Sketchbook: Jeff Woodbury at 117 and Counting… by Daniel Kany

Jeff Woodbury has a shelf in his studio stuffed tightly with 117 sketchbooks (at least, as I write this). I’ve published columns, catalogs and articles about more than 1000 Maine artists over the years, but I don’t know of another artist whose sketchbooks contain more visual ideas than Woodbury’s. His current sketchbook is always with him, and he doesn’t shelve it until every page is stuffed completely with images and ideas. No blank pages. Idea after idea. Image after image. Note after note. Nothing wasted. No leaf unturned.

For Woodbury, a sketch is “getting an idea down to physical form.” Drawing and painting have been part of his artistic practice for 45 years, but at its core, his work is launched by concepts — visual, strategic practice, hypothetical or otherwise. Phrases and notes are part of his process, but the critical kernel is visual thinking. There is a critical difference in contemporary art between “conceptualism” and “concept-driven work,” and this is apparent in every branch of Woodbury’s art.

Woodbury’s sketchbook work comprises an unwieldy blend of physically present ideas with a range of brain pings that reaches to the irrationally other-worldly. He might shift a bean pod to 2D swirl. He might note a red-headed airline attendant as a potential crisis-moment superhero. He might gush over the swollen magenta pinks of a Texas berry pressed into inky service. In a bored moment on board a work-related flight, he might transmutate a pencil into a jet engine… and let it take off on its own path.

From the surface to the deepest depths of Woodbury’s quick-sketched images, we feel the heady brew of his love for historical visual culture as it (generally) dominates and devours imagery of the past as a percolator engulfs coffee grounds. Yet just as often we see the almost meditative pulse of systems art in his sketchbooks: symmetrical drawings made with both of his hands at once, a page filled with lines pulled and limited by the space and time of the process-driven work.

Woodbury is almost bizarrely caught between his reverence for the visual art pioneers before him and the inclination towards individual creativity. He knows them. He learns their lessons. And yet his own path is fundamentally forced by his own integrity-driven inclinations to shift away from where they have trod… onto new ground which he seems to find everywhere, well-seeded and fertile. The easy-ready reading is to see Woodbury as an iconoclast. But considering his consistently productive practice, it’s clear that Woodbury is far more geared towards finding and producing visual ideas than anything else. His personal practice is often ironical and sometimes salty, but through it we see Woodbury as an artist floating up on a sea of ideas – that rare person who can continually churn concepts into robust visual reality.

Below are additional images and comments by the artist. All of the images within this article are culled from Woodbury’s sketchbooks. –Daniel Kany

“I almost always have my sketchbook with me. A friend gave me a leather cover more than 30 years ago, and it’s been with me ever since – my most cherished possession. I’ve filled more than 117 sketchbooks since then, all the same small size that fit inside the cover, which also provides pockets to hold random maps, brochures, stamps, and notes. I rarely remove pages, unless they are finished works, and when I do, I mark the removal, because that’s part of the history, too.

My mind is always churning with ideas, and I need to write them down or I’ll lose them. My sketchbooks are filled with drawings, notes, diagrams, lists, names, plans, dates, collaged pictures, kids’ drawings, and more. The first page is always for names, numbers, and important information, and the last page is reserved for testing pens. It’s been that way for years. It’s a good system for me.

I see my row of sketchbooks as my extrasomatic memory bank, and each book is part of what Zappa called his “conceptual continuity”: ideas come and go, and are not bound by time, but become part of the overall matrix, and an idea written 20 years ago might influence or become part of the current work. Sometimes I’ll look into an old sketchbook to discover a forgotten note, and that might trigger a new arm of work. Other times ideas are written down only to be fulfilled years later –  I drew the logo for “CRUD” in 1986, and it wasn’t until 2014 that circumstances came together to stamp that logo into bricks I made with local clay.

I don’t keep a journal or diary, but my sketchbooks serve as a record of my life. And that includes a record of unfinished works and unrealized ideas, and mistakes and poor choices and people lost to time and distance, and some pages are painful to see. But some pages shine with sketches or ideas that caught there first, and grew into decent works. My sketchbook is the garden where I plant those seeds.”

–Jeff Woodbury, SoPo

Sketchbook: North Yarmouth Naturalist & Painter Michael Boardman By Daniel Kany

North Yarmouth artist Michael Boardman grew up in Blue Hill. He graduated from the University of Maine at Orono with a degree in studio art in 1986. Since then, drawing and sketching have been critical to his art practice. And Boardman has only ever made his living working in the arts. Over the past decade or so, his art and naturalist inclinations have led him to lean more and more on his sketchbook practice. Currently, Boardman is working with the Maine Master Naturalist Program, a year long course that trains individuals to be able to speak and present about Maine’s flora, fauna and geological features. Boardman’s goal is to ultimately be able to lead sketching workshops to help fulfill the volunteer requirement of the class.

Snowy Owl sketches by Michael Boardman

Boardman’s art practice has long focused on landscapes and wildlife that he paints in watercolor and shows throughout the state and region. As he has matured as a painter and attended residencies dedicated to education and environmental awareness, Boardman has come to see himself not only an artist, but a naturalist. During this time, his image-making has become less about executing an appealing painting than about collecting and learning from his experiences. His sketchbooks look more and more like the notes of a biologist or botanist than a landscape painter. But this fits what always drove his interest in the natural world: Boardman’s new sketches and drawings, labeled with notes and observations, are flowing towards a mode that his painting and graphic design experience seem to have made practically inevitable.

Lichen sketches by Michael Boardman

“For me,” he explains, “it’s about telling stories. A story could be why did that spruce tree’s trunk and bark turn and twist in that bizarre and aesthetically pleasing way? Or how that glacier carved a path through the mountains and left its remains piled at the edge. Or the story could be the vernal pool behind my house and the myriad forms of life that used it during the spring – that prolific spasm of life that blooms until it dries up and everything is then dead or gone.”

Sketchbook page by Michael Boardman

Boardman’s older sketchbooks contain mostly landscape images he came upon during his hikes and travels throughout Maine. While he long worked professionally as a designer and draftsman of images of animals, his painting leaned towards the approach to plein air watercolor long championed by the masters of Maine landscape painting like Church, Homer and Sargent. Sketching and his sketchbook practice now play a much larger role in his artistic activity. Boardman’s more recent sketchbooks are loaded with images of wildlife rendered with an artist’s eye but laid out with a biologist’s precision. Using art as a way to advocate for natural science has shifted his personal connection to his work, which now exudes a sense of ethical urgency.

