In a video shot by Hans Krichels in May 2016 for a presentation at the Haystack Mountain School of Craft (below) where she was teaching, MaJo Keleshian offered a tour of her home and studio on Winkumpaugh Road north of Ellsworth. She displayed her work, including examples of her graphic design.
At one point Keleshian appears in the film to instruct Krichels on how to approach a six-part piece called Night Sky. “If you want a photograph,” she advises, “it’s sweep down and around because there’s some very specific things here.” As he follows her instructions, she realizes that the piece is upside down, admitting that “sometimes you don’t know which side is up.” When Krichels comments that great astronomers had a similar problem a few thousand years ago, Keleshian laughs—“MaJo’s much-loved chortle,” he told me.
Margaret Ann “MaJo” Keleshian died unexpectedly on 28 May 2023, the day after taking part in the weekly Saturday afternoon protest on the Bucksport-Verona Island bridge. A photograph shows her holding a sign that reads “Support Unions and . . . tax the 1%.” Disbelief spread through her family and friends and networks of activists and artists, followed by immense sadness at her passing.
Since first showing her work in the late 1980s, Keleshian was a part of the Maine art scene. Over the years she worked in a variety of mediums and techniques, including oil pastel, encaustic, crayon, collage, and several print formats, including monotype.
Over time, Keleshian also developed a signature style that celebrated the impermanence and beauty of the world: lichened rocks, the trunk of a birch tree, a night sky. Her abstract images, created through rubbing, scraping, and layering, evoke natural forms under beautiful duress.
In a Maine Times review of Keleshian’s show at the Carnegie Hall Gallery at the University of Maine in 1996, critic Donna Gold remarked on her transition from a group of fruit studies she had shown the year before at the Judith Leighton Gallery to a new series of non-objective images that marked a great change in vision. These new pieces go “much deeper,” Gold observed, “as if in eschewing reference, Keleshian can delve into the material itself, dealing directly with color, with the resistance of paper, and with the act of drawing.” She found the work “profoundly meditative.”
In 1997, Keleshian was awarded a Carina House artist residency on Monhegan, “a gift of time,” she called it, “five weeks to explore the island and to work.” With no distractions or expectations, and with plenty of art supplies, she began a series of small paintings on paper called Mnemonics, which broke new ground for her.
Keleshian donated Mnemonic 7 and Mnemonic 8 to a fundraiser for the North Dakota Museum of Art in 2002. Describing the process of creating these pieces in the catalog for the auction, curator Madelyn Camrud noted how the work conveyed “a sense of history and texture in the tones of each piece—a feeling of old painted walls, or wood grain.”
In a profile by Ellen Hathaway in the Ellsworth American in 2006, Keleshian described her technique as a “hybrid of painting, printing, and drawing.” The process entailed using a water-soluble and waxy Swiss crayon—Caran d’Ache—to draw a few lines on a thick, non-porous Japanese paper. She then scratched lines into the surface of the paper and added water. The crayon, she explained, “works like watercolor when smudged and like crayon when left alone.” Since she didn’t use fixative, she framed the pieces under glass.
Keleshian also shared some thoughts on her art with Hathaway:
I like to say it’s landscape-based, a lot of the influences of landscape coming together. Sometimes they become quite figurative. Most of the time, I like to think I’m moving away from figuration, direct figuration, even though this work is not an abstract expressionist de Kooning or a drip Pollock, or even a person I admire so much, a Rothko, those colors you want to just dive into.
Keleshian sought to create “a spontaneous and informed image—that place where surprise and intention meet,” she once noted. Writing about her work at the George Marshall Store Gallery in York in 2008, a reviewer for the Portsmouth Herald put it this way: “Depending on how you view Keleshian’s colorful, iridescent small paintings, they can be pure abstraction or absolute reality.”
Keleshian also thrived as a graphic artist, designing materials for the Maine Sea Grant Program at the University of Maine where she had taken courses in the art department, determined to develop as an artist. She eventually taught drawing at the university and helped hang shows in the campus art gallery (she curated Mimmo Paladino: The Prints in 1997). She also provided graphics for the university’s New Writing Series founded in 1999 by English professor Steve Evans.
In the summer of 2001, Keleshian spent a week on Great Spruce Head in Penobscot Bay as a guest of Anina Porter Fuller, host of the annual Art Week (the records of this thirty-plus-year program recently entered the collection of the Archives of American Art). “Her work was beautifully expressive, filled with wonder in color and shape,” Fuller recalls. “MaJo was a warm and generous member of our art group, helping always where she could and sharing her knowledge of art.”
Fuller also remembers that MaJo enjoyed sailing and that she was “paving the way” for her husband, poet Sylvester Pollet, to attend Art Week the following summer, which he did—and wrote a series of “kechiks,” haiku-like images that describe instants of revelation on the island: “blue rubber workglove / where’s your / lobsterman?”
