April 09, 2020

Anthology champions Maine art Once again, Carl Little finds ‘the real Maine’

Not a year has passed since Carl Little’s art book “Paintings of Maine” came out that I haven’t given it as a gift of some sort – house warming, wedding, holiday, graduation. So I was caught short earlier this year when a clerk at a local store told me the 1991 book is no longer in print. Alas, would I have to resort to giving blueberry jam?

Turns out, the answer is no. Last month in an airport gift shop, I discovered a newly released and updated version of “Paintings of Maine.” I bought it. No problem getting through security with a book. (Not so with the jam.) And the hostess that night was very appreciative for this Little slice of Maine beauty.

Go ahead and laud the lighthouses, lobsters and pine trees that are so much a part of the state’s identity. But nothing has been more elucidating of the state’s beauty than its visual art. Maine has a long, respected history of attracting artists who imaginatively depict what they see here. Little, an art writer and critic, has been a major champion of their work.

His new selection of Maine art images testifies to the vibrancy of the artists who have worked here in the 19th, 20th and 21st century.

It’s that 21st century group that may be the most provocative of all. In addition to classic painters of Maine – Henri, Hartley, Bellows, Church – the book features many contemporary artists who are residents and visitors alike. Little has been influenced by his own tastes and, increasingly, by his travels with his day job as director of communications and marketing at the Maine Community Foundation in Ellsworth. The images in the book come from more than 100 painters who span north to south, or, as Little puts it in his introduction, from the “scruffy to the sublime.” The painters represent the more traditional topics of landscapes and seascapes, but also industrial and urban scenes. Little includes a brief note about each one.

“From the beginning, I had a sense of place – to use that clich?,” said Little. “But it really was what informed my decisions about the book. I wanted a broader scan of the state. The real Maine is in this book. The real Maine is in the paintings – the back of a trailer in Monroe by John Moore, the lighthouse on Monhegan by Michael Torlen. I think the real Maine is a variety of places: small town, city, Mount Katahdin.”

Not to mention: stones, apples, scows, paper mills, a trucker, boat yards, a canning plant, snowmobilers, ice fishing, Blue Hill, Mount Kineo, Mount David, the Brunswick-Topsham Bridge, the Customs House in Portland, the Bangor Civic Center, and the original State House in Augusta with cows grazing on the lawn.

But that doesn’t mean there aren’t omissions. With an artist roster that squiggles through Maine’s more than 33,000 square miles, names are bound to end up on the editing room floor. Little said this is his first Maine book without a John Marin. And while I bow to the old guard as deeply as anyone, leaving out some of the repetitions from the last book might have made room for MaJo Keleshian, Vaino Kola, Philip Barter, John Wulp, George Daniell, Michael Lewis and Dennis Pinette.

“Oh god, don’t tell me about that,” said Little. “This is the fate of the anthologist.”

It’s also the fate of the Maine brand. Traditional images are trendy, and, like all powerful entities, they can help advance the less well-known and newcomers. In part, Little plays to that smart approach. Still, it’s tempting to wonder what he might do if marketability were less of a factor. This is not his last book, he said. Nor is it the most comprehensive. It’s not even a revised second edition of his now-classic original.

“This one is for folks who like Wyeth but also for folks looking for variety of images of the state,” said Little.

With all due respect to blueberry jam, this book has a longer shelf life.

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