“Monolith” (Alaska) by Michael Boardman

“I feel a certain responsibility to advocate for the creatures that I draw,” he notes. “Over 50% of animal populations have been wiped out in the past three decades. Recently, for example, the snowy owl has been added to the IUCN red list of species of concern, and it’s a bird I often sketch in the Portland area. One of my sketches of a Portland snowy owl is with a show about urban wildlife that originated at the Rhode Island School of Design that is now traveling around the country. It’s a bird that brings a piece of the arctic to us every winter, and the arctic is already being brutally affected by climate change.”

Sketch by Michael Boardman

Boardman has filled many sketchbooks and he is attached to each of them for various reasons. Many, after all, are the travelogues of residencies that have taken him from the islands and remote corners of Maine to the glaciers of Alaska. They aren’t just compilations of images, but entire chapters of his experiences distilled in drawings and notes.

Page of Alaska sketches by Michael Boardman

Indicating a page from a sketchbook on which are three images — a foggy tree-lined shore scene, a bird in flight (a marbled murrelet) and a pair of humpback whales — Boardman recalls the trip: “This is from a residency in Glacier Bay, Alaska I did in 2015. It is a place where the glaciers melt into the bay. The fresh water in combination with the tides supports a huge array of life. It’s one of the most dramatic and exciting places within the entire national park system in terms of biodiversity.”

Vernal Pool sketches by Michael Boardman

Boardman then presents a page from one of his Maine Master Naturalist sketchbooks. The first difference is obvious: Whereas the Alaska images were simply titled with the name of the animal or place, these watercolor and pencil sketches of lichen are accompanied by copious notes and comments including measurements, identifying features and taxonomic references. “I had always thought lichen were interesting, but when I had to get down and study them closely, it was an amazing experience – lichens are these weird and intense Lilliputian worlds of three or even four symbiotic organisms.”

Lichen Sketches by Michael Boardman

“Tomorrow,” explains Boardman, “I am heading to Deering Oaks Park in Portland to field sketch a great black hawk that has been hanging out for the past few days. This non-migratory bird is native to Central and South America and has only been seen the U.S. — for the first time ever — this year in April of 2018 in Texas. This same individual bird was then sighted in Biddeford Pool in August. It disappeared for several months and then it just showed up a few days ago in Deering Oaks, where it is no doubt enjoying the abundant squirrel population. (Well, maybe a bit less abundant now.) That is definitely an animal with a story to tell.”

Michael will be exhibiting work at a group show opening in April 2019 at the Portland Public Library, ‘A Critical Balance’ on endangered species throughout the world. For more information about Michael Boardman, visit:

Dialogue: Photographer Scott Anton and art model Paula Kany by Daniel Kany

The following is a conversation between Solon-based wet-plate photographer Scott Anton and my wife, Paula Kany, who has worked with Scott for years as an art model. Paula isn’t comfortable with the term “model,” and that is probably the inspiration for this entire dialogue. She has found that for many people the word “model” implies someone who plays a passive role without artistic agency. Paula wanted me to come to her shoots with two different photographers who use the collodion process — James Wigger, a studio photographer in New York as well as Scott — so I could see what was happening for myself both in terms of the wet plate process and her “modeling.” I came to see that she was a full partner in the artistry and the ultimate content of the work. That said, I think viewers ultimately see the work differently with a shifting balance between focusing on the work of the photographer and identifying with the figures in the image. In film, most Americans identity more with the actors rather than the directors or writers; and I think this effect is echoed with photography to a certain extent. Of course, presentation matters: If you go to see a show of Joyce Tenneson’s photography, for example, it’s made clear that the photographer is the artist of note. But we aren’t always (not even usually) presented with photography as authored by an artist: In our daily lives, the main ingredient of photography is what is pictured — not who is behind the camera. This is a vast and subtle subject without a singular truth; and what we find in this dialogue is that even people who work closely together have different perspectives.

Scott Anton’s collodion wet plate image featuring Paula Kany and Gemma Hudgell.

Scott uses the photographic technique known as the wet plate collodion process that was invented in 1851 and came, by the end of the 1860s, to replace the daguerreotype as the standard photographic process until it was replaced by the silver gelatin process in the 1880s. The collodion process involves coating and sensitizing a glass or metal plate (using a soluble iodide and a solution of collodion — cellulose nitrate) and then exposing and developing the plate all within about a 15 minute period. This small window necessitates either working in the studio or creating a portable darkroom. (Scott, a farmer, will even use the front of his tractor as a portable darkroom.) And it makes it a labor intensive but dynamic and immediate process.

Scott Anton, collodion wet plate image featuring Paula Kany.

It struck me that the technical aspects of the plate preparation, exposure and developing necessarily took place in the presence of the model at the shoot. During this entire process, Paula was fully engaged with both photographers: The dialogue was continuous. This was particularly interesting to me because I play in rock bands: Dialogue is a huge part of the group creative process, but it is not possible during performance.

The following are snippets from a conversation that took place in August, 2018.

Paula: Scott and I talk about what we’re going to do before we get together, but it’s hardly set in stone. Because we work outside with natural light, we can’t always do what we’ve been planning to do. Sometimes there is a great deal of investment in the setup; and then we couldn’t do what we wanted simply because of the light.

Scott: The planning is important. Paula shows up with props and ideas; but it is the friendship that makes it so much better. I get these moods and I always have an idea of what I want to do; but every model is different and I work off the emotions of the model – their life. Models like Paula come to me because of my talent as a wet plate artist. But I like to incorporate Paula’s feelings even more than her props. That may be what she has going on that month, that week, that day or that year. Trust matters, but it has to do with being able to mix with certain people. Sometimes you don’t have a connection, and that just doesn’t work for me.

Scott Anton, collodion wet plate image featuring Paula Kany.

P: We don’t necessarily talk about content when working; we are far more likely to talk about life. I am friends with Scott and his wife Gemma. And this is one of the most important things about our working relationship. We’re not only comfortable with each other, we really enjoy being together.

S: I really like it when you shoot that first plate or two and the discussion kicks in. You get that image in the water (which is what brings out the image on the plate) and that is when the feedback comes and the dialogue starts for real. I like that. When you critique the work in real time, that is when you move forward. Some models don’t even look at the image in the fix. I can’t work with them.

