In the late 1970s and early 1980s, downtown Rockland was struggling. Vacant storefronts were accumulating on Main Street. The quality of residential life was deteriorating on several side streets between Main and Union streets. Motorcycle gangs arrived. Crime was increasing.

Simultaneously, young artists and artisans were moving into the area, attracted by the beauty and heritage of the Midcoast and by other artists and artisans who were already here. Several of these creative newcomers were destined to play important roles in Rockland’s renewal. This edition of “Local Heroes” focuses on three of those talented people: Cynthia Hyde, Jim Kinnealey and Tom O’Donovan.

A native of Massachusetts, Jim Kinnealey had been living and painting in Camden for a few years when, in 1980, he purchased a run-down tenement building on Elm Street in Rockland, across the street from the Farnsworth Museum and Homestead. “Being near the Farnsworth was a major factor in buying the building,” said Jim in a recent conversation. “I loved the neighborhood and the Lucy Farnsworth Homestead – it was the perfect location for me.” He moved into the third floor and went to work renovating the place. It was in rough shape, having most recently been inhabited by motorcycle gang members.

Jim’s Camden friends questioned why he wanted to move to Rockland, which in those days seemed to them an inhospitable place. That dim view was seemingly reinforced when, shortly after moving into his new home, two boys from next door dropped by for a visit while Jim was scraping and cleaning the first floor. “You’re not going to live here, are you?” queried one of the boys. When Jim replied in the affirmative, the boy responded, “That’s a bad idea. You could get killed!” A few nights later, Jim was awakened about 2 a.m. by a couple engaged in a four-letter-word-laden screaming match. A few minutes of shouts and threats were followed by the sound of breaking glass, the slamming of car doors and the peeling of rubber as a car bolted out of the neighborhood. “And that was the first of several other similar incidents that interrupted my sleep,” Jim said.

Despite these problems and the lack of encouragement from friends, Jim persisted. “It was what turned off many of my friends – Rockland’s gritty character – that attracted me,” he said. “I saw Rockland as a real place and the 1880s building, given its proximity to the Farnsworth, as having the potential to create a community of artists.”

Sharing Jim’s vision was Cynthia Hyde, another Massachusetts native, who had moved to Tenants Harbor in 1977 to resume her passion for painting. “Jim and I met around the time he bought the building in Rockland,” she said. “In addition to sharing a love for the Farnsworth and a vision for creating a community of artists, we discovered many other common bonds, including the fact that we had been born in the same Boston hospital a day apart. Jim and I like to say that we found each other again here in Maine.”

Cynthia left the area temporarily in 1981 to study at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts while Jim continued to work on restoring his Elm Street property. To support that effort he sold meat for his family’s Boston-based business, Kinnealey and Company. Upon Cynthia’s return in 1982, the pair joined to open the Caldbeck, at the time Rockland’s only business fully dedicated to the showing and selling of art objects.

“Our friends from Camden and other places would come for the openings and afterward we would all head over to the Black Pearl for dinner,” Jim said. Rockland’s days as an entertainment and restaurant center were still several years in the future, but from the beginning, “the Caldbeck was blessed with enthusiastic and eager fans; the openings rocked with big crowds, fun, and excitement.”

Cynthia continued, “It was a struggle financially in the beginning. In those early days, we would get euphoric when we sold a drawing for $25, but soon realized that we needed to think a bit bigger. Sometimes we would get to the point of wanting to give up our dream, but we were sustained by words of encouragement from our friends and a growing legion of other supporters in the arts community.”

Slowly, with ups and downs, the business began to grow. Jim and Cynthia, who were now married, drew the attention of well-known artists in the area. “We were fortunate to have the opportunity early on to show the works of widely recognized artists like Lois Dodd and Abbott Pattison and to develop a reputation for dealing honestly and fairly with artists,” Jim said. “One major breakthrough came when we exhibited work of the well-regarded Port Clyde painter Bill Thon. We forged a strong relationship with Bill, which ultimately led to an exhibit at the Farnsworth and growing sales for us.”

The painter Lois Dodd, who has shown her work at the Caldbeck from its inception, told me recently, “Working with Jim and Cynthia has always been a positive experience for me. As artists themselves, they have a natural empathy. They treat other artists the way they would want to be treated. I also like the way they have approached developing the gallery. They have grown slowly and thoughtfully. The Caldbeck is a very solid operation. Jim and Cynthia seek out good, noncommercial art.”

Jim and Cynthia assess that the Caldbeck has endured by focusing on what they do best — selling what they as artists like and by maintaining positive chemistry with the artists. In other words, they love art and artists, a winning combination for building and sustaining Rockland’s anchor art gallery these past 28 years. And something tells me the Caldbeck will endure for many more years.

Tom O’Donovan was a jeweler and graduate student at Penn State University in the late 1970s when he discovered the music of Gordon Bok. “His music soothed me; it had the effect of a tranquilizer. I loved it,” Tom said. Tom learned that Gordon had grown up in Camden, Maine. “I knew about Camden, New Jersey, but had never heard of Camden, Maine,” Tom said.

