Stephen Pace, artist with Maine ties, dies at 91

Posted Sept. 27, 2010, at 7:46 p.m.

ELLSWORTH, Maine — Artist Stephen Pace, whose work currently is on display at Courthouse Gallery Fine Art in Ellsworth, died Thursday, Sept. 23, at a hospital in New Harmony, Ind. Pace had been painting nearly every day since moving to Indiana in 2007, and was painting on Wednesday when he was admitted to the hospital with pneumonia. His last painting was one of himself and his wife, Pam, at the front entrance to their house.

Beginning in the 1950s, Pace became prominent among the New York abstract expressionist painters.

Pace, who was 91 when he died, was born in Missouri and grew up on subsistence farms there and in Indiana. There were no books or artworks in the homestead nor was blank paper available, but he painted with coffee on the glass panes of the barn windows. His mother, whose colorful patchwork quilts of worn out clothing still embellish his home, saw a notice for WPA art classes in nearby New Harmony, and convinced 15-year-old Stephen to enroll. He proved to be adept at drawing as well as architectural rendering, which landed him work in an architect’s office, and his accomplished watercolors were exhibited in New Harmony in 1939.

Pace and his three brothers were all in the U.S. Army by 1942. Stationed in England, he managed to make watercolors of local surroundings and show his work on the base. Landing shortly after the first Normandy beachhead, his division was fighting its way across France when he was in an accident and ended up with a broken leg and pleurisy in a hospital in Paris. Painting by the Seine one day, he met Gertrude Stein, who took him to visit Picasso.

Released from the Army, he cast about for an alternative to going back to work on the farm and decided to take advantage of the new GI Bill, attending an art school about to open in San Miguel Allende, Mexico.

After a year of study, Pace tossed a coin in a New Orleans bus station to decide whether to head east or west. East won, and Pace moved to New York City, where he studied at the Art Students League. Soon after his arrival, Stephen met Palmina Natalini. Pam, who was born and raised in Springfield, Mass., recently had moved to New York City to work in advertising. Shortly after their marriage in 1949, the couple moved to Europe. With time still left on the GI Bill, Pace enrolled at the Academie de la Grande Chaumiere in Paris. The couple traveled in Italy before returning to New York City in 1952, where Stephen used the last of his GI Bill time to study at the Hans Hofmann School.

After a decade of exhibiting with the abstract expressionists in major New York galleries, Pace found nature forcing its way back into his paintings, and since that time, his colorful gestural works have been devoted to recollected scenes from his Indiana childhood on the farm and activity on the Maine waterfront.

Pace first came to Maine in the early 1950s with a small group of artists. After that initial visit, the Paces frequented the state and finally bought a house in Stonington in the 1970s so he could divide his time — painting half the year at his Maine studio and half in New York. He turned to representational painting in the 1960s, and his summer home on Deer Isle provided endless subjects and inspiration. For many years he divided his time among Stonington, Manhattan, and Washington, D.C., where he taught at American University. In 2007, he and Pam returned to New Harmony, Ind., where he painted until his death.

Pace’s paintings are included in many prominent private and public collections, including the Metropolitan Museum of Art, Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, the Whitney Museum of American Art and National Museum of Art. Pace is also the subject of the book “Stephen Pace,” written by Matica Sawin and published by Hudson Press in 2004, as well as the documentary video “Stephen Pace: Indiana Painter,” produced as part of the Maine Master Series.

Pace is represented in Maine by Courthouse Gallery Fine Art, where a selection of his 1950 abstracts are included in the current exhibition “Abstract Expressionism, Three Maine Artists: Stephen Pace, Harold Garde and George Wardlaw.” The exhibition, which highlights abstract paintings from the 1950s and 1960s by three Maine artists, has been extended through Sept. 29, and the Pace abstracts will be on view through October. A catalog for the exhibition is available at the gallery or online at www.courthousegallery.com.

Courthouse Gallery Fine Art, 6 Court St., Ellsworth. Hours are 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Monday through Saturday. For information, call 667-6611 or visit www.courthousegallery.com.

Information provided by Courthouse Gallery Fine Art

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