P: Scott is more classic than some of the other wet plate photographers with whom I work. By “classic,” I mean that he has a narrative sense that fits older themes and art forms like painting or nineteenth century photography. I tend to like darker themes than he does. And sometimes he wants to do things for which I wouldn’t be the best model. What’s awesome, though, is that we always wind up in the same working space. I think we both adjust in different ways to what the other one has in mind.

Scott Anton, collodion wet plate image featuring Paula Kany.

S: I like the banter that goes on with the models; there is not a lot of quiet time, and that’s really important for me. There is always a lot of joking; so every moment is open for comment, so, yeah, Paula or any of my models can give input pretty naturally. I think the ideas are mostly mine, although my ideas almost never come out how I plan. But it almost always works. If it veers off on another angle, I go with it. And I think that’s the way it should be; I might want to do something but Paula is not in the mood. That would make it change direction.

P: Over time, I have gotten more and more involved. For example, I like to go into Scott’s barn and find props – I like weird things, like the bull horn cutter. I am particularly drawn to the things I don’t recognize that have wild shapes. Some of these old farm tools are scary. They’re exciting. They fascinate me and I think that comes through in the pictures.

S: I generally have an idea I want to follow. But stories need props and sometimes the story comes together when we’re talking about props and what to do with them.

P: I think that Scott approaches the content of his work through the idea of storytelling. The stories aren’t necessarily full and complete stories, but there is the sense of narrative, the idea of motivation, that something is going on. That’s important and it’s generally where we come together. Someone looking at the pictures doesn’t need to follow the story; it’s enough to know that something is going on. And I like that sense of mystery. Especially with the old format of collodion. If you sense a story, it feels like you’re getting a fragment of something lost. And I think that’s exciting. It certainly is for me.

Scott Anton, collodion wet plate image featuring Paula Kany.

S: My goal is to find where the emotional state of the model lines up with the story I am trying to tell. I want the picture to feel authentic. When the feelings are real, the picture looks real.  Being true to the emotional state of the model is probably more important to me than the story. But when I work with Paula, it is very much about the story; I really don’t think about the viewer, I want to tell that story. Sometimes that means I have a look I want but I can’t get it with collodion. So we work around it.

P: I think Scott doesn’t really want to show me as an older model. But I am okay being seen as an older woman, mother figure, or even someone who is sad or crazy. That elicits a different response than seeing a posed beautiful woman. I didn’t start modeling until I was about 45 and part of what inspired me was the idea of seeing older women as models. Scott and I are still trying to figure that out, which I think is good; it makes him step out of his comfort zone. I like to think that makes him go new places with his work.

S: Maybe. Every model I work with is different. It matters to me how I relate to each model as well as what kind of a mood they’re in. Because of that, my work is always different.

P: I have been struggling with the term “model.” What I do is part performance, part art-directing, part acting. I don’t know if there is a better word than “model,” but I think that to a lot of people it conveys something passive. And my role in the process is anything but passive. I really enjoy being involved in the process: applying the collodion, putting the plates in the bath and so on.

S: The technical part of the process is not something I do with the models in general. That’s just you, since we’ve worked together for a few years. And with you, that’s an important part of the whole process — when we develop the work and see what we get. But, yeah, once we get a couple of pictures, that’s when things really start happening.

P: Because the wet plate process takes so long — the shot itself usually takes between 8 and 15 seconds — you have to be able to hold the pose. That’s why I don’t smile; it’s really hard to hold. And because of that, you almost never see anyone smiling in wet plate pictures, so it would look out of place if I did it. We did one recently and it looked more crazy than pretty. Also, because you have to hold the poses longer, it takes more forethought than digital. You have to get the pose right before the shot. Sometimes that means I have to hold a pose for 5 or even 10 minutes or longer while we get the setting, lighting and props all settled.

S: Sometimes you don’t like what you see in the water (the plate as it develops in the bath) and I say I am going to scrape it off, but then, after some time — an hour, a day, a week — you wind up loving it. Expectations can be limiting. Sometimes it takes time to shake them off. Digital is so predictable, but there is nothing predictable about wet plate. That’s why I like it.


Chancing into Charlie: Dialogue with artist Charlie Hewitt by Daniel Kany

On a hot July morning, I stepped  into Ace Hardware in Falmouth for some silicone rubber sealant. While I was standing in line to pay, I noticed a bunch of small works by Erin McGee Ferrell. I picked one up to take a closer look. They were small, thick panels with collaged painting, heavily glazed with polyurethane. They were on sale at the checkout counter for $40 each.

Wall sculpture by Charlie Hewitt, 2018. Photo by David Wolfe.

I was impressed.

I’ve met Erin, who, some years ago, moved to Falmouth from Philadelphia. She’s a strong and highly energetic painter and I like her work. I asked the man ringing up my silicon if he knew anything about the panels and so we started chatting. I noticed a pretty big guy at the next register watching this interaction closely. He looked like a typical working stiff: white hair, dark t-shirt, glasses and some pretty serious ink on his left arm. So, I said to him: “You should get one of these. They’re good and for $40 it’s a deal.”

“Oh, I have plenty,” he said.

Sure you do, I thought, doubting. “So, are you an art person?” I queried, but more as a polite conversation starter than anything else.

Turns out, he was Charlie Hewitt. And he not only owns a bunch of museum-worthy art, but his own art lives with the giants in many of America’s leading museums.

I had known Charlie’s work from a show at the Bates College Museum of Art from about 10 years ago that featured his prints. (Bates has an extensive collection.) More recently, I had become familiar with his large installation pieces in Portland and Lewiston and the work on view at Jim Kempner Fine Art, his Chelsea gallery in NYC. I was particularly interested in meeting him since I had just heard he was slated for a solo show at ICON Contemporary in Brunswick, one of the most consistently excellent galleries in the state.

We went out for a quick coffee and the conversation immediately became fascinating: Charlie came across as allergic to bullcocky and patent commercialism. I hadn’t fully responded to his work in the past, but having connected the dots between his prints and his sculptures, I had, prior to meeting him, gotten the idea that was more my own shortcoming as a viewer than his as an artist.

Charlie Hewitt, “Caypso,” woodcut. Photo by David Wolfe.

