Maine is a magnet for artists, with some content to revel in her summers’ blue-green extravagance. Others relocate for good to seize the brilliance of all four seasons — the white light off ice, the gold haze of October.
And some, like Kevin Shea, live their lives elsewhere, always looking for chances to carry a canvas to the Maine landscape.
“I love to paint city scenes, and as different as the coast is, I feel connected to that,” he said at home in Newburyport, Mass. “But my favorite thing is painting in the North Woods. I swim and hike and camp there, and part of what I like about painting there is being immersed in the whole experience.”
“Favorite” thing is a fairly high honor from an artist who headed to Italy with a duffel bag at age 20 to live on a hill overlooking Florence, who has since studied the light of Nepal and Norway, Ireland and India, Israel, Egypt, Greece and Germany.
In Maine, “the river I paint is the one I swim in,” Shea said. “The path is the one I walk on. The mountain is one I climb, and I know what the other side looks like, even if I can’t see it.”
Shea proves his devotion to the state in the winter, when he strikes out in prevailing conditions for a few days of ice fishing, painting and Maine woods immersion.
Severe cold can thicken his oil pigments or freeze his watercolors into crystalline patterns on the paper, but he keeps working away in boots, parka and gloves bound with tape to minimize their interference with the motion of his hands.
“There are very few artists who you can get to go out painting when it’s below zero,” said Shea’s friend Ron Parlin, a native Maine painter who lives near Farmington. “Kevin you can drag through 3 feet of snow and he’s perfectly happy to set up there.”
A third-generation artist, Shea, 40, spent childhood summers in Boothbay Harbor at the cottage his grandfather built as a home base for summer painting. He made his first foray into the North Woods 10 years ago, and has since crisscrossed Baxter State Park, retraced the steps of Thoreau and sought out scenes first captured by frontier artists 100 years ago.
He achieved another foothold in the state in 1997, signing on to sell his work at Maine’s Massachusetts House Galleries in Lincolnville. The small and large landscapes, often with vivid, super-real color and thick Impressionistic texture, have been moving quickly, reported gallery owner Ernie Schoeck.
Shea is a tall, wiry man who looks as Irish as his name, with vivid blue eyes and a laugh that comes up slowly and grows. His century-old house sits close to its neighbors in the old port town north of Boston, with his paintings of Florence hanging against the fine, old wood in the dining room.
A stuffed cow in the living room and a playpen in the kitchen belong to his daughter, Olivia, a cheerful, blue-eyed toddler. Pictures show Shea and his wife, Angelic, wearing traditional costumes at their wedding, held on the spur of the moment in an old country church in Norway.
The grandson of a former art director for the Boston public school system, Shea started out at the Massachusetts College of Art as an art education major. “In high school and college, I didn’t picture myself as an artist. It was too bohemian, too free, too risky,” he recalled. “I thought I would be an art teacher and paint on the side.”
Many aspiring artists start out as dreamers and are forced to become more practical. Shea took the opposite course.
During a spell practice-teaching in Florence, the young man dared to wonder if a driven, hard-working painter might just make a living.
“I had been working on a farm, from 7 in the morning until 6 at night,” he said. “I simply took that ethic and applied it to painting. It wasn’t like a hobby — it had to become an avocation.”
From the start, he has gone about art as if it were sales or manufacturing, with long days, little time off, and constant efforts to build a base of customers. “This is the hardest work I’ve ever done,” he said. “Being in front of a canvas can be draining.”
Shea’s work is closer in spirit to 19th century luminist landscapes than paintings by most artists in his own age group. He speaks easily of time-honored techniques like glazing, scumbling and “sight-sizing,” a system for transferring subjects to the canvas in proper proportion.
He says representational, naturalist painting is a calling for him, and tells a story about a day in Florence when esteemed Boston painter Charles Cecil turned up outside the gate at the villa where Shea was staying.
Cecil asked to see the young man’s paintings, and Shea showed him a mix of abstract works and natural landscapes.
“He asked me what was truest to my heart, and I said the Cubist style. But he knew it wasn’t,” Shea said. “He knew that if I did representational works over time, the transcendence in nature would work its way into the paintings.”
That it has, in works like “Fishing in the North Woods,” knit together by a gray-pink sky and shadowy trees, or “Twilight Cast,” where moving water is caught in the fleeting light of dusk. Like many of Shea’s best works, the painting was mapped out quickly as dark fell, giving it a gripping, of-the-moment quality.
“There’s an immediacy to the unrefined brushwork,” the artist said. “That’s twilight, and it’s all going to go.”
Some of Shea’s city paintings have the same satisfying sense of total engagement, like his small study of a crane in the winter light of Boston. At the Lincolnville gallery, the artist’s smallest paintings are some of his best, their postage-stamp views tiny windows into an English garden or nighttime city harbor.
In spite of his romance with nature, its wildness and vastness, Shea is both solitary artist and social animal. He says he has always gone out of his way to talk to people encountered in his travels, asking questions and collecting data to give his work greater substance.
In Millinocket, for instance, he worked with the local historical society to research where 19th century artist Frederic Church would have canoed, camped and painted. At the Abol Bridge Campground south of Baxter State Park, Thoreau’s former stomping grounds, he befriended camp operators Art and Linda Belmont. He is grateful to Baxter rangers for guiding him to trails Church would have followed on his quest for magnificent vistas.
“Church would do these wall-size paintings that hung in galleries in New York, and people would pay 10 cents to see them,” Shea said. “It was comparable to going to the movies today. His paintings inspired the whole population to go back to nature.”
As a painter, Church “knew the language of nature,” Shea said. His own expeditions have been a way of “building vocabulary,” moving toward the same kind of fluency, where the depiction of light in an open field transmits a wordless emotional resonance.
“Light and atmosphere, I think, are the universal language in painting and art,” he said. “There’s a motion to the light, and as the sun passes, the shadows change. People are more connected to that than they might realize on the surface.”