Of Mermaids, Giants, and Flying Fish

Michael Waterman sometimes describes himself as a “parochial painter” or a “regionalist.” But, having known him since the 1970s, I would describe Waterman as something of a mystic and his art as gentle social surrealism. It is rooted in the here and now yet flies off frequently into the unknown and the imaginary.

Waterman possesses a deeper understanding of the people and places he paints than just about any artist I know. He is a Ryder-esque figure whose wondrous, strange work conjures the spirit of his native Portland better than anyone who paints it more precisely. That’s because he paints the essence of a magical place by the sea where a city might sprout from a seagull’s head, a woman may ride her house like a horse, or a giant mermaid may curl up on the shore with a good book. His melancholy and strangely beautiful paintings have the quality of myth.

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Michael Waterman, Look Homeward Angel, oil on canvas, 19 x 12 in.

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Michael Waterman, Mermaid’s Cloud, 13.5 x 23 in.

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Michael Waterman, Mariah, oil on canvas, 14 x 23 in.

The painting he was working on when I visited him earlier this year was a large figure emerging from the marks on the canvas as if trying to coalesce.

“It’s a female allegory,” Waterman told me. “A woman giving birth to a city.”

When I asked him if he thought of himself as a surrealist, he said: “Ambition in the arts is surreal. There is the literal level, the symbolic level, and the hieroglyphic level, the impossible to decipher, the secret world.”

“Hieroglyphic?” I asked. “Secret writing,” Waterman explained. “Wisdom consists of secret glyphs. A picture has to be more than real, otherwise it bores me.”

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Michael Waterman, Self-portrait, oil on canvas, 6.5 x 8 in.

Waterman is a true Portland original. Born in the port city in 1947, he grew up among the tenements of Oxford Street, which often appear in his paintings, and graduated from Portland High School, just a few blocks away, in 1966. “My youth was difficult,” Waterman said, “because I just wanted to paint and it’s all I wanted to do.”

Waterman’s father Al was a well-known Portland painter and what he said of his father is just as true of him. “I could tell,” Waterman said, “his imagination was strong and his authority was original.”

Waterman began painting and drawing at age four and his artistic gifts were recognized by the time he got to high school. In 1965, he earned a scholarship to attend a summer program for talented young artists at Pratt Institute in New York. Upon graduation, he received a Scholastic Magazine National Art Competition scholarship to return to New York to study at the Art Students League (ASL).

While at the ASL, Waterman says he rarely went to class, but he was exposed to artists such as Theodore Stamos, Larry Poons, and Robert Rauschenberg. And though he did not study with any of them, the ASL teachers Waterman now admires most are the social realist Joseph Hirsh and portraitist Robert Brackman. While calling Brackman “my idol,” Waterman reserves a special reverence for Hirsh. “Joseph Hirsh,” he whispered. “Amazing.”

Hirsh had been a student of George Luks, one of The Eight who founded the Ashcan School, an aesthetic of urban poverty that surfaces regularly in Waterman’s paintingsvisions of malevolent landlords, dispossessed tenants, people scratching for chicken feed.

After a year at the Art Students League, Waterman returned to Portland. He has lived and worked on the downtown peninsula ever since. The apartment where he lives is as much studio as shelter. For seven years starting in 1969, Waterman, inspired by an uncle who was a Fuller Brush man, peddled his drawings and paintings door to door around Portland, both to make ends meet and to get out of the studio and meet people. “I was a dismal failure,” Waterman said. “I’m not a good salesperson. Being expected to administrate a retail career is too much, emotionally and physically.”

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Michael Waterman, Book of Dreams, oil on canvas, 29 x 20 in.

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Michael Waterman, Reading Gull, oil on canvas, 18 x 24 in.

During the 1980s, Waterman worked as a custodian at the Portland Public Library. Reading figures prominently in his paintings. He was showing little, however, while he was working at the library. Then, in 1988, he resurfaced with a retrospective at the University of Southern Maine Art Gallery and a solo show at Gallery 127 on Middle St. in Portland. He then outlived both Aucocisco Gallery and June Fitzpatrick Gallery in Portland before Harbor Square Gallery in Rockland and now Camden became his primary gallery.

Thomas O’Donovan, owner of Harbor Square Gallery, believes Waterman’s past as an itinerant peddler of paintings and his innate modesty may have worked against him as an artist. “If you saw Michael on the street you might think he lived on the street,” said O’Donovan. “He has been a teacher for me. He has the ability to be himself without a concern about how others see him or his work.” “I paint like I read,” Waterman said, “eclectic and for the fun of it. It’s not to have a career or to be clever.”