Coincidentally, Tom met a couple from Camden who, after spending time with him, said confidently he belonged in Midcoast Maine. Intrigued by their assertion, Tom made his first trip to the Maine Coast in the summer of 1980. After seeing Camden and exploring the length and breadth of the coast accompanied by his dog and a tent, he decided to return as soon as possible. That turned out to be the following winter. He was greeted by a 3-foot blizzard and immediately sought refuge at a local pub, the Thirsty Whale, where he met Gordon Bok for the first time. “Gordon was in the audience listening to the music of his friend Bob Stuart,” Tom said. That second visit cinched it. Tom was moving to Maine.

The move occurred the next summer, 1981. Soon after his arrival, Tom rented a 200-square-foot space in the narrow side street leading down to Camden Harbor’s public landing. He called his shop “Good Hands,” which he defines as “hands put to good use.” He started out thinking he would concentrate on selling his own jewelry but soon met a young artist, Charlie Oakes (known professionally as Charles Wilder Oakes), who asked Tom to sell some of his paintings. Tom liked Charlie’s work and soon learned that his growing group of patrons did, too. This was the beginning of Tom’s gallery model, the exhibiting and selling of his creations alongside the work of other artists.

In late 1982 Tom was forced to vacate his small but centrally located shop for a larger, but more off-the-beaten path locale at the far edge of Camden’s downtown. “I was now paying four times the rent for 1,000 square feet of space in a part of town that generated much less foot traffic,” Tom said. “I was terrified.” However, Tom’s growing reputation as a creator of exceptional jewelry, together with his professional relationship and friendship with several other well-regarded artists, among them painters Imero Gobbato and the already noted Charlie Oakes, enabled him to overcome his location. In fact, within a few years Tom expanded his operation, now called Harbor Square Gallery, to fill the entire 4,500-square-foot building. “I continued to create jewelry and fill the walls with the work of others,” he said. His vision grew to include a café and jazz music performances.

As Tom approached his 12th year in his expansive quarters, he was faced with a new challenge. Camden real estate, seemingly always in demand, became even more desirable with the coming of the affinity credit card company, MBNA, in the early 1990s. Prices escalated, including the rental value of Tom’s space. He wanted to remain in Camden but, after shopping around, concluded there was nothing suitable he could afford. He reluctantly turned his attention to Rockland, which was still in the beginning stages of its resurgence in the mid-90s. One morning, while sipping coffee in the original location of the Second Read, Tom spotted the former Security Trust Company building on the opposite side of Main Street. “It was beautiful – and empty,” Tom said. He found the owner and was able to purchase the building on affordable terms and, with the help of friends, set to work transforming the building.

While Tom’s stock reply to his friends when they asked why he was moving to Rockland was “because I can’t figure out how to move that building to Camden,” he was becoming increasingly excited about his new location in the heart of downtown Rockland next door to the Farnsworth, with the Caldbeck and Huston-Tuttle’s upstairs galleries nearby. In addition, as his new space took shape it held for Tom a sacred quality that fit his aesthetic vision. He describes the gallery as “my church.” It also fit his mission for Harbor Square – namely, “to preserve, nurture and maintain a respectful space for beauty,” a space that in its new locale would add to its impressive array of beautiful art objects, the exquisite shallow relief carvings of the man whose music initially sparked Tom’s interest in the Maine Coast – Gordon Bok.

An encounter with a 5-year-old boy and his mother soon after opening in Rockland in 1995 revealed that other people shared Tom’s vision. Tom recalls that the boy walked in and standing just inside the front door gazed all around in wonder, while his mother busied herself looking at various art works throughout the gallery. Finally, the boy spotted Tom in the corner crafting a piece of jewelry and asked, “Are you Jesus?” Tom assured him he was not Jesus. The boy looked around some more and then announced, “Well, this is Jesus’ home.”

While there were times in his first few years in Rockland when Tom doubted how well he fit into his new downtown community, the coming of MBNA to Rockland, combined with the dramatic enhancement of the Farnsworth, the transformation of the Senter-Crane building into an expanded home for the Island Institute, the growing gallery and dining scene, the stunning renewal of the Strand Theatre, and the advent of several other well-received enterprises on Main Street that have made Rockland an increasingly desirable place to visit – all of this convinced Tom that he had indeed made the right decision.

Harbor Square Gallery draws praise from its creative neighbors, too, including the proprietors of the Caldbeck. Among the many aspects of the gallery they admire is the elegant rooftop sculpture garden Tom opened in 2007. “It is a stunning and unique addition to downtown Rockland,” said Jim Kinnealey.

Cynthia added, “When Tom chose to move his gallery to Rockland and lovingly renovate an important and historic building, it was a tremendous validation that the art scene in Rockland was vibrant and unstoppable.”

Rockland’s resurgence has been powered in significant measure by the growth of the art scene in the downtown. This week we salute all of the art galleries in our community and honor as local heroes Cynthia Hyde, Jim Kinnealey and Tom O’Donovan for the important roles they played in fueling Rockland’s renewal as a community that celebrates creativity.