Autumn color is hitching up its skirts and getting ready to sprint

Interested in fall foliage? This is the ultimate road trip for a leaf-looker.
Glade #1, by Carol L. Douglas. Watercolor on Yupo.

We haven’t had a frost yet, but with each day I see a bit more color. To date, it’s mostly the sumacs and undergrowth, but the top of the birches are starting to glint gold.

Someone sent me this cool interactive fall foliage map. It’s probably a good, broad sketch, but I’m skeptical about the details. I know, for example, that Penobscot Bay is unlikely to change in tandem with Fort Kent, ME. Nor will Rochester turn side-by-side with the high peaks of the Adirondacks.
Maine’s official color-spotters agree with me. “Northern Maine is at or near peak conditions the last week of September into the first week of October. Central, and western mountains of Maine are at or near peak Columbus Day week/weekend. Coastal and southern Maine generally reach peak or near peak conditions mid-to-last October.”
Glade #2, by Carol L. Douglas. Oil on canvas.
If it were up to me, I’d be heading north to Canada’s Algonquin Provincial Park today, with my canoe. It’s not a western park, but it would give me aspen, tamarack and maples, set against black spruce.
Then I’d spend a few days in Ottawa, Montreal and Quebec City for a dose of Canadian city life. I’d continue to Halifax and spend a few days knocking about Nova Scotia’s eastern shore, reveling in ancient maritime Canada. Eventually, I’d head to Digby and the ferry to St. John, NB. I’d then roll south, making sure to stop at West Quoddy Head Light and the boreal trail at Quoddy Head State Park.
Marshes along the Ottawa River, Plaisance, Quebec, by Carol L. Douglas
Stop right there, Carol. “You just skipped mysterious, moody Eastport,” I admonish myself. Well, I also skipped Lunenburgand Peggy’s Cove in Nova Scotia, and the fossil cliffs of New Brunswick. Not to mention the superlative Group of Sevencollection at the National Gallery in Ottawa. It’s impossible to list the interesting stuff you’d see on this trip, but if you can’t blow four weeks driving from Algonquin to Boston, you’re not really trying.
It’s under 3000 km. The trip of a lifetime, I tell you.
Speaking of the Group of Seven, I’m finishing up my residency at the the Joseph Fiore Art Center with a classically Go7 exercise which I periodically attempt and at which I never excel. That’s painting a glade. I don’t want a dominant tree, or to use white birches as a foil for dark foliage. I’m looking for a deeper kind of compositional integrity, and, so far, I haven’t found it.
This tiny glade first attracted me because of the glitter of the lone yellow tree against all that green. It would have been difficult enough to paint it in sunlight. In the dripping gloom and mist and rain we’ve had this week, it’s been maddening. I don’t think either painting was a success, but they’re both interesting, and that’s all I really want for today.
We’re winding down now. Clif Travers and I agree that today is the last day it’s possible to paint in oils and have work that’s dry enough to move. I may paint in watercolor Saturday, or I may coo at my brushes and clean up my kit for my next big event.

Come see me on Sunday at Open Studio Day

Gallery, studios, music, ice cream, a beautiful lake—and it’s all free!
Clif Travers works on his great tree for long hours every day. I help him along by constantly asking, “Are you finished?”

 I’ve been at the Joseph A. Fiore Art Center at Rolling Acres Farm this month. This Sunday (September 30th) I get to show you what I’ve been doing. You, the public, are invited to Open Studio Day, from noon to 3. Stop and see what we’ve accomplished.

