They started as six, but it turned out seven was the lucky number for a group of professional artists who have been meeting for several years on Deer Isle. They have no official name, but the seven women — Patricia Wheeler, Robin Martin, Buzz Masters, Anne-Claude Cotty, Siri Beckman, Mary Howe and Susan Webster — have a very official status with each other.
“Our purpose is to critique,” said Webster, a printmaker. “We’ve said over and over again that we share a wonderful opportunity.”
The women gathered recently at Bangor’s Clark House Gallery for the opening of “Deer Isle: Seven Artists,” a group exhibition of their work. They sat on the floor among paintings, jewelry and sculpture, and talked about their experience of getting to know each other through art.
“A word we often use among ourselves is privilege,” said Cotty, also a printmaker. “Following our colleagues over a period of time so that we’re almost engaged in the process is a privilege.”
Every second week from autumn until spring, the artists gather in one another’s Deer Isle studios for two-hour discussions. The meetings, which do not include food or outsiders, begin with the presentation of one artist’s work and a period of silent observation. Then each artist gives a timed five-minute critique, and finally the presenting artist has the chance to respond, explain and ask more questions.
“It’s serious dialogue rather than a support group,” said Wheeler, who does ceramic sculpture and printmaking. “We’re very honest about our own perception of the work put in front of us. There’s no one here who can’t take that type of criticism. We all want to grow.”
“I don’t think of it as negative to hear what’s not working well with your piece,” said Masters, whose mixed media collages are in the show. “Self-criticism is very difficult. You do it day in and day out and go as far as you can. But you get to a point where you can’t go any further. This group has helped me go a little further. And I feel like my pieces are really finished now.”
Formed in 1996, the group began to take shape after Webster and Beckman had been to a yearly gathering of artists at the home of the late Karl Shrag.
“Susan and I were commenting on the fact that they were mostly men,” said Beckman, a wood engraver. “I said, `You know, there really should be a group of women.”‘
Just as Beckman and Webster were thinking those thoughts, Wheeler was coming up with a few of her own. So the women got together and talked about who would be in the group and what the goals would be. They studied other groups of similar size, and also drew from their art school careers. They did not want to reconstruct the tense evaluation styles some of them had experienced in school, but they wanted honest, direct, useful descriptions of the successes and failures of their works.
Eventually, the women agreed on a set of rules. The sessions would be confidential. Sometimes they would focus on a pre-established theme rather than actual works. Attendance was a must.
The rules were drafted and passed around among six artists. Then the group began digging in to the tricky work of peer criticism. The first group show took place a year later at the Maine Coast Artists Gallery in Rockport.
Some time after that, the group nearly broke up. These days, none of the women wants much to discuss the strained period, but it’s a reasonable guess that dynamics among creative people might, at times, get murky. Feelings can get hurt. Egos can get bruised. Defensiveness can find a place. Differences loom as something other than celebratory.
“It’s very important to feel safe,” said Martin, a jeweler and, at 37, the youngest member of the group. (The oldest is 57.) “One of the most important rules to learn was to not say, `I like.’ It’s so easy for those words to fall out of one’s mouth. And we all really want to be more critical than that.”
Instead of disbanding, however, the women rallied and took a hopeful step: They invited Howe to come on board.
“When you are an artist, you’re lonely in a sense,” said Howe, a bookmaker. “You’re working by yourself and you have no feedback. Maybe your husband says, `That’s wonderful.”‘
Here, the other six women jokingly joined in a choral response: “If you’re lucky!”
Then Howe smiled and continued: “I was feeling very isolated working alone. I am a great admirer of the work of everyone here. So I knew I would appreciate their input.”
The group immediately got back on track and has been thriving ever since.
In an impromptu critique of Webster’s work, Martin was the first to say, “I can go” — the words that so often open the regular sessions. She looked on the wall where Webster’s prints of Pillsbury Dough Boy-like figures, and compared them to an earlier series of prints. She called them “wilder” and “less exacting.” She said they were “in motion.”
“We know each other so well,” said Wheeler. “We know when our lives are changing. We know Susan’s life is changing and it makes sense that her art reflects that change.”
Then Beckman could “go.” She pointed up to the Dough Boys.
“They are all flying in the moonlight over the landscape of the spatula,” she said. “What’s there left to say?”
The Clark House Gallery will present “Deer Isle: Seven Artists, 11 a.m.-5 p.m. Wednesday-Saturday, and Monday and Tuesday by appointment, through Nov. 27, at 128 Hammond St. For information, call 942-9162.