Before they actually met, Belfast painter Linden Frederick and then-Camden writer Richard Russo knew about each other through mutual friends.

“He kept running into people who said, ‘Have you ever read Richard Russo’s fiction?’ And I would run into people who said, ‘Have you ever seen Linden Frederick’s paintings?’ Sooner or later, our paths crossed,” said Russo, now living in Portland.

“It was a revelation to me to see someone doing with paints and brushes something so close to what I was trying to capture in my novels. It took us about 15 minutes to become fast friends,” he said.

Their friendship became a professional collaboration for Frederick’s latest project, “Night Stories.” Frederick made 15 oil on canvas paintings of stark nighttime scenes  and Russo, who won the Pulitzer Prize for “Empire Falls” in 2002, recruited writers to pen short fiction to accompany the paintings.

The paintings, many of them of Maine scenes, are on view through Nov. 5 at the Center for Maine Contemporary Art, 21 Winter St. New York publisher Glitterati issued a book with the paintings and the stories that accompany them this spring, when the show debuted at the Forum Gallery in New York City.

 

The writers and their stories

• Lois Lowry, “50 Percent”

• Elizabeth Strout, “Dish”

• Richard Russo, “Downstairs”

• Louise Erdrich, “Green Acres”

• Andre Dubus III, “Ice”

• Lawrence Kasdan, “Liquor”

• Lily King, “Mansard”

• Luanne Rice, “Night Off”

• Dennis Lehane, “Off Ramp”

• Joshua Ferris, “Police”

• Daniel Woodrell, “Rear Window”

• Ted Tally, “Repair”

• Anthony Doerr, “Save-a-Lot”

• Tess Gerritsen, “Takeout”

• Ann Patchett, “Vacant”

Russo recruited an A-list of contemporary fiction writers. Of the 15, there are three Pulitzer winners, an Oscar winner and a Newbery Medal winner. They include Maine writers Elizabeth Strout, Lois Lowry, Lily King, Camden’s Tess Gerritsen and Russo, who owns paintings by Frederick. In return, each writer received a small study of the finished painting.

It’s not a coincidence that Frederick’s most loyal collectors are writers, said Robert Fishko, Forum Gallery director. “It speaks to the inspirational quality of Linden’s work,” he said.

With his oils, Frederick paints the kind of paintings that writers conjure in their heads as stories. Writers are drawn to the lyrical quality of his low-light landscapes of rural America, which suggest narratives of the people who are present but unseen. He paints scenes of dusk, that time of melancholy between daylight and night that is filled with mystery and apprehension.

Frederick, 64, has been painting for 30 years, most of them in Belfast. In Maine, his paintings are in the collections of the Portland Museum of Art and the Farnsworth Art Museum.

His niche is nighttime paintings. The quality of light becomes Frederick’s central subject. It might be an undersized street lamp, outmatched by engulfing dark, or a single light emanating from an otherwise darkened apartment building. He never puts people in his paintings, though their presence is suggested — by the taillights of their cars and the blue light of TVs seeping from homes into the quiet night. Comparisons to American realist Edward Hopper come easily.

“I’ve always been interested in the suggested narrative, which is not contemporary, PC art,” Frederick said in an interview. “But it’s what I do. People come to me and say, ‘Oh, that reminds me of something.’ … They just fill in the blanks. That’s one of the reasons I don’t put people in my pictures, because it leaves room for the viewer to come up with the story that they want to get from it, or tell.”

King, who lives in Yarmouth and won a Kirkus Prize for literature for her 2014 novel “Euphoria,” worked from a painting of a house with a mansard roof on Cumberland Avenue in Portland, near the Franklin Arterial. In the painting, which Frederick calls “Mansard,” the street-level apartment is occupied by a beauty salon. The second floor is a residential apartment, with curtains drawn across the windows. The attic is dark.

Between the time she received a copy of the painting and when she finished the story, both of King’s parents died. It was a difficult year, and she put the story aside, out of mind.

When she got back to it, the writing came quickly. She wrote a story, which she also calls “Mansard,” that she had been thinking about for a long time. It is set in the 1960s and tells of a woman in the suburbs who visits her friend in the city once a week to play bridge. On one visit, the friend’s father is there. He has a shady past, and his presence triggers a crisis.

Because of timing, hers was a true collaboration with Frederick. He was working on the final version of the painting when King was writing her story. When she shared with him that her story included a beauty parlor on the street level of the house, he altered his painting to reflect that detail. He also painted King’s initials — “L.K.” — on a Dumpster next to the apartment building.

King enjoyed the process. “I dreaded it for months, and then I had so much pleasure writing it,” she said. “It felt good knowing there was someone waiting for it on the other end. It forced something out of me that I didn’t know I had.”

“Night Stories” wouldn’t have happened if not for the friendship between Frederick and Russo. Both are from upstate New York — Frederick was born in Amsterdam, and Russo grew up nearby in Gloversville, which also was Frederick’s mother’s hometown. They came of age at about the same time, and both ended up in Maine making art.

Russo, who is four years older than Frederick, called the collaboration “the most natural thing in the world.”

“His paintings are so narrative,” he said. “There always seems to be a story there.”

As a friend with the advantage of living nearby, Russo saw the paintings in process at Frederick’s studio. He chose a painting called “Downstairs,” a picture of a multistory brick building at the corner of High Street and Northport Avenue in Belfast, but it could be anywhere. Russo saw it as Gloversville.

“I loved all the paintings, but ‘Downstairs’ really spoke to me. No sooner had I looked at it than the idea of a Gloversville Gothic story was planted,” Russo said. “It’s based on a true Gloversville story that has been trotting around in the back of my mind for a while.”

Frederick is glad to have writer friends to finish his narratives. He’s a bit of Renaissance man, good with paints and tools, well-rounded and well-read. He also makes and plays fiddles and cellos. But he’s not a writer and doesn’t think linearly.

“I don’t think in stories,” he said. “I can see the suggestion of something, but I never think of anything specific because my mind doesn’t work that way. These writers are taking my pictures a little bit further.”

The public is invited to a CMCA reception for the artist Friday, Aug. 25, from 5:30 to 8 p.m. Among the several upcoming events related to the “Night Stories” exhibition is Frederick’s artist talk Tuesday, Aug. 29, at 5:30 p.m. Space is quite limited for this intimate walk-through; RSVP at cmcanow.org or call 701-5005.

Longtime Portland Press Herald features writer Bob Keyes, winner of the Maine Press Association’s Distinguished Achievement Award, is one of eight journalists selected for the inaugural Dorothea and Leo Rabkin Prize in visual arts journalism. This is an abbreviated version of an article that appeared in April; to read the original, check the link below.