“I am always influenced by the landscape that surrounds me,” painter Gail Spaien once stated. “In a sense,” Spaien continued, “the work has really always been about my own backyard.” More recently, she has confirmed this perspective: at the “ground level,” her art is about the love of place. Cataloging the images that she sees and the geography and landscape that surrounds her has been the constant subject of her work.
Spaien’s landscapes have included Richardson Bay in the San Francisco Bay area, where she lived on a boat; the woods on the Kennebec River in Arrowsic, her home while a student at the University of Southern Maine; Kittery Point where she and her family lived for 13 years; South Portland near Willard Beach, her base since 2014; and, for the time being, Peaks Island, where her family took a rental before the pandemic hit.
That lively island off Portland provides the setting for many of Spaien’s recent paintings. In wonderfully designed hybrid still life/interior/landscape images, she places the viewer in neatly arranged rooms overlooking the water. In several paintings, we look past ornate teapots, bookshelves, bouquets, and bonsai trees at sea, which are also patterned. The Peaks Island ferry, with its distinctive yellow midriff, makes its way across the harbor; Bug Light is a noble beaming sentinel, its Corinthian columns adding a touch of timelessness to the view.
Although the interior/still life/landscape seems like the perfect pandemic setup—at home, grounded, looking out at the world—Spaien started working with this format well before COVID-19 arrived. She was seeking deeper pictorial space and wanted to make her compositions more complex. She also wished to venture outside. “I needed more air and light,” she says. “My decisions are often based on what world I want to see as I paint.”
To that end, nature and home are idealized. Spaien sees a kinship with early American folk artists who described the world around them with what she calls “animated and concentrated” detail. “Sensation is evoked through stylization, placement, flattening, and color choice,” she notes. She also makes a connection to Intimism, that turn-of-the-19th-century movement in France that focused on the domestic interior. Home, the artist explains, becomes an “idealized space where one can be in relationship with others and the world and the self.”
Spaien recognizes that the desire to have her paintings “contribute to the world without adding to the noise” will please some and not sit well with others. “Some have said the silence in the work is deafening,” she reports; “Others say they want to go there.” To her way of thinking, sitting and gazing out represent “potent actions that contribute to a peaceful planet.” Living on Peaks Island in a pandemic, “seeing the sunrise every day over the horizon,” reminds her that there are forces greater than she is.
Spaien starts each painting with geometry, dividing up the picture plane into precise segments. She considers what symbol/object she wants to paint, “like the ferry boat or a chair,” and decides on a concept: a night painting, an exterior without an interior, using the color red.
The work evolves with no plan in mind, but if she’s working toward a show, like the recent Still Life with Water she aims to create a collection that visually holds together. She takes pictures with an iPad and will edit the composition on the tablet as she proceeds. Each piece undergoes erasures (sanding out) and rearrangements.
Spaien also looks at the world around her for references she might add to the painting as it is developing—a particular chair or rug, say. She also imagines that she is actually building the space or “sitting on the ferryboat as it chugs across Casco Bay.” She thinks she may have been a boatbuilder or a house builder in a past life. “I love thinking about how the wooden things in my paintings are actually constructed.”
Spaien’s primary medium has been paint, but over the years, she has expanded the use of materials while taking different approaches and developing fresh ideas. She has worked in abstraction but also employed narrative devices. She has hung her work salon style, as “archive-as-installation,” and as part of a public collaboration.
Spaien’s paintings have often featured a stylized, even decorative look. The images of flowers in vases underscore this aesthetic. Flower as a symbol has enabled Spaien to “raise questions and put forth ideas related to the visual representation of nature and the human interaction with the natural world.” They represent the “passage of time, the experience and joy of living, and one’s mortality.”
Among diverse influences, Spaien lists “the space of the ocean,” “air movement on a warm day,” Japanese Ukioye prints, the pattern and decoration movement, animation (including Walt Disney and Hayao Miyazaki), Persian miniatures, Dutch still life, Fitz Henry Lane and Martin Johnson Heade, and Henri Rousseau’s The Sleeping Gypsy. Some of her inspirations, like embroidery and paint by number, come from her youth and “strongly affect” how she uses paint and color.
