Art for (long) life
Belfast — Senior College of Belfast’s annual Festival of Art — Thursday through Sunday, May 15 to 18 — celebrates works in a variety of media by artists older than age 50. This year’s fest, the 12th, demonstrates that “retirement” is not a reality when it comes to artistic expression — many of the non-juried show’s artists are creating work decades past the festival’s age cutoff.
Case in point is this year’s honored guest artist Harold Garde, who celebrated his 90th birthday last June with a 90-in-90-days body of work. Garde spends half the year in Belfast and the other in Florida, painting, printing and showing work in both states. He is due to return to Maine on the festival’s opening day and will be part of the featured presentation Saturday afternoon. The festival takes place at the University of Maine’s Hutchinson Center, 80 Belmont Ave./Route 3.
The presentation, free as is all of the festival, is scheduled for 1 to 3 p.m. in the auditorium and will include film screenings, a panel discussion and remarks from the artist himself. The screening include clips from the “Maine Masters” series documentary and from Dale Schierholt’s “Working Artist” film, as well as a short video produced for the Museum of Florida Art, now the Museum of Art — Deland, Fla. A week before his return, Garde said he was looking forward to the film clips and expects to be surprised.
“I’ll say, did I really do that? That doesn’t even look like me!” he said.
That Garde has spent his life as a working artist is a bit of a surprise. He studied science at New York University before serving in World War II. As a 20-something veteran with a new wife (the late Barbara Kramer), he was looking to return to college on the G.I. Bill and needed housing, so considered any program that offered it.
“I thought, I’ll take some art courses, that should be easy! Within a couple of weeks, I’d become the studio assistant for the department,” he said.
The New York City native said he thinks he had an edge at the University of Wyoming “because I’d been in New York and seen the real deal.” He earned a bachelor of fine arts degree there and then a master’s from Columbia University. He was earning cred, but supporting his growing family meant taking a different route.
“I went kicking and screaming into the classroom — by then I had four kids. Then I did commercial and interior design in New York,” he said.
In 1968, Garde became an adjunct faculty member at New Jersey’s Nassau Community College, and added a full-time secondary school teaching gig from 1971 to 1984.
“It wasn’t until I retired and moved up to Maine that I started to consider myself a ‘non-hyphenated’ painter,” he said.
Another thing Garde went kicking and screaming into was acrylics but once he gave the 20th-century an of-necessity try — he was teaching a community education class and wanted students to be able to take their canvases home each week — he found himself not wanting to return to oils. It is his primary medium now, although he said he still prefers oil-based inks for occasional forays into conventional monotypes. The medium, not yet a century old, is proving to be quite durable.
“They put a major mural on the facade of the Florida museum, 20 by 8 feet, that still looks good, a replica of one of my works they have form the ‘70s, all of which have held up fairly well,” he said.
Acrylics also figure into the medium Garde is known for creating, strappo (pronounced STROP-oh). It involves creating a painting on glass and then loading the plate with layer after layer of acrylic gesso. Applying pressure causes all the layers to bond, so they can be peeled off as a monotype.
“… on a good day! It has the slick surface of the glass, yet retains the articulation and brushwork of the painted image — you can even sand it,” said Garde.
Strappo is a very forgiving medium, he said, without the hurry or limitations of other monotype processes. One can even scratch back to the glass. Because of the time needed for layers to dry, the workshops he has taught usually run three to five days. Those who have taken them have gone on the share the dry image transfer medium with others, so there are small bands of strappo practitioners around Midcoast Maine and Naples, Fla.
“I don’t believe in secrets in art, though that might have something to do with my age,” he said.
Garde had no problem sharing strappo with Camden Hills Regional High School art students, after then-teacher Simon van der Ven called to say they were having some problems with it.
“I said, wait a minute, you’ve never taken my workshop! He said he’s been to one of my lectures and figured it out himself … he’s become a good friend,” said Garde.
While he did some strappo this winter in Florida, Garde has been concentrating of late on his large-canvas painting, while also turning out some works on paper. He always leaves each studio’s work (in Belfast, he shares a big Victorian with daughter Elissa Garde-Joia) in state, so when he makes his seasonal relocation, he receives a get-to-work surprise.
“I’ll look around at what I left behind and thought was finished and I panic and say, was I out of my mind?”, he said. He is not out of ideas, that is clear, although he has perhaps a little less drive to pursue them all.
“I’ve had a great life! I can’t anticipate my 91st birthday and say I have as much energy as I used to have, but I also don’t have as much of the trauma,” he said.
One of this year’s Festival of Art exhibitors is just a few years behind Garde and also is still putting brush to paper. Renowned marine artist Victor Mays moved to Belfast’s Penobscot Shores last year and has a painting in the show that later will be donated to the Penobscot Marine Museum for its summer gala auction.
Mays’ interest in both the sea and drawing began at an early age, and he took art electives at Yale. After a demanding dual career as writer and freelance illustrator of magazines and books; and as a Naval Intelligence officer on both active and reserve service, he retired in 1978 and began to devote himself full-time to painting historically-oriented marine watercolors. A past Fellow and member of the board of trustees of the American Society of Marine Artists, Mays has enjoyed a third career as an award-winning artist, concentrating on American and British sailing vessels and small craft of the 19th century.
Mays arrived in town, moving to the Midcoast to be near a daughter in Ellsworth, in time to attend last year’s Festival of Art and has become active with its sponsor, Senior College.
“I’m very impressed with the quality of the work in this area,” he said. “Belfast is wonderful! I do all my painting in the studio, but spend a lot of time at the Front Street Shipyard, admiring the boats,” he said.
Also showing in the festival is Mays' neighbor Mary Ann Long and two members of her family. Long is a photographer, while her son Steven works in stained glass and his wife, Judith, is a clay artist; the couple live in Corinna. Mary Ann said she is showing a single 8-by-11 image and was unsure about doing that, but “the kids” convinced her to be in the show.
The Festival of Art, open to any Maine artist (professional or amateur) older than 50, opens Thursday with a 6 to 8 p.m. reception including refreshments and a cash bar. It continues 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Friday and Saturday; and noon to 3 p.m. Sunday. Friday night, the festival will present a 7 to 9 p.m. concert by the Belfast Bay Fiddlers. All Festival of Art events are open to the public.