Over the years, Keleshian showed at some of the best-known galleries in Maine: Judith Leighton in Blue Hill, George Marshall Store Gallery in York, Courthouse Gallery Fine Art in Ellsworth, Elan Fine Arts in Rockland, McGrath-Dunham in Castine, and the Maine Art Gallery in Wiscasset.
Keleshian also was a regular featured artist in the basement gallery at John Edwards Market in Ellsworth. That’s where I ran into her from time to time, at openings that doubled as wine tastings. The market gallery always had a few of her lyric pieces on display. Their incised surfaces and warm tones drew me across the room.
MaJo Keleshian in Her Own Words
The land is a deep part of my life—the way a line of trees climbs the mountain to the north, the etching of winter’s bare branches against the twilight, the sounds of spring peepers at dusk, or the mournful call of owls at night.
But my earliest memories come from a much different world.
My mother, a dear, loving woman, first-generation Armenian, who could copy any Fifth Avenue dress, and delighted in dancing and parties, would take me to the Cloisters just about every day. I remember the sense of age, of wear—the ancient stones, the holes in the famous Unicorn Tapestries, which had not yet been restored. Coming home, I remember the mottled red of the city’s brownstones, the wrought iron of the fire escapes—the way age is revealed on the surface of things.
And then there were the candles. My mother would light candles for any occasion, even breakfast. There would be candles on the large linen-covered table where the adults sat, and candles on the small coffee table where the children would eat. Candles were part of the meal.
The smell of wax is always with me, the water-soluble wax crayons I use daily return me to the smells and immediacy of my childhood. I paint the wax on, rub it off, add more, etch it in, almost as if I were creating an age-worn surface.
I love the surfaces of things, rocks, woods, barks, textures. I want to get the feel of the surface in the abstract images I make. Sometimes I think I’m an artist of impermanence, I like drawing things that are breaking apart, I like old rusted iron, big spikes from ships you might find washed up on a beach—I have ruined skin on a couple of fingers, working with wax.
I just like things when they’re falling apart, breaking apart.
Doing this Buddhist practice puts me in mind that there are possibly other influences on our lives; karmic influences that leave residues. I’ve been really lucky; I’ve had a lot of love; I haven’t always recognized it.
—from a taped conversation 2009, courtesy Donna Gold.
MaJo and Poets
Kathleen Ellis first met Keleshian around 1977 when she moved from the Bay area in California to Lubec. She was looking around for fellow poets and found Sylvester Pollet through the Maine Writers and Publishers Alliance. He invited her to their “woodsy” residence where she met MaJo “and we all became immediate friends.” Their friendship grew over the years and included poets and professors William Carpenter (College of the Atlantic) and Terry Plunkett (University of Maine at Augusta).
Ellis asked Keleshian to be the graphic artist for the Maine Sea Grant Program at the University of Maine in Orono. She also encouraged her to take courses in the UMaine art department, which she did and subsequently “bloomed.”
Keleshian provided the cover design and illustration for Ellis’s first full poetry collection Red Horses (1991). In 2014, they teamed up for the Belfast Poetry Festival. Their collaboration, In and Out the Window, featured poems by Ellis prompted by Keleshian’s artwork.
They remained close friends “& it thus was a huge loss to no longer have her in this world,” Ellis wrote in an email. “Her friendship & all we shared in poetry & art was an immense gift for which I am forever grateful.”
Keleshian’s work also inspired a series of poems Seven Days, by Jennifer Moxley, professor of English at the University of Maine. “I had asked MaJo for something to respond to,” Moxley recounted in an email, “and she gave me the [seven paintings titled] Approximations.”
Moxley’s poems turned out “very apocalyptic, and dark,” which, the poet reports, upset Keleshian: “She said she didn’t recognize her work in them.” The poems appeared in Clampdown (Flood Editions, 2009). When the book received a favorable review in The Nation accompanied by one of Keleshian’s paintings, the artist softened her position yet Moxley remembers it being “a very stressful moment” in their friendship.
Of course, of all the poets, Keleshian was closest to her husband. In his collection Entering the Walking-Stick Business (Blackberry, 1982, cover design by Natasha Mayers, who was Keleshian’s classmate at Sarah Lawrence, class of ‘67), Pollet includes several love poems to his wife. There’s
For MaJo, Who Commands her Share of Love Poems and Love:
Still learning slowly
the hard way
sometimes too late
that love is something we do
not something we
the washed out culvert
at four corners
MaJo and the Banditos
One thing I forgot to add was that MaJo and I traveled to Mexico for a few weeks in the mid-1980s. After a conference in Austin, we drove to the border and took a train to San Miguel de Allende. We were warned about night robbers on the train, who went from car to car stealing bags & packages full of TVs, toys, and myriad electronic devices from sleeping Mexicans returning home from shopping in Texas.
We took upper berths to be safe, and sure enough, the banditos came through the car we were in and started stealing goods from the people below us. Instead of keeping quiet, MaJo shone her flashlight on them & started rattling whatever she had on hand to make noise. She called out to them in English, while I was busy screaming “Váyase! Go away!” & of course we woke up all the other passengers, all of us shouting, “Váyase!”
