Sorry, lady, there’s no Maine lobster in the fish case at Gourmet Garage in New York today. If you want to order some, the guy behind the counter said on a recent morning trip to the high-end grocery store, it’s not a problem. Just be ready to fork over $17.99 a pound.
That’s a bit much for a visitor from Maine, where lobster is now going for around $9 for a 1- to 1¼-pound lobster. In this case, the paintings of Maine lobsters and other sea creatures now on display in the Gourmet Garage windows will have to suffice.
The real thing might be pricey, but New Yorkers are getting a close look at a Maine lobster for free thanks to Waldoboro artist Jean Kigel. Seven of her watercolor paintings of lobsters, a yellowfin tuna, a rainbow trout, crabs and steamers are now on display in the street-level windows of Gourmet Garage’s flagship store in the city’s SoHo section.
The exhibit, presented by the Woodward Gallery in New York, is called “Maine Magic.” It’s an appropriate title if you think of lobster and other Maine sea treats as little pieces of heaven.
What’s happened to lobster prices, however, isn’t so heavenly, which was part of what inspired Kigel to get involved with the Gourmet Garage project.
The project is personal for Kigel because her husband is a lobsterman who fishes out of Muscongus Bay, but she also got involved because of what she sees happening to the fishing industry. Low landings nearly closed down the rest of the scallop season and the instability in the costs of fuel and bait has driven some fishermen out of business.
Kigel said she was also affected by a recent trip to the fishing region of Nova Scotia.
“All we saw were little ghost towns, docks and weirs just closed. I’m afraid of that happening in Maine,” said Kigel, who grew up on a poultry farm in Warren. “All this worried me, and part of my interest in the painting is to make the public aware of how precarious and delicate the oceans’ bounty is.”
The Gourmet Garage show is Kigel’s first exhibition of her work in New York City, although she has exhibited frequently in Maine. This year Kigel is involved with seven Maine shows related to alewife regeneration, the lobster crisis, the history of groundfishing and fresh-water fisheries, and will show her work in venues such as the Maine Art Gallery in Wiscasset, Tidemark Gallery in Waldoboro, Sea Studio Gallery in Tenants Harbor, and the Camden Middle School’s Japanese Exchange Program.
She’ll also take part in “Spineless Wonders,” an exhibit celebrating the bicentennial of Charles Darwin’s birth at the University of Southern Maine’s Lewiston-Auburn College.
All but one of the paintings depict an animal found in Maine waters. Kigel, a former Maryland resident, included a Chesapeake blue crab.
The rest are straight from Maine waters, including “Rockport Rock Crab,” “Port Clyde Steamers” and “Stonington Lobster.” Kigel used models for six of the seven paintings — she had to use reference books for the yellowfin tuna.
Woodward Gallery owner Kristine Woodward and her husband, John Woodward, who have a home in Dresden, first noticed Kigel’s images of sea life last summer at the Maine Art Gallery. The Woodwards look for food- or flower-themed art for the Gourmet Garage windows, which they’ve curated for five years. Kigel’s work seemed to fit right in.
“When people shop they get an art exhibit as well,” said Kristine Woodward, who has previously placed work by artists such as Andy Warhol and Vinalhaven’s own Robert Indiana in the windows. “I think there are two reasons her work has resonated. [One] she wanted to talk about the dwindling natural resources in Maine, and two, highlight some of the things that Maine has to offer throughout the country. Bringing the Maine magic into New York City was a big deal.”
The location really grabs attention. Sited at Broome and Mercer streets, the store is one of the prime corners of SoHo, a district in the lower west side of Manhattan known for its focus on art. Broome Street is also well-traveled because it leads to the Holland Tunnel, one of the major arteries into and out of the city.
The windows are lit at night, even after the store closes, which Woodward said highlights the paintings even more.
The SoHo Gourmet Garage, Woodward added, tends to see higher sales on whatever food or flower item is displayed in the windows. It happened recently with a display of sunflower images.
“Whatever is on the outside does well on the inside,” Woodward said.
In addition to calling attention to low lobster prices and the future of Maine’s fishing economy, Kigel is excited to have her first New York City show. It was even noticed by the New England Society in the City of New York, Woodward said.
“Jean Kigel is getting some major New York exposure,” Woodward added. “She’ll defintely be on our radar for future projects.”