Warning: Reflections May Be Distorted

Portland Old Port Reflections

Portland Old Port Reflections

Dateline: Portland, Maine

We’d visited Portland Maine on two prior occasions, in each case a quick stopover, once on the way to Nova Scotia, the other on the way to downeast Maine. This time, we made a point to stay two nights, so we’d have at least one full day in town.

It wasn’t enough, yet in another sense it might have been more than enough. Portland’s harbor is, it seems, given over almost entirely to tourism; as a bellwether of change, a fine bookstore has tipped the balance of its stock too far in favor of tourist trinkets. There are oases, to be sure, harbor areas as yet unreconstructed, food inventively prepared and served with panache in establishments frequented by local cognoscenti, and an elegant, welcoming place to stay nestled within a residential neighborhood where the primary attraction might be someone walking her dog.

This “on the one hand, on the other hand” was a conundrum we encountered everywhere we went: how to get past the touristic surface and discover what lay beneath. We didn’t succeed, but in Portland—and throughout our stay in Maine—I came to think a powerful measure of Maine’s vibrancy lies in the work of its visual artists: artists including Neil Welliver and Lois Dodd, whose works don’t simply reproduce the landscapes of Maine, but locate within it colors and patterns to create visions of their own; Lauren Fensterstock, whose meticulous assemblages limn the fraught interplay between human and natural worlds; and Rose Marasco, who forages in the flotsam and jetsam of Maine to produce singular works of photographic art.

The dazzling Portland Museum of Art was not the sole repository of accomplished and imaginative work. At the Portland Art Gallery, a multitude of talented artists, including Jane Dahmen, Richard Blanchard,  Jill Hoy, and Erin McGee Ferrell, drew on domesticated and wild landscapes of Maine to create a cornucopia of fine art. And at Greenhut Galleries, Sarah Knock’s paintings, taking as inspiration sojourns in her kayak, conveyed the complicated commingling of surface reflections and what is glimpsed beneath.

Sarah Knock: Herring Under the Kayak - Perfect Timing (date unknown)

Sarah Knock: Herring Under the Kayak – Perfect Timing (date unknown)

This is Part 1 of a 4-part series on Maine. Click here for Part 2, In Search Of . . . Maine Past, here for Part 3, In Search of Maine’s Shoreline, and here for Hiding in Plain Sight.


Where we stayed: West End Inn

Where we ate: Caiola’s and Central Provisions (sit at the counter to watch the chef and sous-chef in action)

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Listening List

See artwork by Lois Dodd here.

Lois Dodd: Maine Master

Extensive interviews with Lois Dodd may be found here and here.

See artwork by Lauren Fensterstock here.

Rose Marasco: St. Rosalie Feast (See artwork by Rose Marasco here.)

Neil Welliver (starting at 3:22) (See artwork by Neil Welliver here.)

An extensive interview with Neil Welliver may be found here.

Claude Debussy: La cathédrale engloutie (The Sunken Cathedral), from Préludes, Book 1 (1910)

Portland Shop Window

Portland Shop Window


Credits: As always on the blog unless otherwise indicated, the photographs are mine. (The photograph of Knock’s painting, “Herring Under the Kayak—Perfect Timing,” was taken from the postcard announcement of the exhibit “Water – The Passage of Time” at the Greenhut Galleries.)


18 thoughts on “Warning: Reflections May Be Distorted

  1. Raul

    Greetings from Chiang Mai. I am a grateful fan of yours and your visit to Portland is a joy. My Mom lives there and my relatives live down the road from Lois Dodd.

    Sawadee Krap to you for all your generous work.

  2. David N

    I wondered just this about Monterey and Cannery Row (wrong coast, I know, but similar situation): Steinbeck evokes something so rich and rare, long gone of course, but a friend showed me photos and it looked touristified beyond the norm. Love Sarah Knock’s picture.