As the art critic for the state’s newspaper of record, I write about art rather than artists. But, considering my own personal reevaluation, he had risen to the top of the list of artists I actually wanted to meet in Maine. I would like to think of this as a chance for both of us, but, in all fairness, it was I who was rewriting his script, not Charlie. It was a work day for both of us, however, and so the coffee klatch was break-time quick.

Charlie Hewitt is a Portland-based printmaker and sculptor who grew up in Lewiston. He has major public sculptures from his Urban Rattle series installed in NYC as well as Portland and Lewiston. He recently completed a major solo exhibition at ICON. (It was an excellent exhibition; I regret not having been able to fit in a review as part of my weekly newspaper art critic gig.) Hewitt is no slouch. His work is featured in the collections of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, NY; the Museum of Modern Art, NY; the Whitney Museum of American Art, NY; the New York Public Library; the Brooklyn Museum; the Library of Congress, Washington, DC; and, among other public collections, the Portland Museum of Art in Maine.

Installation view of Charlie Hewitt’s exhibition at ICON

We picked the conversation back up at Hewitt’s exhibition at ICON. We were joined by gallerist Duane Paluska.

Over coffee, Charlie and I had discussed how artworld communications had changed over the years. (Charlie looks about 60, but he’s in his early ‘70s.) With the shifting roles of galleries, social media, and the way commissions now come about — we talked about how that affects the way artists like Charlie communicate with their professional contacts. And as an artist from humble Maine roots who somehow along the way found his way to success, I asked him what was the role of dialogue in his working with gallerists, curators, art dealers, the press and the public. The short answer was that styles of communication had certainly changed but were now changing at an even faster rate what with social media and changes in both how galleries operate and how the art audience interacts with art. (And yes, that starts with the internet and goes everywhere from there.)

When Duane joined us — and Duane knows me well as an art critic who regularly reviews his exhibitions — we primarily talked about Charlie’s art in the show. Ironically enough (or not?), Duane had set up “conversations” between the works in Charlie’s show, alternating prints, paintings and small sculptures so that they visually interacted and echoed each other. And to be clear, Duane is one of the most demanding and exacting exhibition installers in the state; he is one of Maine’s leading sculptors and he’s been running his gallery for well over 30 years. While this idea of “conversations” between the different media (prints, sculpture, paintings) shouldn’t surprise the reader, I have known Duane for a long time and it was the first time I recall hearing him discuss an installation in these terms.

Duane Paluska and Charlie Hewitt at ICON Contemporary in Brunswick.

In other words, we found ourselves dialoguing about the dialogue among Charlie’s works in a conversation curated by Duane. The shapes, forms and approaches certainly enriched each other; and, yes, I was impressed. For example, Duane’s wall on which he starts his numerical numbering system for labels (no wall labels, just number pins and a printed sheet) is tilted, and the piece on that wall is a wall sculpture with somewhat tilted planes, including neon forms. Here, again, the conversation pivoted and Charlie explained how he worked with several different “neon artists” to create the elements he asked of them. (Charlie gives such folks full credit and I admire him for that; particularly because you can imagine he treats them with complete respect as artists in their own right rather than as his “fabricators.”) These new neon pieces indeed complete the conversation among the work: The sculptural forms of metal, after all, match the physical forms of the wood and metal supports that Charlie has long used as a master printer.

Duane and Charlie discussing Charlie’s exhibition at ICON Contemporary

Charlie’s prints reveal a fundamental quality of prints that are made with broad forms in 4, 5, 6, or 7 or so plates: They build up on each other, layer placed upon layer. For even the average viewer, this step-by-step reveals the linear logic we typically associate with narrative. Moreover, the way these tactics are revealed to the viewer echo dialogue: This form falls on top of that form, it came after; it is a response to the prior plate. In fact, this is a quality of painting that reveals the visual intelligence of the painter. But with painting, it is far harder to unpack. Yet we can often sense the stroke or the the form or the gesture that punctuated the thing, delivering it to its final sense of completion.

Not surprisingly, Charlie’s paintings go deep with this logic. The forms surge out over each other subtly, but we can feel that printmaker’s sense of gesture: in the sense that gestures comprise entire layers of the image. (Photoshop is based on this layer logic.) In the combined strength of his painted forms and his proclivity for a narrative sense, however, we can directly sense the lessons of his teacher and mentor, Phillip Guston.

While Charlie generally spoke about his art in terms of hard work and formal terms readily apparent to the viewer, I was caught off guard (I have to admit, I was “rattled” — and, yes, I think the irony is Charlie’s rather than mine… but back to that in a minute) when he told me about his longstanding fascination with the implements of the torture of Jesus on his brutal trek to Calvary. In art (and Christianity), we know these from the 14 Stations of the Cross.

Charlie grew up in Lewiston, a leading center of Maine’s Catholic communities. In his 2006 essay about Charlie, then-Bates Museum of Art director (now the director of the Portland Museum of Art), Mark Bessire wrote about Charlie’s commitment in his iconography to church, family and work.

Where I had seen swizzlesticks in Charlie’s tall rattle works in Portland, Lewiston and NYC, I suddenly saw brutal tools and crucified forms… cruciforms, if you will. Charlie never stated this directly to me, but suddenly the idea of these shapes being cut out (and then made 3D, attached, etc) with flaming torches… well, even if that wasn’t Charlie’s direct intent, the effect of his saying it was something I couldn’t shake, and it was surprisingly dark and moving.

Charlie Hewitt’s “Neon Cloud,” 2018. Photo by David Wolfe

For a diver, going deeper means holding your breath. Getting the best kernels of dialogue often means that as well: hold your breath… and listen. If hadn’t spoken up to that anonymous guy I later found out to be Charlie Hewitt, well, I might certainly be still in the dark. Moreover, I love art as much as I do in part because I let the artist’s work speak to me. Sure, I write about the work; I break the silence with my written language. But I always listen first. I even try not to read the marketing materials before I get my own take on what the work says on its own. The way of a professional art critic, in other words, is not the right way: It’s A way. I get reminded of that often. And I was particularly glad in the case of chancing into Charlie Hewitt.


Studio Practice — Tom Flanagan 2018

The only thing I really understand about my process as an artist is that everything comes from my drawing practice. There’s something essential about drawing. It connects me to the world and to my sensibilities.

