In his catalogue essay for her 2007 Everyday exhibition at Caldbeck Gallery in Rockland, artist and Waterfall Arts founder Alan Crichton aptly described Barbara Sullivan as “Maine’s hip sister of fresco, elbowing and joking the medium out of the Middle Ages and into the heart of Middle America.”
Sullivan has been an integral part of the Maine art scene for close to fifty years and while quite a few artists, especially those associated with the Skowhegan School of Painting and Sculpture, have worked in fresco, Sullivan is one of the very few who have made fresco her primary medium.
Fresco painting entails applying ground pigment mixed with water to fresh, wet, lime mortar or plaster. The pigment sinks into the plaster and becomes one with it as the calcium hydrate in the lime combines with carbon dioxide to form calcium carbonate in an act of transformation at once scientific and magical.
Fresco is a technique usually associated with art history and public murals, but Sullivan has established a place for herself in contemporary art using fresco for personal ends. Rather than painting heroic frescoes of historical, religious, or political subjects, Sullivan turns the stuff of her everyday life into art, creating domesticated and humorous fresco objects such as cook stoves, bedroom sets, beauty parlors, and grocery carts. Sullivan leavens the high seriousness of fresco with a cartoon-like playfulness. “I find humor in everyday things,” Sullivan says.
This fall (29 September 2022 to 10 November 2022), the University of Maine at Farmington honored Sullivan’s retirement after twenty-two years teaching at the school with a retrospective exhibition, Barbara Sullivan: Forty + Years at the Emery Arts Center. The show featured some thirty fresco pieces and forty oil paintings beginning with a painting of two waitresses that Sullivan painted in 1972 while still in art school.
The exhibition catalogue featured an incisive essay by Colby College art historian and Maine Arts Journal co-editor Véronique Plesch. Noting that frescoes have historically been permanent fixed panels, Sullivan “narrows her frescoes down to the contours of an object, animal, or person, creating pieces that are movable.”
So not only are Sullivan’s frescoes rare as a medium, they are even more so for being discrete sculptural objects that seem to have been excised from a larger tableau. Figures, furniture, and fixtures all hang on walls in cutout form.
“For me the negative space on the wall is as important as the positive space,” says Sullivan. “Things can breathe if they have space around them.” It is the absence of context that gives Sullivan’s frescoes their contemporary presence.
Sullivan’s art education was varied and protracted. Born in Skowhegan and a longtime resident of rural Solon before moving two years ago to Lincolnville, Sullivan is about as local as artists in Maine get. Growing up as one of the youngest of nine children, Sullivan learned to be independent at an early age. She grew up cooking and sewing and making things, practical skills she put to good use as she pursued an on-again-off-again education in the counterculture of the 1960s and 1970s.
After a year at Belknap College in New Hampshire, Sullivan moved to Portland where she worked as a cocktail waitress, taught silversmithing, and studied at the alternative Concept School of Visual Studies. From Portland, she moved to Beverly, Massachusetts to study at the new Montserrat School of Art.
Having studied from 1968 until 1974 without earning a degree, Sullivan returned to Maine and settled in Kingfield, where she cooked for a living and skied for fun. In the best Maine make-do tradition, she also took up weaving, created silkscreen and watercolor calendars, managed an apple orchard, painted sets at Lakewood Theater, and started a Christmas wreath business.
The turning point in Sullivan’s art career came in 1990 when she was hired as the chef and residence manager at the Skowhegan School of Painting and Sculpture on Lake Wesserunsett in Madison, just a few miles from the home she built in Solon in 1988. The Skowhegan School is one of the few places in the country that still teaches the art of fresco. As the first artist cook Skowhegan had had, Sullivan was given a studio that happened to be right next to the fresco barn. The fresco faculty invited her to try her hand at it. “Fresco just made sense to me as a medium,” Sullivan says. “I absolutely fell in love with it. I started out in art school as a sculptor, so when I became unhappy working flat, I started making the shaped forms.” Sullivan liked the physicality of fresco, which she began painting as a traditional panel but soon took to cutting out elements. Eventually she began combining objects into wall-mounted scenes—a bedroom, a beauty parlor, an apartment. “When I finally started making little vignettes they felt heavy and clunky to me,” she explains. “I wanted to animate them somehow. I started using the wall as a narrative ground.”
Sullivan’s fresco method begins with a drawing on plywood. She cuts out the drawing, builds a wooden armature on it, stretches wire lath over the armature so she can apply a rough coat of plaster, a finish coat, burnish it, and paint it with earth pigments ground with a glass muller in water so the surface becomes lightfast and durable.
It was Sullivan’s slap-dash painting style, however, that first caught Maine Coast Artists (now Center for Maine Contemporary Art) curator Bruce Brown’s eye and he included a Sullivan painting of a motorist stopped to allow a family of foxes to cross a country road in the important 1992 On the Edge: 40 Years of Maine Painting. Having, like many good Maine artists, debuted at Maine Coast Artists, Sullivan has gone on to show at the University of Maine at Farmington Art Gallery, University of Maine Museum of Art, Davidson & Daughters, and since 1996 primarily at Caldbeck Gallery. Her unique native vision having been recognized, Sullivan went back to college in the 1990s, earning a BA in visual arts and creative writing at the University of Maine at Farmington in 1996 and an MFA through Vermont College in 1999.
Inspired by paper dolls, Sullivan sometimes cuts her figures into two or three pieces. The primary motivation is to lighten a heavy wall load, but the fragmented people also lose their stiffness and become livelier. “The early ones were all figures, but I don’t do many figures anymore,” says Sullivan of her frescoes. “The chairs suggest a person, the presence of a person who is not there.” To date, Sullivan has created some thirty-five fresco chairs ranging from wingbacks to highchairs. She often works in series such as thirty songbirds, 100 Irish linen shirts (a nod to her ancestry) and more than fifty Nasty Maine Women Artists, portraits of colleagues such as Dozier Bell, Kathy Bradford, Lois Dodd and Jocelyn Lee, inspired by Donald Trump’s description of Hillary Clinton as “such a nasty woman.”
In response to the terrorist attacks of 9/11, Sullivan also created a series of forty-eight fresco amphora jars, each representing a foreign country, but her political philosophy is more often embedded in the personal and the ordinary. Kitchen utensils, canning jars, axes, snowshoes, rocking chairs, chainsaws, wood stoves, the stuff of country living, erupts from walls and onto the floor in a steady stream of frescoed fun. “I paint things that bind people together,” Sullivan explains. “We are bound together by common, everyday things.”
Edgar Allen Beem is the art critic for the Portland Phoenix. He has been writing about art in Maine since 1978.
Image at top: Barbara Sullivan, One Room Efficiency (detail), shaped fresco.