”

And when the workday ends, Maine gives artists room to play in the same atmosphere that inspires their creativity. Bley says, “I paint, play tennis, hike, kayak and play golf, and with each activity I physically and emotionally enjoy the surroundings.” 



Donna Halvorsen, who lives in South Portland, has been a reporter for more than 30 years in Maine, Minnesota and New York. She covered courts for the Portland Press Herald in the 1980s and retired in 2007 from the Minneapolis Star Tribune, where she spent 17 years covering legal and consumer issues, health care and the Minnesota Legislature.