- by Carol Standish
The Art of Maine in Winter (Down East Books, 96pp, $35) is another in the handsome series put together by art commentator, Carl Little and picture editor, Arnold Skolnick. Other titles by this team include Paintings of Maine, Paintings of New England and Edward Hopper’s New England. Clearly, the two are familiar with the territory.
This volume is a departure from the norm, however, in the exclusivity of its subject: the generally considered, least popular of northern seasons, winter. The 93 works by 75 American artists is accompanied by writings about Maine winters from several generations of authors. And, instead of being another survey of pretty pictures, the book turns out to be a polemic, albeit a gentle one.
Unless you’re deeply into winter sports, the splendors and virtues of a Maine winter may elude you. But consider that most, if not all, the artists and writers represented in this book chose to live through at least one. Some confess to preferring the “off” season. Their responses vary with their experiences, their talent and their times but all are compelling.
An 1898 oil by Dolly Smith depicts a skating scene in a serene, yet utterly frozen landscape. Her style is reminiscent of Currier and Ives. A 1999 interpretation of the same activity by Jill Hoy is hot in spite of the blue ice. Skaters are aggressive and muscular. They cast sinewy purple shadows. This is not a Sunday afternoon social. This is lycra-encased exercise for the never still. The painting’s strong appeal comes from the weaving of body shapes with their shadows on the ice and the strong colors of a moonlit night and firelight. A 1999 woodcut by Siri Beckman also depicts skaters in yet a third interpretive style, stark and eerily empty in spite of the human activity.
Human enterprise is more often subject matter than one would expect in these paintings of winter. Early works by George Hallowell (1914), Eastman Johnson (1868) and Carl Sprinchorn (1946) depict logging and woodlot scenes. Ice cutting caught the attention of Marsden Hartley (1908) and Dahlov Ipcar (1938). Commercial winter fishing is the subject of oil paintings by Andrew Winter (1936) and Don Stone (2001). Ice fishing inspires Lois Dodd (1983) and Jay DeMartine (2002).
Other contemporary painters are drawn to village and city scenes. David Campbell’s Parking Garage at Portland Harbor (2001) depicts a thoroughly shut down, monochromatic city, two figures walking down the middle of a deserted street, a hint of sun subtlely brightening the surface of the harbor. For all its hard industrial shapes, the city’s quiet has a strong and haunting appeal. Linden Frederick (1999), Ann Lofquist (2001) and Maurice “Jake” Day (1950s) paint villages and towns sometimes benignly softened, sometimes buried in snow. A personal favorite is a selection of interiors which uniformly depict the brilliance of the winter sun as it enlivens and warms the rooms which shelter us.
The balance of the book contains myriad interpretations of the winter landscape and speaks directly to the variety of individual response. None of us experiences a moment, let alone a season, in the same way but we are all grateful when one shares his/her response to beauty, especially when it might otherwise have gone unnoticed.
Little’s accompanying essays are strongest when they provide background or quotes from the artists. Descriptive passages tend to pale in the presence of the actual painting. His choice of quotations on the subject of winter (from authors like E. B. White, Henry Beston, Elizabeth Coatsworth, Robert Kimber to name a few) is often compelling. Painter, Chris Osgood of Linconlville states the attraction simply, “the same infectious spirit and clarity of perception that rooted my heart here as a youngster, keep me enthralled with this stubborn landscape…”
We highly recommend this handsome, crisply produced book for holiday giving to the Maine lovers, art lovers and winter curmudgeons (or enthusiasts) on your list.