Plating up art

Jan 01, 2014
Chris Van Dusen of Camden designed the Lobster specialty Maine license plate.

Dagney C. Ernest — Mark McCollough of Hampden, whose paintings and drawings are on view this winter at the Maine Coastal Islands National Wildlife Refuge art gallery in Rockland, and Chris Van Dusen of Camden, a children’s book author/illustrator, have never met but they share a distinctive artistic fate: their work is owned and displayed by thousands of their fellow Mainers — most of whom are unaware of the fact.

Van Dusen, best known for his Mr. Magee books and for illustrating Kate DiCamillo’s Mercy Watson series, travels around the state, visiting classrooms and libraries to talk with children about art — specifically, illustration.

“I start my programs with some examples of illustration that is not children’s books. I show them my L.L. Bean catalog covers and posters. And I then I pull out the license plate and said, I bet you didn’t know I did this! It always gets a big reaction,” he said a week before Christmas.

The license plate that makes the kids say “Aw, really?!” is the Lobster specialty plate introduced in 2003, a fund-raising plate that has proved to be very popular … and a definite improvement over the “little lobster” standard issue plate of the 1980s and ‘90s. The Lobster Research, Education and Development Board receives a tax-deductible $10 from each lobster specialty plate purchased or renewed.

Van Dusen said he was working with a local ad agency, Ariel Creative of West Rockport, at the time. Ariel’s chief designer was Karan Cushman, whose husband was head of the Maine Lobsterman’s Association, Van Dusen said. It was a tough time for the fishery, and the MLA decided to try raising funds through a specialty plate.

“I think the state of Maine was issuing two new plates a year then. It was a sort of a competition in a way … I think we were up against the blueberry growers that year,” Van Dusen said, adding he volunteered his skills for the project.

“It’s kind of tricky! You only get a certain number of colors, four, so we tried different screens to get different shades,” he said.

They also tried the idea of having a living lobster, color-wise. But when the mock-up was viewed at 20 to 30 feet away, “it just looked like a nasty blob on a rock,” said Van Dusen.

In the end, it was decided the lobster should be red, as that is how many — and certainly, tourists — think of the critter. So Van Dusen got a lobster, cooked it up, took it out in the yard and took a bunch of reference photos. Then he had lobster for lunch and got to work.

“Lobsters are hard to draw! There are spikes and knuckles and bumps, and I wanted it to be as accurate as possible,” said Van Dusen.

The logistics of license-plate-as-canvas added to the difficulty of the task. One of the four holes cut for bolting the plate onto its holder was right where the artist wanted to put the big claw.

“I wanted the lobster to be as large as possible, but you also have to leave room for the letters,” he said.

Van Dusen’s illustration, which also includes a shack on a wharf, lobster boat, a few buoys in the water, some seaweed, pine trees and rocks, was officially unveiled at the Blaine House in conjunction with the annual Maine Lobster Chef of the Year ceremony. The first plate was issued to then Rep. Deb McNeil, R-Rockland, who sponsored the legislation that made the plate possible.

Van Dusen said when the plates first came out, his sons got a kick out of spotting them on the road. And he gets a kick out of seeing how the lobster plate has inspired such things as “Wicked Good” refrigerator magnets and the like.

“It’s still going strong,” he said.

In some ways, McCullough paved the way for Van Dusen’s lobster plate. For the last 11 years, McCullough has been a biologist for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Ecological Services Maine Field Office in Orono, focused primarily on the federally-listed endangered species of the Pine Tree State. But in his previous 13 years with Maine Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife, he did outreach work that combined his lifelong passions of art and wildlife.

One project entailed creating an original acrylic painting that may be seen on the first floor of the Maine Coastal Islands National Wildlife Refuge Visitor Center in Rockland; posters of McCullough’s “Endangered Species in Maine” are on sale in the refuge’s Nature Shop. The poster raised awareness, but raising funds for wildlife conservation — particularly nongame species — was an ongoing struggle. Other states were doing it via a specialty license plate, so it seemed like something to try in Maine which, at the time, offered no extra-cost plates.

“I was approached by an administrator. There had been a public opinion survey done by the University of Maine of folks at the mall that indicated they might be willing to support certain non-hunted animals — eagle, loon, two or three others,” said McCullough.

It was decided a prototype plate was in order. McCullough was the natural choice for a preliminary sketch, and not just because his doctoral research at UMaine was on the Bald Eagle.

“I went to Penn State as a double major in forestry and art. I had to drop the art classes after the first year because of the course load, but I’ve always considered it part of my work in wildlife management,” he said.

McCullough did a colored pencil sketch of a loon over a weekend, turned it in the following Monday morning and then didn’t hear about the project for months.

“Then a prototype plate appeared and I said, oh my gosh, that was just a sketch! I would’ve done a better job, but they liked it the way it was,” he said.

The "A Natural Treasure" loon conservation plate was introduced in 1994. After processing fees, $5.60 from the sale of each plate supports the Endangered and Nongame Wildlife Fund, managed by the Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife, and $8.40 supports the Department of Conservation’s Bureau of Parks and Lands.

“It raised a half million dollars a year at first,” McCullough said.

A few years later, he got the chance to put his art to plate again, and this time had the time to do the research and execution he felt it deserved. The state replaced the “little lobster” baseplate with another of McCullough’s designs, the current general circulation “chicky” plate featuring the state bird, flower and tree.

“I spent a day watching chickadees at Duck Lake, which is Downeast, and that one sunny day became the nucleus of the plate,” he said.

McCullough’s image was executed in mixed media using a combination of paint, pen and ink. It features a Blacked-capped Chickadee perched on a White Pine cone and tassel.

“I spent more time on this one and felt better about it,” said McCullough, who added he uses research, photos, field sketches and his personal experience with nature in creating his art.

These days, McCullough’s work and art are separated; he creates his art during evenings and on weekends. He is working on a milkweed and Monarch butterfly mural on the walls of the new Lafayette Family Cancer Center in Brewer, and executed a similar work in the sedation unit of Eastern Maine Medical Center. Later this year, he will tackle the wall where his “Endangered Species” painting currently hangs. McCullough will work with clay artist Kim Walker to create a nature scene with both underwater and land-and-sky components. Still, his best-known works are the license plates and he’s comfortable with that.

“I can say that most Mainers own a piece of my art,” he said.

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Staff Profile

Dagney C. Ernest
A&E editor for Courier Publications, LLC
(207) 594-4401/4407, ext. 115
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Dagney has been providing Courier coverage of the local arts scene since 1985 and has helmed the multi-paper A&E section since it debuted in 2003. She has been a local performing artist, community and professional, for almost 30 years and spent a decade writing, producing and announcing on-air for several Midcoast radio stations. When not in the NewsNest, Dagney likes to be in motion.

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