Our resident gardener, Rachel Alexandrou, will offer hourly tours of the Center’s garden. Rachel has odd ideas about what a Maine garden can support. She grew red cotton, cardoon, artichokes, amaranth, and tiny black grape tomatoes in a small riot of color. When Rachel isn’t gardening, drawing, or taking photographs, she’s entertaining us with mournful songs on her ukulele. However, she’s a bubbly person, so they’re frequently interrupted with peals of laughter.
Rachel Alexandrou is outstanding in her field. (Courtesy Maine Farmland Trust)
Clif Travers has made himself an enormous tree of recycled tree products. He’s now painting it in oils, a highly-detailed process. On first read, it’s stained-glass, reminiscent of hours spent in church as a child. But his tree is oddly anthropomorphic, standing protectively over creation. In a nod to Renaissance painter Giuseppe Arcimboldo, many of its parts are made of vegetables. Certain viewers, however, have insisted they’ve seen a hot dog, lamb chop, and other meat products. It is, as far as I can see, totally gluten-free.
Each morning, I’ve met Heather Lyon creeping out of the house at dawn, heading down through the fields to the lake. There, she’s shot beautiful footage of herself in various interactions with water. Wearing a $6 reflective survival poncho she bought at Renys, she was transformed into a beautiful, otherworldly creature. Heather also chilled herself and a collaborator in the very cold waters off Pemaquid Point for the sake of swift-moving footage with seaweed and a crab or two.
Heather Lyon in her studio. (Courtesy Maine Farmland Trust)
I came here with a high-minded idea of painting the confluence between man, water and the land. In reality, I ended up thrashing around between watercolor on Yupo and oil painting. I alternated media every day, painting each subject first in oils, then in watercolor. After a month of this, I can say with certainty only that my brain hurts.
The Gallery here is showing Nature Observed: The Landscapes of Joseph Fiore, with oil and pastel paintings by the late artist and environmentalist. These paintings have influenced my thinking all month. If you practice or love plein air painting, you should come by just to study them.
Damariscotta Lake, by Carol L. Douglas, watercolor on Yupo.
There will be live music on the lawn by jazz trio The Extension Chords, with Myles Kelley on piano, Katherine Bowen on bass and Owen Markowitz on drums. Coffee, tea and local ice cream will be served.
The Joseph A. Fiore Art Center at Rolling Acres Farm is a program of Maine Farmland Trust. Its mission is to actively connect the creative worlds of farming and art making. The Center’s purpose is to continue and evolve the dialogue between human and environment within the context of our current culture and time.
My own studio is more of a repository than a workspace. As usual, I’m working out of my Prius.
It’s located on Damariscotta Lake at 152 Punk Point Road in Jefferson. Bring a picnic and enjoy the Center’s grounds for the day.
MFT also runs MFT Gallery, at 97 Main Street, Belfast. It is open Monday through Friday from 9 to 4. On Fourth Friday Art Walks, it is open until 8pm.
Maine Farmland Trust is a statewide, member-powered nonprofit working to protect farmland, support farmers, and advance farming. Maine Farmland Trust created its gallery to celebrate agriculture through art, and to inspire and inform the public about farming in Maine.

A common footman in the army of art

Plein air painting isn’t highbrow, but it speaks to my soul.
La casa de los abuelitos, by Carol L. Douglas
“You’re lucky to love to do something that people love,” Clif Travers told me soon after we’d met. He meant that sincerely. It’s easier to sell landscape paintings than the large-scale installation piece he’s working on.
The earliest known “pure landscapes” (with no human figures) are Minoanmurals dating from around 1500 BC. Landscape flowered in Rome, Egypt and China. It died out in western art and was rediscovered in the Renaissance.
Rocky, by Carol L. Douglas
In China, the mountain-water ink painting was traditionally the most valued form of picture. Here in the west, landscape occupied a low position in the accepted hierarchy of genres, which went:
  1. History, including all that allegorical stuff;
  2. Portrait;
  3. Genre painting, or scenes of everyday life;
  4. Landscape;
  5. Animals;
  6. Still life.
This hierarchy was established in 16th century Italy. It elevated those things which rendered the universal essence of things (imitare) over the mere mechanical copying of appearances (ritrarre). While the Impressionists did much to knock this on its head, there’s still a decided whiff of lowbrow to landscape painting, particularly the plein air variety. I think it’s because people actually like it.
Some days it rains, by Carol L. Douglas
The 17th century Dutch Golden Agepainters were among the first artists with middle-class customers, so it’s no surprise that they painted lots of landscape. But they were conflicted about it. Samuel Dirksz van Hoogstraten was the century’s most important art critic. He called landscape paintings “the common footmen in the army of art.” But he also recognized that landscape “provides scope for artistic freedom, for coloristic virtuosity and for chance: for a dialogue between Mother Nature and the artist’s own innate ability.”
It’s surprisingly difficult to find data on what genres of art sell the best, but I did find this top-ten list from Art Business Today. It’s for the UK art market, but ours isn’t much different:
  1. Traditional landscapes
  2. Local views
  3. Modern or semi-abstract landscapes
  4. Abstracts
  5. Dogs
  6. Figure studies (excluding nudes)
  7. Seascapes, harbor, and beach scenes
  8. Wildlife
  9. Impressionistic landscapes
  10. Nudes

