The Universal Notebook: Art in my life

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For the most part, my life in art has remained pretty much out of these columns, except perhaps when I was inveighing against our benighted governor a few years ago for his political attack on the Maine Labor History Mural for being too pro-labor. But art has been a big part of my personal and professional life for more than 40 years.

I woke up this morning looking at a trio of small paintings that hang one above another beside our bed. From top to bottom there is a simple seascape with rowboat by Thomas Connolly, a dark abstract water view by Lisa Whelan, and a man sitting on a bench in a tropical park by Stephen Etnier.

I confess that days go by when some of the art in our house fails to register with me at all, but then the sheer visual weight of a painting, print or photograph will cause me to re-experience my original attraction to art, a seductive, almost magnetic appeal to the spirit through the senses.

The paintings that first drew me in this way were landscapes and beach scenes by Alfred “Chip” Chadbourn, an artist who brought French influences to bear on the Maine landscape tradition. Above my desk as I write are one of Chip’s signature Stonington streetscapes and a coastal landscape, badly scuffed and flaking, that Mary Chadbourn found in Chip’s studio after he died in 1998 and gave to me along with one of his brushes as a memento.

As it happens, I am currently at work on an essay for a Chadbourn retrospective this summer at the Ogunquit Museum of American Art. It was my initial attraction to Chip’s art that prompted me to begin writing about art for the Portland Independent in 1978. I became the art critic for Maine Times in 1981, in 1990 a collection of my writings was published as “Maine Art Now,” and there is a new book on art in Maine since 1990 that has been in labor for several years now. It is the work of myself and a dozen other writers, and it may finally see the light of print later this year.

Our home is filled with art, most of it by artist friends, among them Chadbourn, Dozier Bell, Kathy Bradford, Howard Clifford, Matt Donahue, Charlie Hewitt, Eric Hopkins, Fred Lynch, Bill Manning, Mathew Pierce O’Donnell, Todd Webb and Mark Wethli. There are also floral watercolors by my mother, wooden vessels by daughter Hannah, ceramic bowls by daughter Nora, and drawings by daughter Tess.

I do not think of the art we own as a collection. I have no interest whatsoever in connoisseurship, art as investment or art as decoration. Art is more than decor; it provides images and objects that are the context for living.

I tend to view all art – from the most humble child’s drawing to the most ambitious contemporary installation – as a philosophical undertaking, an attempt to make sense of the world through creative exploration. Since the first humans recorded their presence and their observations on the walls of caves, art making has been a search for meaning in a mysterious universe: What is life all about? What gives meaning to existence? How can one human being communicate his/her experience to another down the ages of time?

Often the art itself becomes the embodied meaning, but the best art succeeds in edifying one’s senses and raising one’s consciousness. The subversive message is that there is more to life than getting ahead and paying the bills. We inhabit a miracle. We create our own realities. We are all in this together.

I became invested in art some 40 years ago after paying $300, then a small fortune for a librarian who wanted to be a writer, for a Chadbourn oil. I then wanted to know what made it worth $300. Was it a good painting? Was he a good painter? How did his work relate to that of his contemporaries, to art history? But very quickly this crass line of inquiry led to a more profound and sublime examination of the role art plays in a human life.

Given one life to live, why do some people choose to spend it molding lumps of clay, carving chunks of wood, fusing bits of metal, or smearing colored mud on woven fabric to no practical end? I have concluded that it is probably for the same reason someone might choose to spend a life tapping out little black letters on the white planes of blank paper and glowing monitors.

We want to make sense of our lives while we live them.

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Freelance journalist Edgar Allen Beem lives in Brunswick. The Universal Notebook is his personal, weekly look at the world around him.

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