For this Summer issue of the Maine Arts Journal, we invited our contributors to share pages from past and present sketchbooks, excited to discover the many purposes for this uncensored private space. We are grateful for their willingness to let MAJ’s readers peek into their creative process and become privy to their visual thinking.

Carl Little writes about Philip Barter, who died last April. Barter’s lifelong practice of sketching allowed him to capture the memories of the many places he visited during his travels, offer a starting point for paintings, but also, following the advice of his friend Edwin Gamble, assisted him in transitioning to his distinctive brand of modernism, producing images in which “he simplified shapes, eschewing the incidental in favor of the abstracted.”

For John Moore as well, using sketchbooks is an essential part of his practice, and they accompany him in his travels. Moore tells us that he’s been using them since he completed graduate school, at first as a means of working out compositions, but also “to access subjects for painting that [he] did not have directly in front of [him].” Eventually, “drawing expanded into notetaking.” Despite the sketches’ rigorous precision, this is pure process. Moore declares: “There is nothing in these books that would be considered finished works.”

When stacked, Stuart Kestenbaum’s notebooks reach a yard and represent “a record of [his] adult writing life.” Notebooks are a place where Kestenbaum can try to write without being self-conscious, focusing on the tangible reality of everyday life, which he sometimes incorporates by pasting “a travel receipt, ticket stub, or an exquisite corpse drawing to make a visual break in this river of words.”

Sara Stites’s notebooks both chronicle her “creative journey” and function as the storehouse for “the meanderings of [her] mind and hand.” Stites developed a very personal sketchbook when she started using the printed pages of a set of scientific textbooks, with which she interacts by drawing, painting, cutting, and pasting, a practice she finds “invigorating and experimental.”

For France Hilbert, sketchbooks are a “constant companion,” an anchor and a source of strength during difficult times. They fulfill many purposes, from testing ideas, figuring out “if a subject is worth exploring,” working out ideas, from general compositions to details, recording “reflections and readings,” but also house “class preparation, grocery lists, and additions and subtractions.” Sketching merges with life as Hilbert observes nature in Maine and draws lessons in resilience, with the recurring motif of the road becoming a metaphor for uncertainty and for her “personal journey.”

Reed McLean as well finds potent metaphors in nature: he recounts the experience of sketching “a clutch of battered poplars” in which he sees “an unrepressed lust for life.” Whether he tries to capture the poplars or “three great oaks,” his process involves negotiating the balance between “important gestures” and details. As we see him engaging with his subjects, we are presented with the question of what makes a successful drawing.

For Ingrid Ellison, keeping a sketchbook is “ritual” that “has filled over forty volumes of visual journals,” in which she “invent[s] words, record[s] days, and imagine[s] paintings.” Her notebooks “are the first things [she] would save in a fire.” Ellison shares images and texts, fragments culled from observing the surrounding nature and her work as it unfolds, concluding her essay by stating “I trust the process.”

Claire Millikin reflects upon “photography’s capacity to act as time’s sketchbook.” A sequence of three images by Joyce Tenneson, each containing nine roses that sequentially evolve through time, progressively blossoming and wilting, prompts Millikin to wonder “which image is the sketch, which is preliminary, and which is the fully realized ‘work of art.’”

Carl Little discusses the steady role that sketching plays in Rob Finn’s artistic practice. Finn talks about the relationship between sketching and plein air painting and the work of translation that takes place as the visual stimulus is transferred to the paper. As trees have been “a recurring interest for decades,” Finn explains that he aims at “developing a language of marks that describes the organic processes of growth, structure, and dynamics of motion in and around the tree.”

In her quarterly “Art Historical Musings” column, Véronique Plesch looks at a few sketchbooks, going back in time as far as the 13th century. Whether a “repository of ideas for future reference” where “ideas can mature,” a place where the artist “explores and tests ideas before committing to one,” working out details and entire compositions, or even “a site for observation, study, and reflection,” sketchbooks can be seen as “the embodiment of the artist’s mind,” in which each page becomes “a snapshot of [their] thought process.”

Our poetry editor, Betsy Scholl, selected works by three poets. In two poems, James Brasfield “sketches the whole panoply of the seasons so they unscroll before our eyes.” Bruce Pratt’s poems similarly possess a sketch-like quality, in which we experience how “noticing, how paying attention to specific details can lead to a sudden shift of awareness.” Finally, Susan Cook’s poem, “explores a sort of sketch of self, a mind trying to come into awareness.”

Tony Owen comments on diaries and sketchbooks’ intimate and private nature. Considering his wife Pat Owen’s sketchbooks, he writes: “Those entries are from a time and place in an artist’s head, and as close as I am to the artist herself, I am a stranger to their meanings.”

For our Insight/Incite column, Argy Nestor asked teachers how they “incorporate sketching and sketchbooks” in their teaching. Nestor shares a list of the answers she received, along with examples of students’ work.

Edgar Allen Beem pays a moving tribute to Katherine Porter, who passed away last April. Beem recaps Porter’s remarkable career and includes statements by several Maine artists and figures in the art world who knew her and remember her generosity, “her verve and masterful brushwork,” and her works’ “unbridled passion and turbulent energy.”

We continue our behind-the-scenes visit through sketchbooks in a bountiful Members’ Showcase, with selections by Matt Blackwell, Daryne Rockett, Rebecca Poole-Heyne (Showcase 1); Joe Hemes, Robin Brooks, Amy Peters Wood (Showcase 2); Véronique Plesch, Mark Nelson, Nikki Millonzi (Showcase 3); Elizabeth Awalt, Kathryn Shagas, Laura Dunn (Showcase 4); Nancy Marstaller, Brita Holmquist, Liz Moberg (Showcase 5); Raquel Miller, Judy Labrasca, Sebastian Masters, Bruce Bulger (Showcase 6). The purposes that sketchbooks serve and the motivations that prompt one to engage in this practice are in full evidence. We see examples done during the day or at night, on the motif or after the fact, at home in the studio or while traveling–and even underwater! Our contributors use their notebooks to observe and to reflect, to respond and to test, to reminisce or to plan ahead. Carefully drawn or hastily sketched, deliberate or spontaneous, deploying a myriad styles and materials, entries record the external and the inner world, the pleasurable and the traumatic, the significant and the quotidian.

UMVA president David Estey’s latest installment in his professional advice to artists focuses on “How to Promote Your Work: Before, During, and After Exhibits.” Estey also reports on an “Unprecedented UMVA Membership Meeting” that took place last April, the appointment of Andrea Holland as the new UMVA treasurer, a new UMVA board member, Emily Sabino, a series of Exclusive Studio Visits for UMVA Members to begin this July, and about the forthcoming new UMVA website.

As usual, you will find the ARRT!’s quarterly report of their latest activities, for instance, the yard signs painted by children and artists with “Passamaquoddy words, images, legends, and symbols” that will be placed throughout the reservation as well as the placards and banners for the Maine Prisoner Advocacy Coalition and Maine Inside Out for the Juneteenth Celebration in Lewiston.

As the Union of Maine Visual Artists and the Maine Arts Journal bear witness, the artist community in Maine is, despite the distances, remarkably supportive and congenial. The generosity with which artists shared their sketchbooks for this issue is further proof of it.


Image at top: Maine Arts Journal Summer 2024 cover (Philip Barter, sketchbook page [photo: Carl Little]).