One of the items on display as part of the current Courthouse Gallery Fine Art exhibition “Island Artists: Fairfield Porter and the Great Spruce Head Island Artists” is a small accordion-style book with one small gouache painting per page. Each painting depicts an item or scene from life on Great Spruce Head Island in the Penobscot Bay, and the Art Week hosted each summer there at the legendary home of the Porter family of artists.
There’s a lumpy, deep-red tomato. A wheelbarrow. A tree. A house. A half-empty tube of paint. The little book, by Abbie Read, is called “Vignettes of Great Spruce Head Island.”
They’re the same images that inspired many of the artists and writers who have spent time on Great Spruce Head Island, and whose work appears in the Ellsworth exhibition.
The Courthouse Gallery’s show spotlights some of the work of painter Fairfield Porter and photographer Eliot Porter, brothers and denizens of a family who made the island their summer playground for decades, as well as members of the Porter family who are still creating art.
The bulk of the exhibit, however, consists of the work of more than 60 artists and poets inspired by the week they’ve spent on the island, taking in the same sights that prodded the brothers and several other family members to document their lives on Great Spruce Head Island.
“[The exhibition is] really a combination of the two original, important artists, then the next generation, and all the ones who have been lucky enough to have the opportunity to go out and be in [the family’s] environment,” said Karin Wilkes, who is a co-owner of the gallery with her husband, Michael.
The Wilkeses selected the artwork with guest judge Jennifer Mitchell. Carl Little made the poetry selections.
Some of the brothers’ work on display has been rarely exhibited. Fairfield Porter’s 1965 painting “Daisies and Harbor Boats” has never before been displayed, Karin Wilkes said.
Illinois architect James Porter, Fairfield and Eliot’s father, bought the island in 1912, according to a statement from Anina Porter Fuller, a family member and artist, in the exhibition catalog. Wilkes, who has visited the island and house, said the size of the 12-bedroom building known as the Big House, belies its simplicity.
“You’re talking about a big summer cottage,” she said. “But it’s not fancy. It has the same kitchen they had originally, the old cook stove, the same furniture in the bedrooms.”
During their summers on the island, Fairfield Porter painted and Eliot made photographs. Fairfield’s work includes many images of the family’s large table on a porch overlooking Penobscot Bay.
“He painted it a lot,” Wilkes said. “He’d paint the leftover dishes from breakfast, but you could always see the bay in the background.”
Courthouse Gallery’s lower floor is the showcase for Porter family work, including rarely seen paintings and drawings by Fairfield Porter, who became a well-known art critic and poet, and photographs by his brother. Artists in the family include Anne Porter, Margaret Straus, Edward Porter, Searsport-based sculptor Stephen Porter, and Fuller, who organizes Art Week.
Fuller began Art Week in 1993 with support from the Porter family corporation. Each year, 12 artists and writers are selected to spend a week on Great Spruce Head Island, living in the Big House just as the Porters did — with the same stove, furniture and big table.
The selected artists, whose work is shown on the gallery’s second floor, are given the freedom to roam and create. The result includes many images of the island’s unusual double beach (Lynn Travis’ oil “Dampness, Twin Beaches,” for example), the house’s porch and table (Barbara Damrosch’s pastel “Barney’s Melon”) and artists at work (Michael Weymouth’s oil “Big House Wheelbarrow”).
The Porter family’s personal effects are objects of interest for Art Week attendees (Pat McEvoy’s oil “Bouquet in Fairfield’s Vase”). The island’s tennis courts get their due, too (Bernard C. Meyers’ print “Great Spruce Head Island Courts”).
There are scenes painted at all times of day (Roy Perkinson’s watercolor “Island Moonrise”) and in different kinds of weather (David Little’s oil “Rainy Day”).
The variety of images multiplies when one considers medium and style. The same scene may be re-created in oil, pastel, photograph, print or mixed media. There are abstract visions and realistic ones.
“There’s a huge variety of pieces,” Wilkes said. “What’s interesting is when you look at all this work, not everybody is doing the same thing.”
As pretty as the island is, and as breezy and carefree as life must have been for the Porters and for the artists who now spend time there, Wilkes said Fairfield Porter was a deep thinker who wanted the viewer to see in his work more than a beach, a tree or a path.
Hunter College art history professor William C. Agee, who wrote an essay about Porter that is included in the Courthouse exhibition catalog, identified the central theme in Porter’s work as the tension between realism and the abstract. A Porter landscape is a landscape, and a portrait is a portrait, Agee wrote, but the subject of a painting was of little importance.
“Rather, it was in the paint itself that he found the life of the painting, its wholeness and its vitality,” Agee wrote. “In Porter’s work, the abstract, formal qualities always come first, and make up the true subject.”
In his painting “Path Around the Head,” on display at the Ellsworth gallery, Porter leaves some areas completely without color or even paint.
“People tend to think his work is realistic, because they recognize a scene,” Wilkes said. “But he had no interest in realist painting and he really wasn’t trying to make a realistic scene. He was more interested in the negative space in a painting.”
“Island Artists: Fairfield Porter and the Great Spruce Head Island Artists” runs through Tuesday, July 14. Some of the works by Fairfield and Eliot Porter will remain on display throughout the summer. A commemorative print of “Daisies and Harbor Boats” is available during the exhibition. A portion of proceeds from the sale of the print, the catalog and a limited number of rare copies of “Fairfield Porter: The Collected Poems with Selected Drawings” will go toward Art Week scholarships. For more information, visit www.courthousegallery.com. The gallery is open from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. Monday through Saturday and noon to 5 p.m. Sunday.