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.
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.
“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.”
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.
“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.”
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.
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.”
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.”
“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: www.mboardman.com