The Universal Notebook: Farewell, Tom Crotty

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When it comes to art, I learned a lot of what little I know from Thomas Crotty.

Tom was a painter and the owner of Frost Gully Gallery, Maine’s oldest contemporary art gallery. He helped create the audience and market for contemporary art in Maine. He died last week at the age of 80.

In the late 1960s and early 1970s, Crotty pretty much was the Portland art scene. Frost Gully Gallery began in Freeport in 1966, moved to Portland in 1973, first on Exchange Street, then Forest Avenue, and finally Congress Street, before returning to Freeport in 2001.

In the 1970s, just out of college, I would visit Frost Gully frequently to sit talking with Tom in his art-packed gallery and cluttered office. There I became familiar with the work of painters such as Stephen Etnier, DeWitt Hardy, John Heliker, Dahlov Ipcar, William Kienbusch, John Laurent and Laurence Sisson and, of course, Crotty.

Tom was a realist and very much an old-school traditionalist. He quit Massachusetts College of Art because the school focused too much on abstract art and not enough on technique. He was a superb craftsman who valued craft not only in art, but in automobiles, boats and everything else.

With connections to galleries in New York and Florida, Tom brought the work of some of the best artists working in Maine, whether year-round or seasonal, to Portland. In 1976, he helped organize the landmark “Expressions from Maine 1976” traveling exhibition that took the works of 41 Maine artists to audiences in California, Minnesota, Kentucky, Georgia and Florida.

As the contemporary art scene he helped start flourished in the 1980s, Tom stayed loyal to his artists and to well-made paintings, even as the art world became less interested in craft and more interested in concepts and process. In 2000, Tom left Portland in a huff, complaining that his gallery was being ignored.

Crotty was a maverick. His conservative political views often put him at odds with the generally more progressive views of most people in the creative community. He and I butted heads over art and then over politics. Tom felt I knew nothing about either and I felt he had a limited view of both.

But when the Portland Museum of Art mounted the 2003 retrospective, “Thomas Crotty: A Solitude of Space,” our personal and political differences did not keep me from appreciating his talent and his place in the history of Maine art.

“Conservative in their rigorous insistence on atmosphere and appearance as the proper subjects of painting and old fashioned in their use of skillful technique and illusionistic effect as methods for communicating those subjects,” I wrote, “Tom Crotty’s Maine landscapes nonetheless belong in the luminous canon of Maine art along with those of Frederic Church, Fitz Hugh Lane, Rockwell Kent, Andrew Wyeth and Stephen Etnier.”

I was pleased that Tom put that quote on the Frost Gully Gallery website, minus the qualifying clause, but preserving the “nonetheless.”

I last saw Tom in June at an opening at Thos. Moser in Freeport that had the look and feel of the gala openings in the 1980s, the heydays of the new Maine art scene. There were paintings by Joel Babb, Eric Hopkins, Neil Welliver and, of course, Tom Crotty. Tom and I made eye contact but did not speak. I now deeply regret that. Having heard that he was not well, I intended to stop by the Freeport gallery. I didn’t. Now it’s too late.

Bruce Brown, however, did stop by the gallery back in June to tell Tom that the exposure to fine art Tom had provided changed his life. Bruce was a teacher at Freeport High School when he caught the art bug at Frost Gully Gallery. He became not only an important collector, but also a hugely influential curator at the Center for Maine Contemporary Art.

“Tom Crotty was quite possibly the most important person in my life, for it was with his support that I bought the first significant work of art – an Etnier painting – when his gallery was on upper Exchange Street,” Brown wrote. “I do believe that moment changed the direction of my life as no other moment has.”

The fact that I sometimes disagreed with Tom artistically and almost always disagreed with him politically does not, in the end, keep me from appreciating Crotty’s important contribution to the Maine art community. He provided a whole generation with a priceless introduction to contemporary art in Maine.

And in an art world that values the unique over the multiple, Tom Crotty was truly one of a kind. I just wish I had told him so while he was still with us.

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