Lately I’ve been drawing directly onto the canvas using a colored pencil that can be erased with a wet rag to make adjustments. Sometimes this takes hours and sometimes this can take days. I try not to judge what I’m doing, at least in the beginning. Basically, I keep at it until I see something that interests me. Feeling my way through the work, rather than thinking my way, has become more and more important. This is the kind of feeling that has been informed by years of thinking about what my work is about, and then letting it all go.

Everything changes as soon as color is introduced into the work. I mostly use

Tom Flanagan’s Fort Andross studio. Photo by artist.

Golden Heavy Body acrylic paints because I find them to be of a consistently high quality. The other thing I’ve done since graduate school is to keep a powerful metal fan on high, three feet from the work at all times. The fan dries the acrylic paint so fast that I never have to stop working to wait for a layer of paint to dry. I need the painting process to be more like drawing in the sense that the painting medium doesn’t slow me down.

I work on one piece at a time. I’ve tried to work on more than one canvas, but the work becomes watered down and not as intense. Intensity is very important to me. If I’m going to put two colors side by side, they’d better have something to say. Every line and shape compete with one another and hopefully depend on one another in order for a disorder of my creation to exist.

Tom Flanagan’s Fort Andross studio. Photo by artist.

I don’t use brushes much. About 12 years ago I started using broad knives used by sheetrock contractors to apply color. There’s something freeing about putting two or three colors on a blade and pulling them across the surface. I have no control over what comes out of it and that feels right.

I use thousands of feet of masking tape and rolls and rolls of paper towels in the course of completing each piece. After a week, the trash can next to my painting table looks like a tall masking tape plant with blobs of color mixed in. I have a large thick piece of glass that I use as a pallet and clean that glass after each color is mixed and used. That’s my obsessive intense side coming through.

Tom Flanagan’s Fort Andross studio. Photo by artist.

The studio I’m in right now is in Fort Andross in Brunswick, Maine. The Mill, as it’s known, has become a real center for contemporary art in Maine. Most of the spaces are big and bright with large windows. Being there allows me to work on large canvases and look at multiple pieces as a body of work at once. It has also connected me to other artists and creative types that I wouldn’t normally bump into, like painters Cassie Jones and Richard Keen and sculptors John Bisbee and William Zingaro.

All the technical stuff aside, what I’m really doing in the studio is looking. I start with something––whether it’s a line or a color––and then I react to it. I adjust it. I add to it. I cover it. I put something next to it. I turn it upside down. How I get there doesn’t matter. This is a creative act. There are no rules.

What matters most to me is that I end up with something that has an energy that stays with me.

Brushes by the Bushel: In the Studio with Henry Isaacs by Daniel Kany

Henry Isaacs’ Portland studio is an open and airy place filled with tiny painted sketches, canvases, piles of tubes of Gamblin oil paints and tin after tin crammed with hundreds of paintbrushes. The walls of the studio’s front room are filled with colorful and affably optimistic framed landscapes painted in Isaacs’ easily-recognizable style. The walls of his studio are covered with about a dozen paintings in process and scores of studies ranging from full size canvases to tiny squares dolloped thick with oil paint.

This is the story of why Isaacs has hundreds of uncleaned brushes sticking out of tins in his studio. It’s a cautionary tale.

Having travelled and taught around the world, It might not be surprising that a Maine artist like Henry Isaacs would have partied on a bus in Cuba with Jacques Derrida (well, sort of: the French philosophe was stiff and grumpy in the midst of the joy of others) or sat in a meeting with a brain like Jeremy Bentham’s. Bentham, after all, founded the University College of London, and Isaacs taught at the Slade School of Fine Art, the art school of the university spiritually founded by Bentham.

Henry Isaacs in his Portland studio.
Photo by Dan Kany

During the last decade, you would most likely have spotted Bentham in the halls of UCL. But Bentham, the spearhead of philosophical utilitarianism, is now visiting the United States and he is featured in “Like Life: Sculpture, Color and the Body, 1300-now,” a show at the Met Breuer (through July 22, 2018).

On June 6, 1832, the day Bentham died, the terms of his will established a continued “life” for him as an “auto-icon.”

And when I say Isaacs sat in a faculty meeting with Bentham’s brain, I literally mean Betham’s brain — chemically preserved in a large jar.

However wacky this may sound, the comparison between Bentham and Isaacs is anything but. While teaching at Mass Art in 1988, Isaacs rushed to help two men who accidentally spilled a pair of 50 gallon drums of Butanone during a delivery.

Butanone is also known as methyl ethyl ketone or MEK, a widely used industrial solvent that smells like a combination of butterscotch and acetone.

One of the men immediately left the scene. Isaacs helped the other. For this helpful gesture, Isaacs was rewarded with chemical narcosis, meaning he was poisoned to the point of passing out.

Isaacs in his Portland studio. Photo by Dan Kany

Another token of his helpfulness was a lesion on the top of his brain, which was pickled, to a certain extent, like Bentham’s. This condition took years to discover and then years to find a treatment which finally took place in Sweden. (Saab Aeronautics recognized and treated what they call “painters’ disease.”)  Isaacs has had to absolutely minimize petro chemicals from his life.

For a while, Isaacs worked in acrylics, but the quick-drying plasticky paints didn’t allow for him to push the paint around on the canvas, to paint the way he preferred to paint, with thick strokes pulled through wet paint already on the surface. He tried pastels as well, but found them too dusty,

Isaacs’ Portland studio. Photo by Dan Kany

Isaacs had met Bob Gamblin while teaching at the Slade. Gamblin, whose company was based in Portland, Oregon, was trying to market his new paints and no one at the English school even wanted to talk to him, so they sent the junior American professor to meet with him. Gamblin and Isaacs hit it off from the start. In 1991, Gamblin created a new paint recipe using pure poppy seed oil and sent samples to Isaacs. (Isaacs has found that paints even by the leading brands contain solvents even when they are not listed; such exposure is dangerous for him.) “Bob rescued my studio,” explains Isaacs. “From that point, I have used Gamblin paints. And now, his pure poppy seed recipe is the stuff that’s in the marketplace.”

