Myanmar to Maine
Waldoboro — Up a gravel road off Depot Street and past a once-busy quarry, a barn with a bright red door houses the kind of art not always associated with Midcoast Maine. When Robert Macdonald opened his Hurricane Gallery last summer, he took its name not only from the former Hurricane Isle Granite Company but also from a desire to stir things up and blow some fresh air into the local art scene.
Harbor scenes and leafy landscapes are not to Macdonald’s taste, but the work he gathers in the barn is just as Maine-bred. So is he, although he has spent many years living elsewhere — a fact reflected in the Hurricane’s inaugural show in 2011. It included work done in Japan and shown in two exhibitions, one in 1997 focused on Japanese sumo wrestling and another in 2004 on Japanese mythology and religion. There also was work executed in Maine and exhibited at Maine Coast Artists (1987); and in Chicago at the Art Institute (1985) and at Kennedy-King Gallery (1987).
The gallery’s current show, which opened last weekend, includes Macdonald’s work but is primarily a bounty of Maine art in varied media he has harvested over the course of the past year. Artists include Lisa Dombek, Patrick Plourde, Mat O'Donnell, Roz Welsh, Elaine Niemi, Stephen Mott, John Lorence, Alan Hynd, Caroline Davis and Pam Cabanas.
Macdonald was born in Portland and grew up around Sebago.
“I taught English my whole life but was always painting,” he said.
During a teaching career at Chicago City College, he would spend summers in Maine, family members having stayed in the state and settled in the Waldoboro area. At the end of his vacation stay in 1969, he saw a property for sale on Quarry Road in a month-old Down East magazine. He assumed it had been sold and, when it turned out it hadn’t, gave it a quick look-see, bought it and headed back to Chicago.
It wasn’t until Thanksgiving break he had a chance to really see what he’d gotten. It turned out to be a fully furnished small home with a big, somewhat ramshackle barn. The barn had a collapsing lean-to addition that he had turned into a small painting studio. Years later, he added a second floor. Last year, working with a local carpenter “who can do anything,” he said, that second floor was turned into gallery space and the studio was improved upon.
After Chicago, Macdonald spent 15 years teaching English in Japan.
“There were a lot of holidays, so I’d travel around Southeast Asia — I went everywhere,” he said as a canine companion chased a piece of garden hose around his studio.
One destination was Ngapali Beach on the Bay of Bengal in the Rakhine State of Myanmar, which Macdonald calls Burma. That country’s government has a strict policy that compels visitors to stay in, or at least rent, hotel rooms, and the walk from the hotels to the beach, a favorite of European tourists, takes one past the small village of Lin Tha.
“The people were so friendly and kept inviting me back and so I’d return the next year and the next,” Macdonald said.
If foreigners own a business, they are given a pass on the hotel-room requirement. Some of his village friends thought he should open a restaurant they could run, but the property they found couldn’t be acquired. Then he bought a smaller plot with the plan to open a hotel specifically for backpackers. The plan got as far as a foundation before bureaucracy ground it to a halt, but a small home and studio behind provided Macdonald a place to stay and paint.
“The foundation sat there for a long time,” he said, telling a tale about a Myanmar cohort using the hotel funds to buy a truck for a business idea that didn’t pan out. Macdonald continued to teach in Japan, visiting the village during breaks. Then one day, he arrived to find a building had arisen on the foundation.
“They decided since I was always painting, I should run an art gallery … it wasn’t really my idea,” he said.
As it turns out, with all the tourists walking by to and from the beach, it is a decent location for a gallery. Eventually, a white wall was built to surround Macdonald’s bit of Burma, bearing the gallery’s name in both Burmese script and Western lettering — Galerie Htein Lin Thar, which combines the village’s name with the one its inhabitants call Macdonald.
In 2004, Macdonald returned to Maine, in part to share his home with his school-age grandson. He still spends some time most winters in Myanmar, usually February into March.
“That’s the dry season, the tourist season there; the rest of the time it rains,” he said.
Opening the gallery in Waldoboro seems to have been almost as off-hand; he had the space and the services of a talented contractor … and he kept coming upon talent he felt deserved wider exposure. The practical aspects of running a gallery bite into his painting time but he is genuinely excited about the art he has to offer.
“There is some amazing work here, people just need to come and see it,” he said.
Hurricane Gallery is open most days. To contact Macdonald, call 832-4062 or 701-7477; or send email to email@example.com.
Courier Publications’ A&E Editor Dagney C. Ernest can be reached at (207) 594-4401, ext. 115 or firstname.lastname@example.org.