    This time last year you were, of course, in Finland and Estonia. I was back in Tallinn last week for the first time in 26 years and what changes – but nearly all for the better. What a nation!

    1. Susan Scheid Post author

      David: Yes, though I haven’t been there in many, many years, Monterey and Cannery Row I’m sure present a similar problem. I think it’s a matter of knowing where to go and what to avoid, not so easy as a casual visitor.

      I wish I could have directly shown images of works we saw by Lois Dodd and Neil Welliver, and particularly Lois Dodd. One quite touching thing in the case of Dodd is that our neighbor and friend Leslie, who died a couple years ago, far too young, had a small house on Dodd’s property and created an extraordinary garden there. I hope you might find 4 minutes to look at the video “Lois Dodd: Maine Master.” Dodd talks about how she came to start painting flowers, which weren’t a particular interest of hers (for painting). I believe many, if not all, of the flowers she painted were in Leslie’s garden, and as Dodd talks, she is often standing in amongst them. Leslie’s husband continues to go to Maine, and I believe he keeps up with the garden, likely with help from Leslie’s Maine friends. Through our friends, we were lucky enough to meet Dodd and visit her studio. She’s a delightful, matter-of-fact person, very much like what you will see in the video.

      1. David N

        Indeed – so much effortless wisdom, especially about payinig attention while you can because flowers are so ephemeral. I feel that more keenly with the passing of each year, and I suspect you do in keeping a record of the changing seasons at Innisfree and in Central Park.

        She’s also wise about losing the essence if you strive for perfection. Thanks for insisting that I watched the film.

        1. Susan Scheid Post author

          David: Thank you for taking the time to watch the film. “Effortless wisdom” is the perfect phrase to describe Dodd’s comments. That need to pay attention while you can is something I also feel keenly, though I nonetheless miss out on so much more than I would like. Each year, I redouble my efforts to keep May and October, particularly, clear to observe the ringing of changes in the seasons. I remember this past May, I was required to visit the optometrist for a routine visit I’d planned to schedule in September. He remarked on what a beautiful day it was, and I said, yes, and that’s exactly why I don’t want these appointments landing in May. He said, laughing, you make it sound like it’s a form of torture to be here. I laughed in reply, but my thought bubble was, yes, it is!

  3. hilarymb

    Hi Susan .. so pleased you had a few days and were able to explore more. You obviously got around – enough to give us some guidance, if I ever get to Portland … but I love your photos and the ideas … then your searches for the artistic mastery that abounds there. Looks just lovely … cheers Hilary

    1. Susan Scheid Post author

      Hilary: Of course the nice thing about the artists is that they all have beautiful examples of their work online, so even if you’re too far away to visit Portland, you can still explore the art Maine artists create.

  4. Mark Kerstetter

    I’ve always wanted to visit Maine and I’ve always associated the place with Marsden Hartley. The painting ‘Fishing Lures III’ by Ferrell you’ve linked to reminds me of Hartley. It’s a really fine painting.

    1. Susan Scheid Post author

      Mark: Oh, yes, I can see why Ferrell’s painting reminds you of Hartley’s work. I was continually astounded by the quality of the art I saw throughout our visit. I don’t have your depth and breadth, of course, but all the same it seemed to me that what I was seeing wasn’t by any means ordinary fare. In one of the interviews with Lois Dodd, she makes note of the incredible number of fine painters who have worked in Maine. I wish Maine would find ways to celebrate its artists (beyond the Wyeths, who seemed to get all the “airwaves”) much more than it seems to do.

  5. Jackie Morrison

    A very interesting post Sue. There is much in what u write that I too have often pondered. We often forget, or are directed to forget, that, as humans, we are part of nature, not separate, though often described as such. Our mistaken omnipotence is often exposed by both the good and bad turns of the natural world. I think when one becomes immersed, within the greater force of nature, we can become, on the positive side, have our souls healed and enriched. Of course science has now ” proved” this to be the case though, by instinct we know it. But that doesn’t make money! But Artwork that helps that reconnection, including music, is therefore rewarding and often healing. I believe we met Lois on our trip over to you? We are lucky here to be surrounded by nature yet within the City. Some great photography on local Facebook pages. See you soon.