Isaacs paints with vegetable oil from the grocery store and never washes the Winsor & Newton brushes he buys in bulk for the less than $2 each. Ultimately, he breaks them up and recycles what parts of them he can. “I use brushes by the bushel. I have to.” With this, Isaacs pulls a brush dripping with oil out of a tin and wipes the thick dollop of grayish blue goo from its bristles. Without hesitating, he pushes it through the thick paint piled on his palette and begins to rework a small picture of the underside of a bridge. The wet paint is buttery and Isaacs moves the brush about the surface with wizened confidence.

Because painting with pure oil can make the works take weeks to dry (“Alone, Bob’s paints take three to five weeks to dry,” he comments), Isaacs uses tiny amounts of Galkyd. He cannot use turpentine, Turpenoid or driers.

Some of Isaacs’ “notes.” Photo by Dan Kany

“I am compulsive about painting every day,” he notes. Pointing to a wall filled with 150 tiny, loosely painted canvases, he continues, “For every project I do, I make 50-100 of these little guys – hundreds of these ‘notes.’ These are for a project for a hotel in Marrakech, Morocco. These are beautiful schools, madrasas. I am working on making a huge painting that captures this kind of interior space made 2D. As far as my studio practice goes, I work from these ‘notes.’ I take no pictures. I rely on them even from years ago. These (he points with his brush) were painted on site four years ago.”

On another wall hang 75 of Isaacs’ “notes” he made in Guatemala in May. He muses: “These are little pieces of memory. My job, here in the studio, is to put them together.”


Censorship, or Safety? by Dan Kany

Statements, dialogue and conversations about censorship and USM president Glenn Cummings’ unilateral decision to remove three paintings from the Atrium Gallery’s exhibition “Industrial Maine: Our Other Landscape”

By Daniel Kany

“I would prefer we act in this case from our hearts and not our anger.”
Robert Shetterly

Curated by Janice Moore, “Industrial Maine: Our Other Landscape” ran from March 13 to June 1, 2018, at the Atrium Art Gallery of the University of Southern Maine’s Lewiston-Auburn College at 51 Westminster St., Lewiston, Maine.

Soon after the opening, USM president Glenn Cummings removed three paintings of factories by a Waterville artist who has shown in the past at leading galleries and notable venues such as the Center for Maine Contemporary Art and the Portland Museum of Art.

According to Cummings’ office (in my first conversation with them before my review came out; but we’ll come back to this), Cummings removed the works based on a complaint by a relative of a victim of a sex crime involving unlawful sexual contact in 1999, for which the artist served six months in prison. The artist also had two sex-related misdemeanor convictions in the 1990s, one involving a juvenile. (Since I drafted this text, Cummings called me and clarified his thinking and details about the incident; this dialogue changed my thinking to a large extent, but, in the spirit of dialogue, I am choosing to leave my first draft in place and comment on it below.)

Below are excerpts from email conversations between John Ripton, a UMVA member and a participating artist in “Industrial Maine,” and UMVA president Robert Shetterly. Included as well are snippets from my own emails to them regarding the removal of the three paintings.

Cummings did not contact the curator, Janice Moore, before taking action. Instead, he had a university employee take down the works. The university then contacted the artist and had him remove the works.

This is an instance of censorship. But was it the right thing to do? The open questions include whether Cummings was justified in removing the work, whether Cummings was acting appropriately in his capacity as university president, and whether Cummings handled the process well. I think the answers are no, no and no. However, this is a nuanced issue: Cummings is clearly tasked with the safety of his student body and there is no question that he acted with the safety and well-being of the USM community in mind. Many think Cummings acted within his legitimate authority, while others don’t. Regardless, with the current public focus on “triggers” and the #MeToo movement, it is easy to follow Cummings’ logic, and there is no doubting his intentions to do what he felt was right. Moreover, the Atrium Gallery is an actual atrium, the main entrance to USM’s L/A building, so, logically, any student entering the building would necessarily be in the visual presence of all of the works in the exhibition.

If the concern was the name of the artist — an indirect presence — then Cummings’ acting in such a patently controversial way flew in the face of his purported goal. It was virtually inevitable that the artist’s name would be picked up by news organizations, and so it was (it was first published by the Portland Press Herald / Maine Sunday Telegram for which I write). While no statement from the university or the curator included the artist’s name, it was simple enough to discern from comparing the exhibition’s public media materials and noting which artist was no longer included in the show. Moreover, Moore left the spaces previously occupied by the paintings blank and included a note that stated that Cummings had removed the paintings. (The university later took these notes down, and that is another as-yet largely unvisited chapter of this story.)

I personally think Cummings was well-intentioned but handled the situation poorly: He might have, for example, contacted the curator first and sought her insights.She might have chosen, for example, to remove the work on her own. (Moore’s later statements make it clear she likely would not have done so, but Cummings had no way of knowing that — and didn’t bother to find out.) Or he might have contacted the artist and asked him not to come to any USM campus during the run of the show, etc.

My purpose in presenting the snippets of the dialogue between Ripton, Shetterly and others (including me) that follow is not to find or declare a singular truth but to encourage readers to delve into these complex and nuanced issues.

No one can undo what happened, but this seems a worthy set of circumstances to consider so that administrators and curators (and the public) can handle this as well as possible in the future. And if we are to accept censorship based on past actions, where do we draw the line? What if an artist was abusive to a spouse, robbed someone, cheated on taxes, got in a bar fight, or embezzled from an organization? As a critic, I have spent years developing my abilities to mentally separate works of art from the artists who made them. In other words, as a critic, I write about art, not artists. The painting and the person, as I see it, are not the same thing. But, of course, I do not expect the public to have the same perspective as I do. Culture is about people after all. It is a dynamic social space in which we articulate, confirm and test our ever-changing values. Right and wrong are never the same for long.

I want to be clear that I am deeply sympathetic to the victim, her family, Cummings, Moore, and the artist. Their perspectives are all different and I see no reason to believe that any of them have acted with ill-intent regarding this issue. I see merit in the statements of both Ripton and Shetterly. That is why I have included them both.

The first draft of this piece ended with the previous sentence, but I am here adding comments President Cummings made to me on the phone on the evening of June 28 and some of my thoughts about them.