MaJo was like that, not standing for anyone’s rights to be abused. As a former New Yorker, she was brave on the streets and yet one of the kindest persons I’ve ever known. I’ve spent time at conferences and workshops in many large cities around the US with MaJo, and time after time, she stopped arguments on the streets, mothers mistreating their young children, bigwigs on the podium or in panels from bullying the audience or other panelists, and the list goes on.
I don’t know if you can use any of that, but I think that mixture of bravery and honor comes through her work as it did in her life.
—Kathleen Ellis, from an email
Back to the Land with MaJo and Sylvester
In a profile of Keleshian by Esther King written in 2011, the artist recounted meeting her future husband, poet Sylvester Pollet, at the 8th Street Bookshop, the iconic West Village gathering place for poets and writers where he worked. She remembered encountering Bob Dylan in the shop one day and being awestruck until Sylvester came over to rescue her, asking, “Bobby, what can I help you with?”
For all its bohemian spirit, the city proved too much for the couple and they moved to Maine in the early 1970s. As noted in Keleshian’s obituary, they left the city “to live deliberately in downeast Maine.” They moved around a bit—Swan’s Island, Amherst, Bangor—before buying several acres facing Flying Moose Mountain in Ellsworth in 1975.
Over lunch with poet Bill Carpenter and writer and oral historian Donna Gold at their home in Stockton Springs in September, they recounted how MaJo and Sylvester came to live in Ellsworth. Keleshian had been roommates at Sarah Lawrence with Anne Widmark, daughter of famed Hollywood actor Richard Widmark. Anne married the renowned major league pitcher Sandy Koufax. They bought property and built a home on Winkumpaugh Road as a kind of retreat from the limelight.
At some point Keleshian learned that her classmate and her husband were living in Ellsworth and suggested to Sylvester that they pay them a visit. Unannounced, MaJo knocked on the door and, after an initial rebuff from the famous pitcher, reconnected with Anne.
Living in Bangor at the time—MaJo was waitressing in Bucksport, Sylvester was painting houses—they longed to have a place of their own. The Koufaxes sold them a parcel at a steeply reduced price and the two of them started building.
They constructed the house by hand over many years, cobbling it together from second-hand building supplies and odds and ends of furnishings. In the early years they cooked on the woodstove and took sponge baths from water heated on that same stove. They purchased a windmill from Henry Clews of East Holden whose ingenious homesteading methods for saving the Earth made the New York Times.
In a 2006 interview, Keleshian noted how the many windows in the house let in “all the mountains and the trees and the sky.” They were so “intimate” with the landscape, she noted, that she sometimes felt like she was “walking through” one of her own paintings. (I visited the house once with my daughter Emily, who was collecting books for a fundraiser to support an orphanage in Honduras—MaJo and Sylvester were welcoming and warm.)
After discovering the pleasures of sailing in the early 1980s, Keleshian and Pollet became avid sailors. They launched a boat out of Castine to sail among the islands of Penobscot Bay from June to mid-October. “Sylvester pledged to have a sloop he could cruise in when he got to be fifty—whether he had the money or not,” Keleshian once recalled. “Sure enough,” she wrote, “in the spring before his fiftieth birthday we found a boat in Massachusetts and sailed her to Maine.” The sloop, named Echo, was a 26′ Seafarer designed by Philip Rhodes. “Whether Sylvester was working in the boatyard or tinkering with a stalled engine, he never complained,” Keleshian remembered. ‘It’s all sailing,’ he liked to say.”
No surprise, then, that they both chose to have their ashes cast on Downeast waters. In part 5 of The Last Will and Testament of Sylvester Pollet, published by Charles Heckscher at The Press at High Loft in Seal Harbor in 1999 (with illustrations by Nancy McCormick), the poet provided precise instructions for the scattering. Past Nautilus Island, Holbrook and Cape Rosier, by the Green Ledge Bell, on a starboard tack, “start the sprinkling” he requested, noting that afterwards they should head back to Dennett’s Wharf for a beer.
Buddhism influenced Sylvester and MaJo, as artists and human beings. In some Buddhist traditions, one’s ashes are scattered over a sacred spot. The final kechik in Pollet’s Great Spruce Head collection offers a message of consolation: “don’t grieve, strive with diligence— / all compounded things decay. / Buddha’s last words.”
Thanks to Hans Krichels, Donna Gold, Bill Carpenter, Sara Belisle, Rochelle Lawrence, Kathleen Ellis, Laurie Hicks, Jennifer Moxley, and Natasha Mayers for their contributions to this piece.
The Zillman Museum of Art in Bangor will be mounting an exhibition of Keleshian’s work, Meditations: A Retrospective, running 27 September 2024–7 January 2025. Curated by Museum Educator and Assistant Curator Rochelle Lawrence, the show will offer work from the artist’s estate given to the museum.
Image at top: MaJo Keleshian in her studio (photo courtesy of Laurie Hicks).