Beach Grass (Goosefare Brook) by Carol L. Douglas
Obviously, none of us invented landscape painting, but each of us invents ourselves as landscape painters. When we start out, there’s absolutely no market for our work. We create that market through dialogue. We produce our first paintings, gauge the audience’s reaction (through sales and critiques), and then refine our message and reenter the fray with new work. That’s an ongoing process throughout our careers. It’s no different from many other lines of work.
There are artists working out there in splendid isolation, not caring what the audience thinks, but they’re very rare. For most of us, painting is a dialogue, and the other half of the dialogue is the buying public.
Bracken Fern, by Carol L. Douglas
Most artists don’t shape their work because a certain kind of landscape painting will sell better (although we are influenced by our peers and gallerists). But the best feedback we get is often in the form of a purchase.
I don’t paint en plein air because I think it’s somehow higher on a hierarchy of landscape. I do it because it appeals to me on a soul level. My friend Brad Marshall once said, “My clients don’t care if I did it in the studio or out. They only care about the quality of the work itself.” Plein air is not, in itself, a virtue. It’s only when it helps the painting become transcendent that it matters.

Clary Hill

Stone walls are a subtle reminder of the vast human labor that has gone into these fields.
Clary Hill #2, by Carol L. Douglas. Watercolor on Yupo, full sheet.

I ran into Kevin Beers in Damariscotta, and asked him if he’d ever been to Clary Hill, site of a painting by that name by Joseph Fiore. He had, and offered directions. However, knowing where I’m going violates one of my cardinal rules of shunpiking. Instead, Clif Travers and I headed north and up until we found the hill and its blueberry barrens. We did not, however, find the scene that Fiore painted.

I dropped Clif off at Rolling Acres Farm and collected my oil-painting kit. If I hurried, there was just enough time to finish a painting in the waning light. It’s perfectly serviceable, but the composition doesn’t begin to express the skewed perspective on this hilltop.
Blueberries, by Carol L. Douglas. By late September, the red of the blueberry barrens is an impossible color.
In early September, the groundcover is orange-red and the small outcroppings of trees are green. Farther along in the season, the plants will be an impossible, deep, uniform red. There are open patches where nothing grows. In a more conventional landscape, these would be small ponds, but here they are granite, rising to the surface in long fingers.
The farther north you travel on the Atlantic seaboard, the more blueberry barrens you see. They and their close relatives, cranberries, are the only crops that we harvest from wild plants. But blueberries aren’t planted and cultivated in purpose-built bogs, as cranberries are. Instead, blueberries spread from rhizomes. You don’t plant them as much as encourage them. In the right conditions, they grow like weeds, including in my lawn. In that sense they’re more like a natural resource than a crop.
Clary Hill #1, by Carol L. Douglas. Oil on canvas, 36X24.
Wild blueberries bear little resemblance to the fat highbush blueberries that are grown commercially in milder climes. Ours are short, tough, shrubby things, with tiny berries. The wild ones like the acidic soil and abundant sunshine of the far north, and they have their counterparts in the subarctic ring worldwide.
Today rocks can be moved with heavy equipment, but the stone walls that crisscross blueberry barrens were built by unknown, long-gone hands. The berries are hand-harvested as well. That makes the stone wall an integral part of the portrait of a blueberry barren, a subtle reminder of the vast labor that has been done on this spot for generations.
Sketch for the painting at top.
On Sunday, I went back again with watercolors. As I was setting up, a birder stopped by. He’s been visiting Clary Hill for forty years, and encouraged me to cross the gate and walk to the top. There, laid out below me, was Joseph Fiore’s vista. I would have had to trespass to get his exact view, but the wishbone track peters off to the right, just as he painted it. Far in the distance is the coast—St. George, perhaps, or Owls Head.
Just like old times!
I was just settling down to work when my daughter Mary showed up. Our phones location-share, so she drove over from Augusta to find me. Mary traveled across Canadawith me, studying and reading while I painted. It was like old times. She did homework while I painted, on a barren hilltop in the middle of nowhere.