Cummings explained to me that he found out about the presence of the work when the victim’s family contacted him and told him they were planning a public protest. This changes things and renders moot several of the points I made above: To begin, the idea that the victim was seeking quiet privacy was simply not true; that also means my surmising that Cummings was trying to keep this on the QT was wrong. Regarding the protest, this clarifies that Cummings wasn’t worried about the triggering of a single individual but any and all members of the community who may have been sexually assaulted in the past. “And it’s my understanding,” stated Cummings, “that as many as 20 or even 25% of American women are sexually assaulted at some point in their lives.” Suddenly, I came to see the urgency of Cummings’ actions in a very different light. Whereas I had seen his abrupt unilateralism as insufficiently considered, I came to appreciate the difficulty of Cummings’ position and now consider his tactics as sympathetically strategic.

I am not sure how much of my previous statements I would have made differently if I had spoken to Cummings prior to drafting the text. However, I am not sure I would have spoken to Cummings if I hadn’t sent him my draft. In the spirit of dialogue, I am leaving my statements, my mistakes and my original thinking. After all, this is the point of dialogue: Our perspectives change and grow as we learn more about a situation. My thinking certainly has. I still think this is an instance of censorship and I do not think it was handled well. But I am now far more sympathetic about why this unraveled the way it did.

Here are a few related links:

Curator Janice Moore’s statement about the “Industrial Maine” censorship issue:

Daniel Kany’s 6 May Maine Sunday Telegram review of “Industrial Landscapes”:

Bob Keyes’ May 6 article about the removal of the work:

Bob Keyes’ May 7 article about Cummings’ public response:

Following are just a few excerpts from the email dialogue:

Excerpt from John Ripton’s May 3 “Open Letter to USM President Glenn Cummings, EdD” signed by Ripton and 19 others:

“As artists participating in the “Industrial Maine: Our Other Landscape” exhibit currently showing in the Atrium Art Gallery at USM Lewiston-Auburn, we respectfully call on you to restore to the gallery wall three paintings that you removed more than two weeks ago. We are joined in this urgent appeal by fellow artists at the Union of Maine Visual Artists. Your action constitutes censorship in clear violation of the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution. Even if the three art pieces contain offensive content, which they do not, your decision to remove them threatens the very foundation of democratic society based on free expression of ideas.

Censorship must be vigorously opposed by citizens who wish to live in a free and open society. Any repressive step – no matter how insignificant it may appear or how justified it may seem – must be forcefully resisted. While censorship of creative expression may not appear to be significant in this instance, you have decided that a fellow citizen may not exhibit his work in a public institution. That is a decision that no one in a democracy can afford to accept.


In Section 212 of the University of Maine Policy Manual “The Board of Trustees of the University of Maine System affirms its commitment to the rights of free speech, free inquiry, and academic freedom. To protect these rights, all members of the University community should act toward each other with civility, mutual respect, integrity, and reason.”

The University further recognizes that freedom of expression “requires tolerance for diversity of opinion…without social or legal prohibition or fear of sanction.”

Daniel Kany seeking permission to get statements from Ripton and Shetterly. (It was Shetterly who suggested using the dialogue rather than statements.) June 14, 2018

“John & Robert,

Can we get and have permission to run your statements about the USM censorship issue for the forthcoming issue of the Maine Arts Journal: The UMVA Quarterly?

I am writing a piece with my name on it to accompany them. (I am on the MAJ’s editorial board, but this is a self-authored article, not an editorial board statement.)

My take is that there was a legitimate concern on the part of the president but that censorship of art is something that should be taken very seriously and only considered as a last resort. I don’t approve of Cummings’ process and lack of transparency. I think his job’s mission statement is clear that it was wrong for him to have pulled the work: He is tasked with supporting and defending academic freedom, and that includes curatorial presentation in the Atrium Gallery.

I also think that someone who has done criminal wrong in the past — and who has admitted and apologized for that wrongdoing and who has been cleared from the ranks of sex offenders — should not be penalized for doing something positive like art, particularly since this art is in no way concerning or offensive.

These points will constitute the bulk of my statement.

I hope we can count on including your comments in the MAJ.

Thank you,

Dan Kany”

Robert Shetterly to John Ripton May 3, 2018

Dear John,

As I said before, I’m opposed to the sending of this letter as it is written. (Shetterly is referring to the open letter quoted above that Ripton authored as an artist included in the exhibition.)

I think the issue is more nuanced than blatant censorship .

However, that’s simply my opinion.

I’ll be interested to see what comes of the sending of the letter.

I’ve copied below my response from last week. I should add that no one, except William (Hessian, the president of the UMVA’s Portland chapter), made any attempt to discuss this with me.



From Rob Shetterly to William Hessian April 28, 2018:

“Thanks for sending the letter, William.

I’m totally opposed to it as written.

Although there is a censorship issue here, there is also a very real person who was a victim of sexual assault to whom the exhibit is disturbing.

There is no mention of her in the letter or empathy for her concerns.

It’s true that the artist may have served his time and certainly should be allowed to make and show his work,

It’s also true that the sentence is never over for the victim. Any reminder of him triggers fear and pain.

Before any letter is sent I recommend reaching out to the victim or the relatives & inviting them to have their say about  how they feel. Sit in a circle and listen. If art and artists should be about anything, it’s about listening.

I’m not in favor of having our “rights” of free speech run roughshod over a vulnerable person.

To me this is not the kind of free speech issue where ‘truth’ is being muzzled or kept secret. It’s primarily  an issue of sensitivity. How can we as artists at this moment actually help the victim have a voice and perhaps, then, find a way to show the paintings — she might OK that if she feels heard.

I spent a long time this morning talking with Jon Wilson of Just Alternatives ( <> ) who is a national expert on creating dialogue between victims and perpetrators.  He said it is very rare in our society for the voice of the victim to be heard or even considered over the “rights” of the perpetrator. We are encouraged to honor that the offender gets to “move on.” That’s fine, but the victim doesn’t get to move on from her trauma. I would prefer that the UMVA find a way to honor that.

That being said, I think the political sentiments of the letter in how they describe art and free speech in our culture today are exactly correct. But I don’t think they fit this problem and shouldn’t. I would prefer we act in this case from our hearts and not our anger.

Let’s discuss further….



John Ripton to Robert Shetterly, Fri, May 4, 2018

“Hi Robert,

I appreciate your concerns and agree with many of your remarks. Endorsers of the letter are, of course, sensitive to any victim of a sex crime. Some of us have known such horrific experiences and many have relatives and friends who suffer daily the wrenching emotional consequences of such crimes. These experiences and the tragic plight of the victim and the relative who apparently contacted president Glenn Cummings were part of our discussion in the UMVA Portland Chapter. In this case, unfortunately, curator Janice Moore’s appeal to Glenn Cummings did not lead to any meeting to discuss the matter and reach an appropriate decision.