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Michael Waterman, Spreading Rumors, oil on canvas, 15 x 24 in.

Sebago resident Lynn Coburn, an avid Waterman collector, owns ten of his paintings. “To me, Michael’s works tell stories. I have one, a figure reading a book. I look at it every day and it tells me a different story every day. Good literature, good art, good music, what makes it work are the unseen voices that tell you stories. The unseen voices keep you going.”

Writer Meredith Hall, author of Without a Map and Beneficence, owns three of Waterman’s portraits. “Living with these images has changed me. Michael Waterman is a very private artist, and yet he reveals his heart so generously,” said Hall, who divides her time between Maine and California. “I live every day with these vulnerable and unguarded beings whom I have come to love.”

It is not important to Waterman that he understand what a painting means as long as the imagery interests him. His imagination inhabits an ancient, archetypal Portland that is somehow recognizable, perhaps because so many of Waterman’s pictures are grounded in the grit and soot of the old city.

There is a guileless quality to Michael Waterman and his art that is both disarming and difficult to describe. Reviewing several of Waterman’s figurative drawings in a summer 2011 exhibition at June Fitzpatrick, critic Philip Isaacson took a stab at it when he wrote: “I cannot put a label on it, but sense the existence in it of a personal world and of an assumption by the artist of a responsibility for that world’s security.”

“The people I make up have to have a look that implies they are thinking about something,” Waterman said. “They are pensive, worried, concerned.”

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Michael Waterman, New Moon, oil on canvas, 14 x 22 in.

He draws heavily on his childhood in his paintings. “You have to trust your childhood intuition,” Waterman said, citing the way artists from painter Marc Chagall to playwright Tennessee Williams drew on their childhood experiences.

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Michael Waterman, Angel, 5 x 7 in.

An intuitive painter, Waterman often starts with a head and face and follows where the paint leads him, a person turning into a building, perhaps, or the sea into a city. Because he cannot afford stretchers for all of his paintings, he works on unstretched canvas and on linen cut from tablecloths. He temporarily mounts his paintings on cardboard and hangs them about the apartment with coat hangers.

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Michael Waterman in his studio (with on easel Woman Giving Birth to City and Mermaid Riding Bird below the easel).

A work-in-progress in his studio depicts a flying fish with the beak of a bird being ridden by a mermaid as the fish leaps over a coastal landscape. When I asked him about it, Waterman quoted Rudyard Kipling’s “Mandalay:”

On the road to Mandalay,

Where the flying-fishes play,

And the dawn comes up like thunder out of China across the Bay!

The poem did not inspire the painting, he explained, but when he saw what he had painted it conjured Kipling.

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Michael Waterman, Bayside Angel, 24 x 30 in.

One of my favorite recent works by Waterman is Bayside Angel, an unusually colorful painting as Waterman paintings go. A lovely blonde angel dressed in sparkling blue camisole sits upon the city, the tiny citizens of which climb her scepter and clamor out of an urn.

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Michael Waterman, Mermaid Reading, oil on canvas, 27 x 20 in.

Mermaid Reading is one of Waterman’s best-known images; the nubile mermaid is seated on the shore beside a lighthouse with a book in her hand. This image has been made into a print from the original oil.

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Michael Waterman, The Spy, 34 x 28.1 in.

The Spy is another giant mermaid seated upon the shore, this one holding a pair of binoculars as a couple builds a campfire on the beach next to her.

“We all know the image of the stork delivering a baby. I always loved that image,” Waterman said when I asked about the appeal of mermaids. “My own effort has been to invent my own images. The mermaid is one of them.”

Waterman paintings are concocted of Chagall-like quixotic flights of fancy, the sooty social realism of the Ashcan School, and enigmatic allegories à la Albert Pinkham Ryder, yet they are very much his own. No one else paints like him. His Portland is a fairytale city populated not only by angels, giants, mermaids, and mythical creatures but also family, friends, neighbors, and spectral beings. “The one thing I want in a painting is a combination of the dream element and the prepared thought element,” he said. “The irrational and the rational.”

Having spent more than seventy-five years on the crusty brick peninsula of Maine’s largest city, Waterman knows Portland like no one else. “Every square inch of Portland is different, oddly different,” said Waterman. “Portland is damaged goods. It’s not that good, but not that bad. The streets are filled with ancient ghosts who don’t know to go on, to become elevated, to become better people.”


All photographs courtesy of Harbor Square Gallery.

Image at top: Michael Waterman, Riding her House, oil on canvas, 19 x 14 in.