CONVERSATIONS WITH MAINE

Nearing 90, late-starting Maine artist finds life is never boring

Posted April 07, 2011, at 10:08 p.m.

Norman Stern’s living room has a wall of windows so close to the Penobscot River that all you see through the glass is water reaching to the opposite shore. He and his wife, Marie, moved from Maryland to Maine to live here full time eight years ago, after 22 summers on Swan Lake. They love to watch the changing view of tides, seasons, boats and wildlife.

“It’s never boring!” Norman said.

In a nutshell, that phrase characterizes Norman’s life. Rarely have I met anyone so effervescent with excitement about living. It is no wonder that at age 86, he continues to attract new friends of all ages.  His glowing optimism and adventurous spirit are irresistible. When you are in the presence of Norman Stern, it is never boring.

Norman’s first job was teaching, and even though he only taught professionally for about 15 years, he continued to teach in myriad ways throughout his life. He has been a guest speaker in Mason’s halls, libraries and high schools, most recently in Hampden. He talked to a creative writing class about a few of his adventures and encouraged them to live life to its fullest; then they’ll have something to write about.

“You can’t have adventures in front of a TV,” he said; “I tell them, ‘You have a world ahead of you — you’re young! Go out! Have adventures!’”

One experience Norman talks about is his service under Gen. Patton in World War II. He was a cryptographer, transporting communications between the front lines and the general’s headquarters as the troops marched from France into Germany. It made a profound impression, but Norman speaks of it with humility: “I was young. I was not a hero. I did what I was supposed to do.”

After the war, Norman completed his education and spent summers as a camp counselor in Maine. He fell in love with the state — Mount Katahdin, the beauty of the outdoors, the relaxed nature of the lifestyle, and the people. “I can’t get over this place.”

It is high praise coming from Norman, who has seen a lot of the world, mostly in companionship with his wife. Marie is a food chemist and consultant who, in her own quiet way, is just as adventurous as her husband. It is a charming relationship between the two of them. They delight in each other’s company and accomplishments.

“Let me tell you about Marie,” says Norman. “She’s much more exciting.”

“This is supposed to be about you,” says Marie.

Norman and Marie have been to at least four continents together in the capacity of volunteers. IESC is a service organization that works to strengthen economies and build self-sufficiency in developing countries. Marie’s work was to help set up food production businesses all over the world. The result was many new jobs in each community.

“She worked for eight hours a day while I went exploring,” quipped Norman. The fact is, both of them made friends everywhere they went, friends who stay in touch and come visit them still.

Norman’s latest adventure began at age 75, when Marie gave him a Valentine’s Day present — 10 art classes. He hasn’t stopped painting since. Norman’s artwork is both beautiful and prolific — landscapes, seascapes, animals, still lifes, and flowers for Marie’s birthday.

Norman has done five one-man shows already, and plans to do more with other artists. He has a website (thesterngallery.com), prints and imprinted tote bags. He doesn’t actively market his work, but when Norman left the room briefly, Marie quietly mentioned that he had sold one painting for $800. Hampden Academy art students have visited his home gallery, and he gives talks about his work. He even has taught painting to several people, young and old. One of Norman’s proteges is Norman’s and Marie’s “adopted grandson” from the University of Maine.

“Well, I didn’t really teach him …,” Norman began.

“You did teach him!” said Marie.

They both taught me a lot that day — about generosity, giving, trying new things, and living life with gusto every day, whether you’re traveling the world or watching an eagle soar by the window over the river.

“We’re enthusiastic people,” Norman said.

I’d say that is an understatement.

Robin Clifford Wood welcomes feedback and suggestions for future stories. You may contact her at robin.everyday@gmail.com.

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