The Universal Notebook: The long goodbye of Dean Velentgas

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Between 1987 and 1992, Dean Velentgas operated an art gallery on the first floor of an apartment building on Hampshire Street in Portland. The Dean Velentgas Gallery provided a home for some of the best contemporary art in Maine during what may have been the high-water mark of the Portland art scene.

Dean died on March 30 at the age of 79, but it almost seems as though he had been gone for a decade or more. After he retired in 1992, he moved to New York City, where he loved the cultural life. But he had to return to his native Maine when he developed Alzheimer’s disease.

Like his fellow art lover Bruce Brown, who became a noted curator and collector following a career as a high school teacher, Dean fell in love with art looking at paintings and prints at galleries in Portland, including Frost Gully and Barridoff. I remember the infectious enthusiasm with which Bruce and Dean embraced art because I had a similar experience.

The magic of art is that while art objects may play in the marketplace, they work on the soul. At its best, art remind us what it means to be human and, further, that life is an ineffable mystery and a miracle. It connects us to a universe beyond the everyday reality. I believe that’s why Bruce and Dean became so passionate about collecting it and I know that’s why I began writing about it. Art makes life more meaningful.

I tend to regard 1987 as the high-water mark for art in Maine because the economic collapse the following year took a toll on local galleries. That was also the year that Van Gogh’s Irises, the most beautiful and important work of art in the state, was sold at auction and left Maine. Dean’s gallery weathered the downturn because it was a pure labor of love.

Dean was an executive at UNUM, so his day job financed his art collecting and helped underwrite his gallery. When he discovered art, his daughter Susan says, Dean “discovered his tribe.”

Dean’s tribe were not painters of pretty pictures of Maine, but serious artists who dive deep beneath the surface of appearances. He didn’t show art he thought would sell, he showed art he thought people needed to see, the art he loved, much of it abstract.

Dean Velentgas Gallery exhibited artists including Dozier Bell, Katherine Bradford, Mary Hart, Larry Hayden, Charlie Hewitt, Alison Hildreth, Jeff Kellar, Frederick Lynch, Marjorie Moore, Duane Paluska, Greg Parker, Celeste Roberge, Alice Steinhardt and Katarina Weslien. Art galleries have come and gone since, and there are a few very fine ones today, but, as someone who has looked at art in Maine for close to 50 years, I do not believe it has been possible to regularly see so much good art in Portland since the 1990s.

Dean was a very private person, soft-spoken and modest, yet confidant and determined. His love of art and its visual exploration of the human experience enabled him to create a new identity for himself, an identity as a patron and participant that was swept away by Alzheimer’s.

It is impossible to know what those afflicted with dementia know once they no longer recognize themselves or others, or what they see once they begin staring off into space. Are they locked in their minds or simply freed from the prison of the present moment that holds the rest of us? I would like to believe the latter and that death set Dean’s spirit free.

“When the artist is alive in any person, whatever his kind of work may be,” painter Robert Henri wrote in “The Art Spirit,” “he becomes an inventive, searching, daring, self-expressive creature. He becomes interesting to other people. He disturbs, upsets, enlightens, and opens ways for better understanding. Where those who are not artists are trying to close the book, he opens it and shows there are still more pages possible.”

Dean Velentgas had the art spirit. There will be celebration of that spirit on Saturday, April 30, at 11 a.m. at First Parish Church on Congress St. in Portland.

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