Spaien also loves early American painting and furniture, samplers and textiles, and Grandma Moses. And she admires a diverse host of contemporary artists, among them Etel Adnan, Adrian Ghenie, Matthew Wong, Peter Doig, Maureen Gallace, April Gornik, Vija Celmins, Shirley Kaneda, Jonathan Lasker, Thomas Noskowski, Ruth Root, and Enrique Martinez Celaya. From art history, she draws on the work of Paula Modersohn-Becker and early American Modernists like Milton Avery, Arthur Dove, Helen Torr, and Florine Stettheimer.
Repetitive handwork, genre painting, and the landscape she sees on a daily basis are core sources for her recent work. Instagram and the Zoom grid have also had a significant impact on her practice. Scrolling through Instagram and looking at the Zoom screen, there are “views within views within views”—a striking alignment of perspective with her geometric spaces within spaces. The open laptop in Still Life with Water #6 shows another landscape.
Born in Hartford, Connecticut, Spaien moved to Maine in 1976 when she enrolled at the University of Southern Maine, the only school she applied to (despite the fact that her mother told her she would buy her a car if she went to the Hartford Art School—they lived around the corner).
“My intuition led me to Maine,” the artist has recounted, and the move paid off. Her teachers at USM included Juris Ubans, Michael Moore, Duncan Hewitt, and Pat Franklin—a group of artist-professors that nurtured a generation of Maine artists.
Spaien later pursued her MFA at the San Francisco Art Institute, again benefiting from an excellent line-up, from Bill Berkson to Sam Tchakalian. While in grad school, she lived on a boat in Sausalito as part of an “extremely creative, alternative, successful community” of artists, boatwrights, and others. She varnished boats for a living.
As if to top off her art education, Spaien attended the Skowhegan School of Painting and Sculpture in 1986. The faculty that summer included an all-star roster: Judy Pfaff, Deborah Butterfield, Helen Frankenthaler, and Bill Jensen, among others. At the time, Spaien’s work was more narrative than abstract or conceptual; Skowhegan, she notes, afforded her “a way to see my work in a different context—my work was broadened and made stronger.”
Spaien has taught at the Maine College of Art since 1991 and served as chair of the graduate program. She has had teaching stints at Colby College, USM, UMaine Augusta, and Vermont College. “Teaching allows me to collaborate with others who are passionate about the same things I am,” she notes. Fellow MECA faculty—Honour Mack, Philip Brou, Sean Foley, and others—have significantly impacted on her work and her “understanding of the changing history of painting.” In 2011, Spaien and one of her former students, Iraqi-born painter Ahmed Alsoudani, showed together at Aucocisco Gallery.
Teaching helps Spaien articulate ideas and formal issues. “As I teach,” she explains, “I work out some of the questions that I am asking in my studio practice.” Some of the answers to those questions can be found in her remarkable art where she seeks to conjure a sense of “anchoring and suspension and gravity and light.”
“I feel fortunate to be working with colleagues and students who are serious and heartful,” Spaien says. While teaching continues to support her studio work, the balance is shifting: she is more focused on painting at this time. She considers herself a “really slow painter” and as she gets older, she embraces the slowness—“I no longer race into the studio.” She is also exploring how to be looser in her work, with the edges and touch.
In a recent interview, Spaien called painting “an act that supports solitude. And it’s a way to think and a place to put my mind.” She also thinks of it as a noun and a verb: “It’s a thing and an activity.”
In that same interview, in speaking about her residency at Varda in Sausalito last year and how the pandemic has since restricted travel, Spaien cites the final lines from Mary Oliver’s poem “The Summer Day”: “Tell me, what is it you plan to do / with your one wild and precious life?” No doubt she will continue to paint the world around her and bring new beauty into our lives.
[This article expands on a profile written for Edgar Allen Beem’s Maine Art New, a book project canceled in 2018 by the University of Maine Press. The author has drawn on an email Q and A with Spaien as well as Julie Poitras Santos’s interview with her hosted by the Nancy Margolis Gallery on 6 February 2021: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=eCXy4ngSdJk&feature=youtu.be. More of Spaien’s work can viewed at www.gailspaien.com.]
Image at top: Gail Spaien, Serenade #9, acrylic on linen, 41 x 44 in., 2018 (photo: Chasing the Sun Photography).