A PALETTE OF MANY INTERESTS

“Every year, I find it fascinating to see the transition that happens when thousands of people leave
the state of Maine at the end of the summer season and Mainers go back to being Mainers.”
—Brad Betts, artist + gallery owner


interview NANCY GORDON
portrait photography SAM BETTS

Artist and gallery owner, Brad Betts.
Farm Garden, 20 x 20 inches, oil
Rolling In,30 x 40 inches, oil
Queen of Manana, 11 x 14 inches, oil
Popham Beach Cottages, 11 x 14 inches, oil
Drying Sails in Camden Harbor
24 x 18 inches, oil
Given the "Award of Excellence" by
The Maritime Gallery at Mystic Seaport at the
38th Annual International Marine Art Exhibition
Lady Catherine, 11 x 14 inches, oil
Pounce, 16 x 20 inches, oil
Rusty on the Casey-Anne
12 x 8, oil
The Porch at Blue Tin Farm
11 x 14 inches, oil
Return of the Fleet, 9 x 12 inches, oil
Currently on the 18th National Marine Art Exhibition
by the American Society of Marine Artists museum tour.

Tell us a little about yourself and when you began your painting career.

I was fortunate to grow up in a family of artists, inventors and ingenious do-it-yourselfers. I followed them down paths of curiosity that have always led me in new directions. I painted often when I was young, but
I also grafted trees, built furniture, raised lost creatures, researched and dove to shipwrecks, wrote music and invented things. So it is hard
for me to think of my painting as a career. My interests have changed constantly over the years and painting just happens to be the one interest I have consistently stuck with.

The choice to keep painting was more situational than intentional. My wife, Danielle, was on her way to becoming a licensed engineer when our first son was born, so I left my work at Keebler Cookies to become a stay-at-home dad, one of the first in the ’90s. I had to imagine myself as a pioneer to offset the awkwardness I felt surrounded at play groups with only moms and their kids.

I was already painting on weekends and thought it would be easy to raise kids and try painting full time. I honestly had no idea just how little painting I would do. Realizing I needed to be versatile if I wanted to make this work, I shrunk my studio into a mobile setup that could easily move from room to room. I learned that I had to be more flexible and patient with the painting process. This became a powerful tool later on, when I took up plein air painting.

Just as I was getting pretty good at the process, our second son arrived, and we decided to move from Florida back to Maine to be closer to family. We bought land and built our first home. We had a dog, a cat
and a parrot and started a perennial farm. Our life was chaos, yet I did keep painting. After selling plants at the Portland Farmers Market, I would walk around town with the kids and visit galleries. Eventually,
I started to exhibit my paintings in small shows and was offered my first representation at The Fore Street Gallery.

That was 20 years ago. My sons are 21 and 24. The year my youngest son graduated from high school, we bought a 35-acre farm with a 1906 farmhouse and barn. We renovated these old structures and brought them back to life, opening them in 2017 as an art, music and film creative space and gallery for our family and others to share their work.

Artist(s) whose work you admire most?

Homer and the Wyeths, especially NC. One of my earlier paintings,
The Apprentice, includes both history and symbolism of the contemporary artists I admired the most at that time.

What do you love about painting, or what drives you to paint?

I find I paint better when paired with a healthy obsession. I am a history nut and an avid amateur archaeologist—I obsess over hidden pieces of history (like the lost Rosicrucian Springs, which is somewhere near our gallery) and codes embedded in historical documents. Depending on what I am deciphering at the time, some of these references find their way into my paintings either through hidden symbolism or codes embedded in the composition.

I also love recording moments in time. Especially when I plein air paint,
I try to record the position of objects—rocks, trees, old buildings—within the scene as close to reality as possible. In 100 years, this painting may be a map studied by a historian who will go out and stand in that very spot and know they have found the right place. Imagine standing on
the shore and seeing Winslow Homer’s Weatherbeaten and knowing that, after all this time, nothing has changed. In this way, I can appreciate the power and promise of a painting to transcend time.

Has there been an evolution to your work? If so, how?

Drawing from my interest in history, my initial paintings were often inspired by old ships and fishing schooners. At that time, my paintings were more technical and detail oriented. After researching the subject,
I would start with an inspirational sketch. It was always exciting to see
an idea come to shape on the canvas and slowly develop as I added more color and detail. Yet the precision required to do such technical paintings was stressful to me and I felt like I was losing the “art” of painting along the way.

I found a new freedom of art expression when I began plein air painting. Painting outdoors, you must react quickly, as the scene begins to change from the moment you arrive. The weather and light are constantly shifting and the consistent environment you rely on in a studio are gone. You have to identify what inspires you and make quick choices on how best to capture that. These limitations force you to perform directly from your instincts.

And over time, working from my instincts allowed me to add more emotion into my work. After bringing these concepts back to the studio, my work has continued to evolve, becoming less detailed and more honest, atmospheric and spontaneous.

How do you juggle being the owner of Down East Gallery and also a painter?

The gallery is everything I have ever wanted as it brings together all of my interests to one place: farming, gardening, music, history, people and painting. My gallery hours are limited so I have time to pursue my other interests; without these, there would be no inspiration to paint.

