Barbara Ernst Prey’s art hangs in embassies all over the world. Yet for landscape painting in America — and Maine in particular — Prey herself is an ambassador.
Her images of lobster boats and buoys, Adirondack chairs and fishing gear can be seen in such far-flung places as Paris, Madrid and Vilnius, Lithuania.
“People are looking at scenes of Maine which they possibly can’t relate to,” Prey said on a recent afternoon in her Blue Water Fine Arts gallery in Port Clyde.
“Someone [asked about the lobster buoys and wondered], what are these, popsicles? But then you think about where the work over these 25 years from Maine has gone. The importance of Maine in my career is very, very strong, and the inspiration that I pull is something that is really important to me as a painter and also as a person.”
Prey is celebrating her longtime association with the state, especially the St. George Peninsula, in this summer’s “Earth, Sea, Sky: 25 Years Exhibiting in Maine” at the gallery. The show features more than three dozen new watercolor paintings, from large-scale works to small studies, with subject matter that Prey fans will recognize as variations on her popular themes of coastal life.
A New York native who spends much of her time in the Empire State, Prey nevertheless calls her Maine work deeply personal. That sense comes from the years she has spent exploring large tracts of midcoast and inland Maine and Canada in search of scenes that catch her eye.
“I go all over looking for ideas,” said Prey, whose work is in the collections of the Smithsonian American Art Museum, the Brooklyn Museum, the Farnsworth Art Museum in Rockland, the White House and the Taiwan Museum of Art, among many others, and is included in a current traveling exhibit of NASA artwork.
“I’ve probably been to more places in Maine than a lot of people who live here,” she said. “You have to see it, feel it, breathe it, all the senses. For me, I wanted to understand it before I could do it. I might sit down and do something, but I like to have an educated understanding before I do something. It’s the way my brain works.”
Prey has met many of the lobstermen and townspeople who live around her. The relationships she has developed often become the focus of a painting, even if the actual person isn’t in the painting.
“Community Supper,” one of her new paintings, provides the viewer with a peek into a workshop with rope and gloves on a table — one of Prey’s recurring themes — with a notice in the background for a community supper being held for the family of someone who had drowned in a trawler in Rockland.
“It was his shop, but someone else was using it [after the accident],” she said. “It’s about presence and absence. Someone was there, and now they’re not.”
There are other peeks into the workshops of lobstermen, with buoys hanging from the ceiling or an empty pizza box discarded near a pile of wood. Prey has also included in the exhibit her familiar images of flags, quilts and Adirondack chairs with newer images of schooners and more examples of her series “Nocturnes,” which was the focus on her gallery exhibit last summer.
As the “Nocturnes” paintings show, Prey has moved in later years toward ever bolder colors. One of the most dramatic is “Fireweed,” the depiction of a field aflame in oranges, magentas and greens, under a warm yellow sky.
“My whole style of painting has changed,” she said. “I did smaller work, [and didn’t use] as much pigment and strength. A lot of things have changed. I think you bring your worldview and your life view to your work. My eyes are the same, but what’s in my brain is a lot different so it’s a different way of looking at things. It’s been an evolution, from looking at the outside to looking on the inside. I’m still in the same place though, still on the St. George Peninsula.”
And that’s where the other personal element comes into her work.
Prey first came to the area during a summer vacation from Williams College in Massachusetts, traveling with a college friend who was a Hupper, one of the extended families in the midcoast area. Prey also returned with her family.
That was before Prey found out she had a family connection to the Calderwoods, who settled on midcoast islands such as North Haven and Vinalhaven, and fought in the Revolutionary War.
“It’s kind of an eerie thing, of returning to your roots,” she said. “I have a strong Maine connection, and it’s interesting that I came here to paint [without knowing the family connection]. I really consider it a very important place for me.”
Prey’s uniquely Maine scenes don’t just stay in a gallery in Port Clyde, or her studio in Tenants Harbor or home in Oyster Bay on New York’s Long Island. The paintings travel the world, displayed in U.S. embassies abroad through the U.S. Arts in Embassies Program. One of the commissions Prey has done for NASA, although not of Maine, was partially painted here.
The two Christmas cards Prey has painted for the White House also have the Maine connection of the Bush family, who have a residence in Kennebunkport.
Prey’s Maine work may get even more attention in the next six years as she embarks on a new phase working with the federal government.
Last year Prey received a presidential appointment to the National Council on the Arts, the advisory board of the National Endowment for the Arts. The advisory board reviews and makes recommendations to the NEA chairman on grant applications, funding guidelines and national initiatives.
She was confirmed, she said, after a lengthy process, has already had two meetings, and has a budding friendship with country star Lee Greenwood, who came on to the advisory board the same time she did.
Prey said she was honored to be nominated, particularly as a visual artist working in New York (the nomination process is regional), an area where there are so many artists working. Her background surely helped — Prey studied at Williams with Lane Faison, who helped turn out some of the nation’s top museum directors, and had experience working at some of the top auction houses and galleries in New York before turning full-time to painting.
The nominee for the NEA chairman’s position, Broadway producer Rocco Landesman, attended Colby College in Waterville and was a Colby overseer from 1991 to 1995. He was awarded an honorary degree from the school in 1995.
Prey hasn’t yet spoken with Landesman — contact with the unconfirmed nominee would be inappropriate — but was interested to learn he had Maine connections.
Maine, apparently, is a place on many minds.
“Maine as a state is so known for its arts,” Prey said. “Painting is obvious, but think of the opera houses, what’s going on in Blue Hill, Mount Desert [Island]. And the crafts. The crafts are out of this world. There are a lot of people here doing a lot of amazing things.”
“Earth, Sea, Sky: 25 Years Exhibiting in Maine” closes Aug. 16. For more information go to www.bluewaterfinearts.com or call 372-8087.