Hennessey’s work elicits nostalgia for Maine outdoor ways

Posted Oct. 05, 2009, at 5:04 p.m.

ELLSWORTH, Maine — Anyone who spends any time in the woods these days, whether hunting or hiking, knows the importance of wearing some article of clothing in the color blaze orange. As an outdoorsman, making sure to wear bright colors is something Tom Hennessey is sure to do, and it’s something that became a law for hunters in 1973.

As an artist, however, Hennessey tries to avoid the use of fluorescent orange.

“I hate that color, but it’s a lifesaver,” the Hampden resident said with a laugh. “Since they implemented that law, the incidence of shooting accidents and particularly fatalities has just dropped dramatically. But it’s a color I don’t like to paint. Once in a while I’ll put a guy in a blaze orange hat or something, but to paint a guy all decked out in blaze orange, it looks like he’s going to a Halloween party.”

You won’t find any blaze orange in the latest gallery show of Hennessey’s work, and that’s not because most of the pieces in the exhibit are black-and-white drawings.

As necessary as it is for survival in the woods, blaze orange doesn’t exactly go along with the nostalgic feel of “The Hennessey Collection: Graphite and Pen and Ink Drawings,” which opened last week at Courthouse Gallery Fine Arts.

The display includes 37 pieces, most of which were done in either graphite or pen-and-ink which have been published previously in Field & Stream magazine or the Bangor Daily News, where Hennessey worked for decades. The work had not, however, been displayed before in an art gallery.

Courthouse Gallery represents Hennessey and shows his watercolor paintings regularly. The gallery is known for displaying a variety of contemporary and modern Maine art and artists, but rarely anything so deeply about traditional Maine — and so far from an abstract style — as Hennessey’s work.

Those qualities are some of the reasons Hennessey’s work is so popular.

“They’re sort of like little vignettes of Maine life,” said Courthouse Gallery co-owner Karin Wilkes, who has original copies of the Field & Stream magazines to go along with the drawings for those who purchase work from the gallery. “Whether you’re a sportsman or not, you can’t help but know one, living in the state. People have an appreciation for the Maine tradition of hunting and camp life.”

Even if Hennessey wanted to depict the detested blaze orange, the color would seem out of place on the hunters and fishermen of his work. His subjects are sportsmen, from a time when men in the outdoors wore tweed and puffed on pipes while waiting for their bird dogs to return with a prize.

His pencil drawing “When Enough is Not Enough,” depicts a similar scene, as a man in a tweed jacket, long pants and hat — no jeans and baseball caps, and certainly no blaze orange, for this fellow — holds his shotgun under his arm while he takes a bird from his dog’s mouth.

“It’s trying to perpetuate the outdoor culture and traditions found all over the state,” Hennessey said. “It was the era I grew up in, the things that I did, the way sportsmen dressed back then, the things they used, the old ways that were so wonderful and seem to be fading fast nowadays.”

There are few modern devices or synthetic materials in Hennessey’s scenes. The subjects of “Frozen Water Fisherman” drag their ice-fishing equipment, in wooden baskets, out to a body of water on an old toboggan. There might be an outboard motor here or there, but the snowshoes are made of wood, the pipes are of corncob, and the gear is made from leather or canvas.

Hennessey’s pen-and-ink work allows him to precisely capture details of fish, flies and game birds to the point they are close to nature studies. The nostalgia emanates most strongly from his pencil work, however, in which he uses shading to bring out a softness in his subjects.

Hennessey uses that technique well in the well-worn sweater, rumpled hat and wrinkled face of “Rite of Passage,” a graphite drawing of an old man offering a shotgun to the viewer, presumably meant to represent a grandson.

Capturing the details of a scene is important to Hennessey and, he believes, the reason outdoorsmen and others are partial to his work.

“I’m a realist,” he said. “What’s in my paintings that sportsmen relate to is, in, say, a bird-hunting scene or a duck-hunting scene, all the cover, the birch trees, the alders, the poplars, the marsh grasses, the cattails, all the stuff these guys see when they’re out there. They see it, but they really don’t notice it. But when they see it in the painting they say, ‘Geez, that’s just what it’s like.’”

Although the bulk of the exhibit consists of Hennessey’s black-and-white drawings, there are some watercolors on display.

The nature of watercolor is that it is slightly more abstract — it’s hard to capture sharp detail in the medium — but Hennessey still manages to give accurate portrayals of outdoor life, especially in his palette of neutral colors. It’s as if his subjects, both human and animal, disappear into the environment. But isn’t that the goal for both hunters and prey?

Blaze orange would only get in the way.

“The Hennessey Collection: Graphite and Pen and Ink Drawings” will be on display until Oct. 30. For more information, go to www.courthousegallery.com or call 667-6611.

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