My studio is in the middle of the gallery, and my years of painting with chaos (kids) around me have made it easy to not only manage the interruptions but truly enjoy them. I love having conversations with people as they walk through the gallery. I am continually amazed how much people accomplish in their lives. I have met so many interesting people: inventors, a governor, FBI agents, the stunt man for Johnny Depp in Pirates of the Caribbean, writers, sculptors, a famous actor and many, many artists. For me, the most exciting person I have met so far was the historian who was selected to write one of the documents for the newly unearthed time capsule to be re-installed in the old State House in Boston. Yes, we talked a long time.

In between customers, I work outside in the gardens and on the farm. We have a small vineyard and inherited over 30 apple trees, the fruit of which we have paired with the grapes to make wine. My wife, Danielle, has a cut-flower garden, which this year we have quadrupled in size and added thousands of sunflowers in the field. Building on another history obsession, I am collecting and planting rare genetic clones of historically significant trees including the last standing Liberty Tree (where the Sons of Liberty secretly planned the Revolution); the Flower of Kent (the actual tree that held the apple that fell near Sir Isaac Newton, inspiring the thought that later became the law of gravity); the Witness Tree (visible in photographs as it witnessed Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address); and an Endicott Pear (the oldest known cultivated tree in the U.S., planted by Sir John Endicott in the early 1600s and shipped to me by one of his direct descendants). Stop by the gallery if you would like to geek out and talk more about trees with history.

What is your favorite time of day to paint in the studio or outdoors?

The gallery opens at 11am so I always take advantage of the morning to get outside and paint. We start most days with a walk around Ocean Point, which is always inspiring; I have done hundreds of paintings of coastal scenes around Ocean Point. Many have sold or hang on the gallery walls; others are in stacks all over my studio floor. I could paint familiar scenes every day but I live with a family of world explorers so more often than not I find myself on top of a mountain by 10am wondering how I am ever going to get back to the gallery in time to open. I am not a traveler by nature, but I have learned to keep a painting backpack in my car so I am ready. Before a spontaneous trip to Italy last year (my wife traded a painting for plane tickets two weeks before the flight’s departure), I designed and built a lightweight, minimalist plein air easel (we call it the Wander Bar). While I truly dread traveling, my family does push me into new places that always open my eyes to the beauty of the world. I always fit in a painting or two while we travel, and I feel fortunate to have captured these moments in time on canvas.

Favorite music while painting?

I mentioned our creative space includes music, which has always been another obsession of mine. My father taught me to play guitar and I passed that on to my kids, who took it to an entirely different level. Both are artists and multi-instrumentalists, and they spend a lot more time at the gallery now that I have placed extra easels and a grand piano in the middle of the studio.

When we purchased the gallery, it came with a post-and-beam barn with an older barn attached to the back that was the perfect height for a stage. The back barn was failing, so we had it torn down and last spring (before and after the trip to Italy) my wife and I built a new barn that is now a performance stage. We kicked off a series of concerts and films last year, mostly as fundraisers for local nonprofits. In August, we will be hosting our third annual Maine Outdoor Film Festival at the gallery. With movies shown on a large outdoor screen, there will be plenty of space to enjoy these outdoor-based films.

When not talking to customers, I always listen to something while I am painting, usually podcasts (TED Talks, How I Built This, etc.). I like programs that inspire invention as they guide me into a creative mind-set, which lends itself to the painting process.

What do you hope to give people through your paintings?

Lately, I have been working on a series called “Off Season.” Every year, I find it fascinating to see the transition that happens when thousands of people leave the state of Maine at the end of the summer season and Mainers go back to being Mainers.

This winter, Danielle and I painted the ice fishing shacks of Great Salt Bay. For years, we have driven by these colorful shacks out on the ice. First, I painted them from a distance. Not being an ice fisherman, this temporary town seemed very foreign and unapproachable. When we finally got the nerve to bring our painting supplies out on the ice, we met people of all ages and were warmly welcomed.

With our shift this spring to curbside shopping, we have been visiting new farms all over midcoast Maine. After getting pork, cheese and ravioli from Allison Lakin at East Forty Farm, we walked around her
farm and I was soon inspired to paint the dairy cows staring at me
from the field. A few weeks later, I was drawn to paint a scene from
Blue Tin Farm; each trip we take exposes me to a side of Maine I have never seen.

While nothing can beat the beauty of summer, I look at these “Off Season” paintings as the real Maine, the one that exists not for the tourists and summer residents but for those who call Maine home year-round. I see the history in the traditions being passed down from generation to generation. I try to capture the hard work Mainers put into growing, catching and making their own food, and the beauty that surrounds them while they do it. When the cold weather comes, it seems easier to see the resilience and creativity that goes into inventing ways to get through a long winter. In painting these scenes, I hope to capture not only the moment but also the story of this generation and our place in the bigger picture of history.

. . .

downeastgallery.com


Favorite Maine restaurant?
The Thistle Inn in Boothbay Harbor.

 

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