Sunday, June 18, 2006
BOOK REVIEW by Hannah Merker
Normand Chartier's "bent toward art" began when he was a young boy traveling with his parents and his 11 brothers and sisters on the rugged coasts of Maine, Nova Scotia, Prince Edward Island and the Gaspe Peninsula.
He fondly recalls these camping trips and the art lessons an eccentric elderly aunt dispersed to gatherings of cousins.
Perhaps it was this intimate association with a water world that led him to choose watercolor as the language that so vividly portrays his love of Maine, its coastline and its people in "My Maine: The Coastal Watercolors of Normand Chartier."
"I remember being enthralled with the trees, the rocks, the sea, and the native wildlife . . . the little village enclaves, and the people - from the fishermen to the friendly, hardworking women selling their crafts and stone-oven-baked bread by the side of the road," he writes,
Indeed, Maine - its very essence of shoreside homes, cluttered yards or just a clouded sky beyond a high outcropping of granite - is right before you in these 75 evocative watercolors.
There are places in our lives that become part of who we are - not simply a visit remembered. To Chartier, "the sounds and smells of the coast are instantly retrievable."
Chartier took many summer trips to Maine with one of his brothers during his teens and college years.
"We'd go for a day or two at a time just to soak up the atmosphere, the scenery, the art galleries, and - of course - a boiIed-lobster dinner."
In the '70s, as his career as a freelance artist illustrating mostly children's books was getting started, Chartier spent 12- to 14-hour days working from his Connecticut home. As an adult establishing himself in a trade, he needed a place to keep his vision fresh. He rented a cottage on Southport Island with his wife and daughter.
"I had an uncontrollable urge to start painting the tremendous beauty, atmosphere, and bucolic way of life that surrounded us there. . . . Painting without constraints or deadlines led to a freedom in my artwork that has expanded over the years."
Chartier has since returned to Southport every year for either a few days or a month at a time "just to paint and soak in that aspect of Maine's way of life."
These watercolors - houses shadowed in late afternoon light, a wrecked small craft or two overwhelmed with weeds, a shoreside scene with a rainstorm approaching, wild roses, lobster boats asea or ashore, a marshy field or hidden stream surrounded by Maine's ever-present pines - are washed in the subtle browns and vibrant blues. They are filled with presence, as if you were there, standing on a rock, part of place and time. Each painting evokes a deja vu feeling - "I am sure I have been there," you will mutter to yourself.
Chartier describes his painting process: "I start early and draw and paint for as long as I can. Sometimes I'll spend hours laboring in vain on a composition in front of me only to turn around and find what I really wanted to paint was right behind me the whole time."
How often such moments occur in whatever language the creative person is immersed in! Chartier calls such happenings "humbling and rare time that overwhelms me emotionally and makes all the effort worthwhile."
Chartier works at a local school teaching art to youngsters with learning disabilities, an aspect of his career he is very much enjoying.
The pages of "My Maine" are vibrantly alive, expressing the mood of the moment, the time of day, the seasons.
"The key for me," he writes, "is just to paint and paint and paint some more. It's during these marathon sessions that the moments of emotional fullfillment happen. And this occurs in Maine more than anywhere else."
Small wonder "My Maine" is a book you will keep near and open often, engulfed by a feeling of being at home - perchance amazed that one artist has found the language to impart, without reticence, the near-clairvoyant sense of "place" that is also your own.
Hannah Merker is author of the memoir "Listening" and has freelanced for The New York Times, Newsday and several maritime magazines. She is a former librarian and bookstore owner who lives in Bristol.
Copyright © 2006 Blethen Maine Newspapers Inc.