The freedom to paint every day — that’s what Harold Garde found in Belfast. His two-story studio, home to thousands of acrylic paintings and strappo prints, is a sensory overload of color, texture, composition and emotion.
A broad label for his artwork is “expressionism,” which describes any art that presents the world from a subjective perspective, re-creating the artist’s emotional and ideological reality rather than a shared physical reality.
“I didn’t come here with the idea I’d find an art market,” said Garde, 86. “There’s a certain freedom and vitality that can and does exist here — if I let it. Even more than the location is the idea that I can paint all the time, which is a wonderful gift.”
“What I see in [his paintings] is the long history of his life and the struggle for him to understand what he needs to use art to say,” said Robert Shetterly of Brooksville, fellow artist and president of the Union of Maine Visual Arts. “Whether it’s the excitement of color and surface and design or the understanding of the nature of the human enterprise, he’s never rested in exploring.”
Garde was born in New York City in 1923.
“When you grew up in that time in New York, there was such hope for the achieving of art in the community,” Garde said, remembering an active theater and sharing Billie Holiday V-Discs.
During WWII, Garde served in the Army Air Force for three years. While stationed in the Philippines, he met actors and musicians who came to entertain the troops and fellow soldiers who had an interest in the arts. What he learned about humanity during his travels bleeds into his work.
“In terms of my value of people, humanity is an incredible and worthwhile thing,” said Garde. “It’s not the portrait of a queen that impresses me or that I’d even be tempted to paint, but to have someone that looks ultimately human — that does interest me.”
After the war, the GI Bill of Rights enabled Garde to continue his education. He didn’t want to go back to the sciences, which he already had studied for three years. At the “other end” of the academic spectrum was art.
“I thought it would be pretty easy to teach art, the fool that I was,” Garde said.
But he didn’t take one education course at the University of Wyoming, where he completed a bachelor’s degree in fine arts. “I got into the studio, and that was that,” Garde sad. “After that, there was really no doubt.”
He completed a master’s degree in fine arts education from Columbia University and supported a family of four children — Elissa, Tessa, Amy and Keith — by teaching art courses and working in architectural design in New York.
Garde moved to Maine when he retired from teaching in the mid-1980s. His second wife, Barbara Kramer, wanted to be near the water, and Garde wanted space for his own studio. Neither of them had been to Maine.
When he arrived, more galleries were opening in Belfast.
“And suddenly Belfast was the hot place in Maine for art, just like Rockland is now,” he said.
Maine influences Garde’s paintings in ways that he can’t identify. There’s a consistent difference in color between artwork he created in New York and artwork he created in Maine. In Maine paintings, vibrant reds, oranges and purples replace the browns and grays prevalent in his city paintings.
“I didn’t have the Maine light at that time — it freshened me up,” he said. “I’m not sure whether it’s age, too, wanting things to be brighter and also allowing the paintings to be fresher.”
While building his first Maine studio on the waterfront in Belfast, the carpenters started putting in windows. Garde told them to stop — he wouldn’t get his work done if he had windows. He would go out onto his porch if he wanted to see the ocean.
“I am a realist,” said Garde. “My work looks like paintings. My paint looks like paint. My brush strokes look like marks that have been made with pigment — and I have a good time.”
He starts a painting by covering the canvas with areas of color, trying to use his ingrained sense of design.
“I look at it and I want it to talk to me, and sometimes it doesn’t always do that,” he said. “I like going back and letting history feed me, and I like the subjects to be the least specific as possible.”
He paints mostly with acrylics on canvases of all sizes, but he also works with ceramic, clay and prints. Some themes reoccur. For example, he has a series of paintings, strappos and sculptures in which the subject is a kimono, a chair or a human head.
He wants the paintings to stay “fresh and spontaneous.”
“Once the subject is taken care of, the identity has taken place,” he said. “The labor intensity isn’t being conveyed. This is inevitable and the way it’s meant to be.”
Garde developed and named strappo printmaking — a combination of painting and printmaking — which he teaches in workshops throughout Maine and Florida.
He completes about 30 paintings and 200 strappos each year.
“This is a man who is uncompromising in his dedication to the act of painting,” said Shetterly. “When I say uncompromising, I mean that not just is he an authentic artist, he doesn’t paint for a market … I’ve known Harold for a long time, and although he likes to sell paintings, he always has his eyes on a different goal, and that’s to make the best art possible.”
“Because I am free to paint for myself, I go to things that are more formal challenges,” Garde said. “There is a lot of psychodrama that comes up.”
In some paintings, he uses letters and numbers as a focal point, but he often doesn’t have a definite reason for the word or number sequence.
“And I don’t put barriers down.” In one art show, he noticed that one of his paintings had rags incorporated into the piece. “I didn’t know how it happened.”
Although he doesn’t paint for galleries, he can’t count the number of shows he has displayed in since his first exhibit in 1970.
“It was a wonderful, ridiculous month for exhibits,” said Garde, who had exhibits in Wyoming, Texas, Rockland and Ellsworth. “I’m spreading out like tentacles.”
On Aug. 27, Garde attended the opening of his exhibit at the Courthouse Gallery in Ellsworth. He shares the exhibit “Abstract Expressionism” with two artists — Stephen Pace and George Wardlaw.
“Generally I won’t do a group show, but the thematic show of abstract expressionism was so irresistible,” Garde said. “It just seemed like such a step above what galleries normally do. It’s scholarly and meaningful in both the history and vision.”
Two films have been made about Garde’s life and art: a 30-minute film as part of “Maine Masters,” a nine-film series by the Union of Maine Visual Arts; and a one-hour film, “Harold Garde, Working Artist” by Dale Schierholt.
“I think when most of us think about artists, we don’t often think in terms of courage,” said Shetterly. “But about Harold — I think it would be appropriate to use that word. Because of his unwillingness to compromise, he displays a kind of courage to look as critically and deeply at art and humanity as anyone can.”