Shades of the past
Rockland — The past is always present for local artist Charles Wilder Oakes, who grew up in Port Clyde and has been reworking the village and his experiences there in his art for decades. "The Lovers Over Port Clyde," a large-scale multi-media exploration of his early years, has been in and out of his Spruce Head studio for more than 20 years and he was working on it still the last day of spring. On July 3, it was scheduled to be transported to Rockland's Asymmetrick Arts gallery.
"I figure I have 100 hours left," said Oakes, adding that in order for "The Lovers" to leave, the window of his second-floor studio will have to be removed and the painting lifted down some 15 feet to a flatbed.
"It's not coming back in the house … I'm hoping it finds a home where it can be open to the public," he said.
"The Lovers" will be the focal work of a solo show opening Friday, July 6 at the Main Street gallery, which will host a 5 to 8 p.m. First Friday opening reception. The show's title — "Charles Wilder Oakes and the Muses of Port Clyde" — is shared by a new short film by Dale Schierholt, which will have its premiere screening 5 p.m. the day before at the Strand Theatre. DVDs of the film, which runs about half an hour, will be available at both the screening and the gallery.
Other works in the show include paintings and painted wood assemblages, both in more manageable sizes. Working on such a large scale is unusual for Oakes — in the past, anyway. Another super-sized work, originally slated to be in the show as well, is still in progress in the other half of his painting studio. Oakes thinks it may be several years before that one gets broken out.
"It's crazy to work on things so big! They take up so much space and so much time," he said.
Oakes doesn't have that much space to work with. He built his small home himself in 1984, the sparsely furnished first floor centered around a wood stove — shards of glass are embedded in a vine pattern in the floor, serving as a bit of a hearth — and the second-floor studio. Later he added a curious glass, metal and wood pyramid in the yard, just large enough to crawl into for star and thunderstorm viewing; and a small marshy pond, which has become populated with amphibians. But there was a less productive pursuit that caused him to put "The Lovers," begun as drawings in 1989 and as a painting in 1992, away for 15 years.
"I lost my way, drinking mostly. It took too much time away from making paintings I could sell, took too much out of me emotionally and out of my pocket," he said.
"The Lovers Over Port Clyde" depicts Oakes with his high school sweetheart sleeping in a peaceful embrace while Port Clyde, seen from above, seems to flow out of their unconscious bliss. Oakes used vintage and Google aerial images to help him map out the streets and buildings he remembers from his childhood; some of the latter are long gone, as is pet cat Tiger, depicted on the roof of an apartment building his family lived in.
"The Lovers" began as a winter scene, Oakes said. Now it glows with vibrant summer greens and a splash of autumn leaves. On this day, the paint was securely dry and Oakes laid his hands on his work, pressing his index finger on the different houses as he talked about the part they play in his story. The houses invite such treatment, rising from the painting in relief — in recent months, Oakes has cut and painted them from wood and affixed them over their painted versions. He had to, he said. The Angel told him to.
Ah, The Angel — subject of the still-in-progress painting in the other half of the studio and part of Oakes' life since he was a toddler. He remembers going out the door to play outside in the rain, standing in the street in front of his fishshack home and seeing something out of the corner of his eye.
"I looked over and there was The Angel. She said 'welcome to the world!' and I felt something rise from the pit of my stomach to my throat and my ears popped and everything became vivified … it's like she gave me consciousness," he said.
Oakes' mother called him in from the rain and he turned his head towards the house; when he turned back, The Angel was gone. He said he can't remember if he said anything to her about what he'd experienced but has a sense he kept it to himself. Years later, when she was facing open-heart surgery, he told her the tale.
"We knew we might not speak together again so we got honest. I'd only ever told Kris [his teen girlfriend] and Patricia [his first wife] about it. After I told her, she said, 'I always knew you were a strange kid!' and we had a good laugh," he said.
Growing up was no laughing matter for Oakes, who said his mother was "on the government " and father only contributed when he could. His Uncle Walt, subject of many works, gave him his first beer when he was 11, finding it amusing when the boy got drunk. Now six years into sobriety, Oakes sometimes wonders how he made it to the 21st century. He began his new life on May 7, 2006. He didn't know if he could paint sober. One day, The Angel spoke to him again.
"She said, 'If you paint it, they will arrive.' and I thought, who will arrive — aliens? The guys in white coats? But it was the Salt girls and Dale Schierholt and Down East," he said.
"The Salt girls" were students from Portland's Salt Institute, who created a documentary in 2007 as he began work on the angel painting. Oakes was featured in the February 2007 issue of Down East magazine. Schierholt began work on his film during the same time, documenting, among other things, the documenting … something Oakes has been doing via journaling on the back of the large work-in-progress.
The angel's face is based on that of Alexandra Chambers, daughter of Thomaston jeweler Dan Chambers, whom Oakes met at a Rockland gallery. Seeing her was the second time he has felt like he has "seen" The Angel; the first time was in Kris, the woman in "The Lovers." Both time, Oakes said, he felt his heart rise to his mouth. It took him a while to get up the courage to ask Chambers to sit for him.
"When I did, she laughed and said, Charlie, what took you so long," said Oakes.
It's taken Oakes a long time to get to this place and it takes him aback at times. When Schierholt showed him the director's cut this spring at the former Lincoln Street Center for Arts and Education, Oakes said hearing his own voice coming from the speakers, "sounding like the voice of God," was startling. But what really struck him about the film were the segments walking through Port Clyde.
"It really brought up shades of the past, walking down those streets as I had thousands of times. It's a lifetime later — a sober lifetime," he said.
Oakes' show at Asymmetrick Arts will run through July 27. For more information about the artist, visit home.earthlink.net/~wilderoakes/.
Courier Publications' A&E Editor Dagney C. Ernest can be reached at 207-594-4401 or firstname.lastname@example.org.