When Tom Hennessey stands at art show receptions and talks with interested patrons, the same question eventually crops up.
“Invariably, somebody will say, ‘How long did it take you to do that painting?’” the Hampden writer and artist said. “And right off, I say, ‘All my life.’ That’s the honest answer.”
Hennessey’s sporting art flows from the mind and imagination of a man who has spent his entire life enjoying traditional Maine outdoor pursuits.
Whether a scene of anglers sharing an Atlantic salmon pool, a hunter waiting with his dog for a flight of ducks to get within shotgun range, or a wily deer bounding away from his would-be demise, Hennessey’s art has long resonated with Mainers and those “from away.”
From Oct. 1 until Oct. 30, the Courthouse Gallery of Fine Art in Ellsworth will stage “The Hennessey Collection,” a show that will feature samples of the longtime Bangor Daily News writer and artist’s work. An artist’s reception will be held on Oct. 4 from 4-6 p.m. at the Court Street gallery.
Included in the show will be about 30 graphite and pen and ink drawings, 15 small watercolor paintings and some larger watercolors.
Karin Wilkes, the co-owner of Courthouse Gallery of Fine Art, said Hennessey’s work appeals to a broad audience.
“There aren’t many figures like him in the Maine landscape, that reach the audience he reaches,” Wilkes said.
And Wilkes said that Hennessey’s paintings are accessible to those who might not even know they’re art lovers.
“The nice thing about Tom’s work is, you don’t have to know anything about art to know that you like it,” Wilkes said. “[His work] has a nostalgia for a lot of people, especially if you’ve hunted and fished around Maine.”
Hennessey said he had long considered painting some small watercolors — 5 x 8 inches or 6 x 9 — and a suggestion from Wilkes gave him the impetus to do so. They later decided to add some drawings, many of which appeared in national sporting magazines.
Both Wilkes and Hennessey said showing the smaller paintings and drawings made economic sense as well.
“His bigger watercolors are an investment and not attainable for everybody,” Wilkes said, pointing out that the small watercolors and drawings are much less expensive. “[This show] is a perfect thing for this economy, a perfect thing for a gift for your outdoorsman or woman.”
Hennessey said offering more affordable paintings was one reason painting small watercolors appealed to him.
“I’ve had something like that in my mind for awhile because a lot of guys say to me, “I’d like to have one of your paintings, but I can’t afford it,’” Hennessey said.
The 72-year-old artist and Hampden resident said he’s been drawing since childhood, but never thought much about painting until the early 1960s.
“I was working at the NEWS as an apprentice in the composing room for 37 bucks a week and my wife was a beautician,” Hennessey recounted. “She came home one day and had been at the Bangor House or something and the Bangor Art Society had an art show in the lobby and the corridor.
“She said, ‘They’re selling those paintings down there. You can do that.’ So I went down there and looked and said, ‘Yeah … I can do that,’” he said.
Hennessey went out and bought some watercolor paper, paint and brushes, and ever since, He has been “doing that” … and doing it very well.
He didn’t realize quite how well he was doing it until a few years later, however. That’s when a friend, Dr. Frank Gilley, was heading to New York City and asked Hennessey for a couple of paintings that he could take to a gallery.
Gilley took those paintings to the Crossroads of Sport gallery, and the director was impressed.
Hennessey’s career was about to get a huge boost.
“Crossroads of Sport was like Carnegie Hall,” Hennessey said. “That was the gallery of sporting art.”
Not long after, the director wrote Hennessey a letter.
“He said, ‘I can sell your paintings,’ I think for $150, and that was like $5,000 now,” Hennessey recalls. “That was 1964, something like that. [The director wrote] ‘Send me five more watercolors.’ I ripped them off real fast. That’s the way it went.”
Hennessey says he never planned on becoming an artist — “Things just fell into place” — but his growing reputation as an artist opened doors he never imagined.
He has traveled around the world because of his painting, doing commission work for patrons who wanted a Hennessey-painted version of their own special outdoor places.
“I often think, if it hadn’t been for painting, the places I’ve been, the people I’ve met. It all came through painting,” he said.
That’s not to say that the journey has been without its pitfalls.
Hennessey may have quit painting altogether after an incident early in his career. Only a well-timed trip to the Bangor dump changed his mind.
While working on a fishing scene, Hennessey became frustrated when the paint ran together on the water he’d been laboring to get just right.
“I took everything and just drove it into a metal trash can, the brushes, the paint, everything,” Hennessey said.
The next day, he headed to the dump to dispose of his painting supplies.
Luckily, it was a very windy day.
What happened next, even Hennessey can’t believe.
“I was turning to get back in [to his car after dumping the brushes and paint] and a piece of paper came rolling across the dump. This was unbelievable. It slapped right up against the side window on my station wagon.
“It was a reproduction or something of a watercolor painting done by Gordon Grant. He was a famous marine painter,” Hennessey said. “It was water. It showed how he painted that water. And I could see what he did.”
Hennessey quickly got out of his car and retrieved his brushes and paint, vowing to try again.
While Hennessey resorts to his stock answer when art reception attendees ask him how long it took him to complete a certain painting, he’s not shy about explaining the inspiration that fuels his work.
“I just paint what I do,” Hennessey said. “I can’t imagine sitting down and painting a flower pot or something like that. When I’m out fishing or hunting or just out around with the dog, I’ll see something, something will happen, and that will inspire it.”
And for more than 40 years, the artistic byproduct of Hennessey’s trips afield have inspired sporting art fans around the world.
Not that the accolades and art show openings are what drives Hennessey, of course.
“I would paint even if I never sold a painting, because art is its own reward,” Hennessey said. “Doing it is rewarding whether anybody wants it or not.”