    1. Susan Scheid Post author

      Jackie: Nice to “see” you here. Yes, indeed, you met Lois, and if you take a gander at the video “Lois Dodd: Maine Master,” I think you’ll recognize Leslie’s garden, too. On the larger topic, what I appreciate about the art we saw, and about the arts generally, isn’t so much to do with reconnection with nature but rather with art’s own nature as an active, creative form of expression, as juxtaposed against tourism, where the focus, hard to escape, is on consuming, rather than connecting with anything in an authentic way.

  6. shoreacres

    I wish I’d known you’d be in Portland, and perhaps around the area. I have a blog-friend named Greg Sullivan who lives with his wife and two boys in Rumford, almost due north of Portland. He’s a woodworker, among other things, and I have one of these tables made of flame birch from his workshop. When I found out he’d called it his Evangeline table — well, that was it. I had to have one. It’s in my living room now, and if I have to evac for a hurricane, it goes in the back seat of the car. It’s the single most beautiful piece of furniture I own — not at all the sort of thing you’d find in a tourist shop.

    They’re quite a family: good, decent people who scrimp by, home school their kids, and share a wicked sense of humor. The boys (19 and 12 now, I believe) are pretty good self-taught musicians. When they recorded this version of “Take Five,”, they would have been 17 and 10. It’s been one of the joys of my life to contribute in a small way to their music fund. When I did, I received a hand-written thank you note. In ink.

    I suppose I thought of the Sullivans not simply because they’re in Maine, but also because they’re a perfect symbol of that vibrancy that you note as a hallmark of Maine. They’ve crafted a life for themselves, and understand the art of living in a way generally absent in our society. Like so many crotchety, independent, self-directed people hidden around our country, their surface doesn’t always reflect what’s hidden beneath.

    1. Susan Scheid Post author

      shoreacres: The Sullivans sound like a family much like many in the area where we live. Portland, I hasten to add, is a lovely city with a lot to commend it, some of which I’ve noted here. It’s simply that, as always in places that have become “destinations,” the relationship with tourism works distortions on the authentic character of the place. On the other hand, where we are is also a place of great natural beauty, but not a “destination,” and that has its pluses and minuses as well. (For example, I suspect the chamber of commerce folks would like to see much more tourism here.) I tend to think large cities probably have the best chance of absorbing visitors without losing their essential character. What seems to happen in smaller places is that a tendency to cater to the lowest common denominator starts to take over (t-shirt shops, etc.). I suspect it’s never a good thing when tourism is a primary economic driver for any town. Of course, here I am, speaking from the vantage point of tourist!

      1. shoreacres

        I don’t disagree with any of that. The small fishing village where I do most of my work is now A Destination, born and bred by the person most often called “The Developer Who Ate Kemah.” A place I loved twenty years ago is overrun with chain restaurants, weekly fireworks, ghastly traffic, and not very interesting anything for the tourists, except for a roller coaster, and a chance to peer through the crowds at the water. Sigh.

        What has happened here is that most of the money from tourism doesn’t even accrue to the town. It helps to build casinos in Louisiana.

  7. Steve Schwartzman

    The message in the Portland shop window caught my attention. It seems indisputable that different cultures (or a given culture in different eras) have different prevailing standards of beauty. At the same time, I seem to recall reading about experiments in which people from diverse cultures are asked to rate the attractiveness of people whose pictures are shown to them. Apparently certain traits (facial symmetry, for example) turn out to be near-universals. In light of that, the message in the window would seem to convey at best a partial truth.

    1. Susan Scheid Post author

      Steve: Interesting point. I suppose the sign in the window might be seen to take that into account with the “may be,” rather than flat-out “are.” I should have gone in and asked!

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