A month in the shadow of a great painter

Ghost stories, cemeteries, and the work of a great painter

Clif and I visited this old cemetery in the waning light.

If I had any talent for poetry, I’d have exercised it last night. I’m at the Joseph Fiore Art Center in Jefferson, Maine for a one-month residency. My room faces east. I watched the slow rotation of the night sky, the stars overflowing their courses. The dawn rose red and fiery, glinting through the trees off the waters of Damariscotta Lake.

I spent yesterday with the other visual artist in residence, Clif Travers of Kingfield, ME. Clif is both a writer and painter, and recently returned to his hometown after a long stint in Brooklyn. His work here will involve panels and prose, brackets and blocks. I’m curious about what the end result will be; I imagine he is, too.

Moving into a temporary studio is more daunting for a studio painter than for me; I simply had to offload my extra supports and was done.

My studio away from home.

When we’d both finished, Clif and I took a quick jaunt to Rising Tide Co-op in Damariscotta and Pemaquid Point. It’s rare that I can play tour-guide to a native Mainer, but Kingfield is way inland and north.

There is a family cemetery set within the aptly-named Rolling Acres Farm. It’s of a type I identify more with Scotland than America, a set of small ‘rooms’ separated by carefully-laid up dry walls.

Katahdin, 1975, Joseph A. Fiore, courtesy Maine Farmland Trust

I’d already retired when Clif called up that I should come down and see the waning day’s pyrotechnics. The few white stones glowed peach against the dark woods. We set off through the hayfields to photograph it, me in my bare feet.

“Maybe this place is haunted,” Clif enthused. Well, I was raised in a notorious haunted house, but it was late and I refused to tell him about it. Ghost stories need their buildup, after all.
My workspace is in an old barn, redolent of old hay. But I don’t expect to spend much time there. I’ve a goal in mind for this residency. It involves the intersection of water and land, and—mostly—painting big. Unfortunately, my monster Rosemary & Co. brushes are delayed, so I’m going to have to be flexible in my approach.

View from Bald Rock, 1971, Joseph A. Fiore, courtesy Maine Farmland Trust

Who was Joseph Fiore (1925–2008) and why is there an art center dedicated to him in Jefferson, ME? Fiore was born in Cleveland, the son of a violinist. He was musical himself, and that is very evident in his painting. He attended the experimental Black Mountain College on the GI Bill and studied with Josef Albers, Ilya Bolotowsky, and Willem DeKooning. Later, he taught there.

With those instructors, it’s no surprise that Fiore was, foremost, an abstractionist. However, his work is rooted in nature and he also painted lovely, loose, realistic landscapes. His paint is worked very thin, and his brushwork is loose and measured. Leaving that much canvas is the mark of a good draftsman, because any dithering shows.
After Black Mountain closed, Fiore settled in New York, where he taught at Parsons. In 1959 he and his wife began summering in Maine. They bought an old farmhouse in Jefferson, which they used for the rest of his life.

Clary Hill, 1970, Joseph A. Fiore, courtesy Maine Farmland Trust

Fiore and his wife Mary were avid supporters of Maine Farmland Trust. When the Trust purchased this waterfront farm, the idea of the art center was born.

My first response to being surrounded by his work was a kind of intellectual shock, where everything I thought I knew about painting was challenged. Now, nearly 24 hours later, I’m adjusting somewhat. But the opportunity to be submersed in another artist’s work is not to be sneezed at, so I’m adjusting my plans to allow time with the paintings every day.