Several weeks have passed since the removal of the paintings. Janice Moore put a notice in the space of the missing paintings indicating that they had been removed by order of USM President Glenn Cummings. As curator, she felt that this was appropriate, given that an empty space suddenly appeared where the work of an artist who was part of the show and listed as a participating artist in the exhibit’s publicity had hung. His work had been seen by many who had attended the opening or had visited the show shortly afterward.

As far as I know from my conversations with Janice, Glenn Cummings has not reached out to have a meeting in which these delicate and sensitive matters might be more fully addressed. I believe that Janice earlier conveyed to you that she had requested an opportunity to discuss these matters with President Cummings when he called her to congratulate her on the exhibit. In addition, the notice on the wall where the paintings once hung clearly illustrates that this delicate matter has not been adequately considered.

The politics of the day are highly charged and frequently polarized. I and, as far as I can determine from our conversations at the gallery in Portland, other UMVA members are intimately aware of this. I don’t doubt that Glenn Cummings’ decision to remove the paintings was rational and informed by an understandable sensitivity to the victim. At the same time, neither curator nor the artist knows anything more about the reasons for his decision and he had ample opportunity to bring all parties into discussions concerning those reasons. No one asked that the victim be identified or even attend such a meeting. A more sensitive understanding could have been reached in a number of other ways.

Under these circumstances, Dr. Cummings’ decision seems at best quite arbitrary. In the broader American society we contend daily with lack of transparency, misguided communication, muddy decision-making and disregard for evidentiary fact. The laws protecting a democratic society are only as good as our political will to maintain them. If we allow, for example, the Justice Department to be undermined by those who do not wish to countenance potentially damaging information to surface, then we will have abdicated our responsibility and placed into jeopardy all expression of ideas except those that have gained the political advantage to use the law for their own purposes.

These are the very reasons the First Amendment provision of “free speech” exists. And the Supreme Court has interpreted creative expression to fall within that provision’s scope. While acting on principle may sometimes seem to observers as insensitive to others, it is often forgotten that the principle in this case is ultimately protecting the rights of all people to be heard. Without carefully observing this right, the victims of any criminal act, heinous ones and less reprehensible ones, will not be adequately heard.

It is in this spirit that Janice Moore requested of Dr. Cummings an opportunity to discuss more fully the removal of the paintings. She knew well that the decision needed to involve all affected parties. She was completely sensitive to the complaint that had been made on the victim’s behalf. Janice and I are both aware that the complexities of this delicate issue are interconnected and anything short of addressing those wide-ranging relationships may actually do more harm to victims of sex crimes than might be appreciated in the absence of deeper consideration.

For these reasons it is critical that we express clearly and affirmatively to president Glenn Cummings our shared concerns about censorship in light of the First Amendment and the USM charter’s (section 212 Free Speech, Academic Freedom, and Civility).

I respect your thoughtful remarks. Unfortunately, I was not aware of your response to the letter. I write at such length to make clear how important this request to restore the paintings actually is. It is a difficult issue and one that should have been addressed appropriately before an act of censorship occurred.



National Coalition Against Censorship’s Director of Programs, Svetlana Mintcheva’s June 21 “Statement about USM Censorship”

The University of Southern Maine’s (USM) removal of three paintings from an exhibition in an on-campus gallery is a disturbing instance of encroachment on academic and curatorial freedom. The incident highlights the need for exhibition spaces at academic institutions to have clear guidelines in place. As institutions whose mission it is to nurture cultural exchange and education, public universities must uphold and protect freedom of expression in their exhibition spaces as staunchly as in their classrooms.

USM’s removal of paintings by Bruce Habowski, a well-regarded painter whose works have been shown at the Portland Museum of Art and the Center for Maine Contemporary Art, from “Industrial Maine: Our Other Landscape,” was based on complaints that his past behavior disqualifies his work from being displayed no matter what it represents. USM President Cummings’s subsequent statement that the work, beautifully executed paintings of industrial landscapes, could serve as a trigger for victims of child abuse and sexual assault raised further alarm about the University’s commitment to principles of academic freedom:

If universities were to purge all material produced by those who have ever violated moral and social imperatives, there would not be much left to study and students would be deprived of all nuanced discussion about ethical and moral conflict. (Caravaggio was a murderer; Picasso a serial sex abuser; Dostoevsky a virulent anti-Semite, the list is very very long.) A sterile, empty space may be “safe” but it does not promote learning or any form of complex thinking.

Students attend college to learn, to discuss ideas and be exposed to a wide range of art and literature, not to be kept in an isolation bubble. They must be trusted and respected for their strength, not treated as fragile victims. Rather than suppress the creative output of those who fall short in their moral conduct, a university must find intelligent ways to encourage its community to engage in critical discussions of such issues in all their nuances and grey areas.

Here are four principles that academic exhibition spaces should adopt:

  • Artistic expression in a university setting, as well as the presentation of student and faculty work to the public, is integral to the learning process and therefore merits the protection accorded to other scholarly and teaching activities. University exhibition spaces must align with the mission of educational institutions, uphold curatorial and academic freedom, and demonstrate respect for the curator’s decisions.
  • Universities hold exhibitions to encourage artistic creativity, expression, learning and appreciation, and they do not thereby endorse specific artistic presentations nor do the presentations necessarily represent the institution. This principle of institutional neutrality does not relieve institutions of general responsibility for maintaining professional and educational standards, but it does mean that institutions are not responsible for the views or attitudes expressed in specific artistic works.
  • While many considerations enter the curatorial process, once an exhibition goes up, academic institutions should ensure that the rights of the presenters and the audience are not impaired by a “heckler’s veto” from those who may be offended by the presentation. Those who choose to view or attend should be able do so without interference. Modifications should only be made in exceptional cases and only after an extensive process of deliberation with all the stakeholders.
  • The selection of art for an exhibition should not require a background check into the artists’ pasts, nor should artists be judged and disqualified from participation in an exhibition based on their beliefs, statements or past behavior unrelated to the work shown. Such a requirement not only unduly burdens the curatorial process, it would open the institution to a flood of complaints for giving a platform to individuals that may hold the “wrong” ideas or have been accused of various types of misconduct.