Setting Sail on a Sea of Oil
Hundreds of New York artists spend time each year in Maine, but Katherine Bradford is one of the few who swan against the flow. Though she is a New York native, she was a Maine artist before she was a New York artist.
Kathy Bradford first came to Maine in 1968 at the age of 26. The following year she gave birth to twins, so her artistic career was delayed by childrearing and community involvement. In 1975, she was a founding member of the art advocacy group Union of Maine Visual Artists, became a moving force behind VISION, UMVA’s short-lived art journal, and then became the first art critic for the alternative weekly Maine Times.
In 1979, Bradford’s abstract “The Children’s Playground” was one of the star attractions of the All Maine Biennial at the Bowdoin College Museum of Art, a landmark exhibition that announced a new era in Maine art and a new generation of Maine artists. Then in 1980, she moved to New York City and enrolled in the MFA program at SUNY Purchase.
Thirty years later, Kathy Bradford is as much a fixture on the New York art scene as she is in Maine, where she is widely regarded as a founding figure on the contemporary art scene. Bradford maintains a studio in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, teaches a course in non-traditional painting at the Fashion Institute of Technology and commutes to Philadelphia to teach in the graduate program at the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts.
In 2009, Bradford spent the summer on the faculty of the Skowhegan School of Painting & Sculpture, America’s premier art finishing school and one of Maine’s strongest connections to the New York art world. Most summers, however, she returns to paint in the barn studio of her old farm on Mere Point in Brunswick.
Katherine Bradford: Ocean Liner Show at Aucocisco Galleries in Portland (through May 29) finds Bradford conjuring up a fictional world on the high seas, tall ocean liners setting sail from her titanic imagination on a sea of oil. Her Aucocisco show features more than fifty works ranging from small acrylics to large oils and three-dimensional vessels of wood, plaster and Styrofoam.
Kathy Bradford is a purely intuitive painter. In the 1960s and 1970s, she was an abstract painter, though the paint she put down on canvas and paper tended to resolve itself into forms and patterns with empirical associations, such as those of home and playgrounds.
Bradford has described painting as “a sacred act of being quiet and looking at something fascinating.” What fascinates her as an artist, however, is not something “out there,” not some external referent, but what happens on the surface of a painting once she starts applying paint. She paints the way some novelists write, following where the marks on the blank surface lead, exploring the mysteries of imagination, perception and dreams.
In the not too distant past, blunt human figures began swimming about in her paintings. Then came her fleet of chunky little boats, sailing ships, strange naval battles, great arks, and now ocean liners. The process of painting and looking suggested inchoate narratives to her, most unresolved, esoteric, even humorous. The canvas became a metaphoric space, a place of discovery. When she was at Skowhegan, she says, everything started looking like ocean liners to her.
It is a daunting task for a serious artist from Maine to paint boats, given the clich