A treasure-trove of 600 paintings was left behind in Port Clyde when Robert Hamilton died in 2004. His artwork is stored in “the vault,” an art storage building he had built across the street from the old fisherman’s dwelling that is still home to his wife, Nancy.
A painter of vibrant representational abstract art, Hamilton was called “the best kept secret in Maine” by Philip Isaacson, art critic for the Maine Sunday Telegram. His friend and neighbor, renowned painter Andrew Wyeth, called him “a real painter.” But people who knew Hamilton and have been awed by his art are concerned that his story is not being told, his paintings threatened by the mildew and seclusion of a fishing town.
This month, Hamilton’s work is being revealed. Nancy joined forces with Belfast artist David Estey, a past student of Hamilton’s, over the last year to launch www.roberthamiltonpainter.com and publish a 59-page book, “Robert Hamilton — Legacy of an American Master,” which will be released Saturday, May 14, on the same day that Nancy will tell his story from 1 to 3 p.m. at the Senior College 9th Festival of Arts at the University of Maine Hutchinson Center in Belfast.
“He needs this kind of public relations, you know,” said Nancy, now 78, one drizzly afternoon as she walked down the dirt drive to a long building with the sign “155 Hamilton Galleries” posted on weathered shingle siding.
Above all things, Hamilton preferred to paint. One reason he isn’t widely known is that he chose not to promote his artwork in museums and galleries. Instead, he built his own galleries in the clearing across the street from his home and studio.
“He did this the same way he painted,” said Nancy as she looked at the building. “He never had a plan. He found out which size lumber was cheap and based the building on that. From then on, he just kept going and going … he never did anything for himself except to have these galleries.”
Muted sunlight entered the three-room gallery through skylights, illuminating the colorful, abstract oil paintings in Hamilton’s handmade frames.
“Robert said he didn’t want things to be so glaringly bright, and I said, ‘Are you kidding?’ He went directly to the red paint pot,” Nancy said.
In the far right corner of the clearing, Hamilton built a separate gallery in the shape of an octagon so visitors could step inside and be surrounded by his dreamlike art. Each spring, Nancy frames and hangs a fresh batch of paintings in both buildings for summer visitors.
Across the street from the Hamilton galleries is his studio, almost equal to the size of his home. Posters of cornet player Bix Beiderbecke and clippings of Krazy Kat remain on the wall from a time when Hamilton would enter the studio in the morning with sea spray in his hair and paint all day, listening to the jazz compositions of his son Scott.
A trumpet player himself, Hamilton was a part of Providence’s jazz scene while teaching at Rhode Island School of Design, from which he graduated in 1939.
“He thought jazz musicians figured out where art came from,” said Estey. “He believed to really get a good painting, you had to improvise and accept what surprises come up,” a process similar to playing jazz music. Most often, Hamilton’s surprise was a pair of eyes belonging to a quirky or mysterious character.
Hamilton would run from his studio into his house and say to Nancy, “You won’t believe who I found today.”
His scenes, though full of surprises, echoed Hamilton’s own life — the P-47 bomber he flew for 100 missions in World War II, the jazz musicians he followed in the cities, the train station in Providence and his Maine neighbors.
A fantastical painting of two young women holding out beach balls and leaping sideways through the trees of an abstract woodland was inspired by Joyce Cary’s 1944 novel “The Horse’s Mouth.” On the back of the wood board that he used as canvas for all of his paintings, he wrote “Escape Through Gully Jimson’s Woods” in permanent marker, all caps.
“He thought that he was Gully Jimson, that Cary was writing about him,” said Nancy, who first met Hamilton in 1954 when she was a student as RISD and worked as a model for one of his graduate classes.
Their story is 20th century fairy tale: a friendship, their first steak dinner at Hamilton’s apartment, talks into the night, Hamilton’s anonymous and humorous postcards sent to Nancy over spring break (mementos she still holds dear), their first kiss on a pier while watching the sun rise and a hasty marriage.
“He was a funny, funny man — had a wonderful sense of humor,” she said. “I think all the time about things … he just made me laugh all the time.”
They spent their first summer as husband and wife in a friend’s cabin without electricity or running water in Port Clyde. They returned each summer, and by the time their second son was born, they were staying in the simple coastal home, which they made their full-time residence in 1981.
“Before, he painted a lot, but never all day, every day,” Nancy said. “But when we moved here, that’s what he did. He had a boat he built himself, and every morning he’d say, ‘I’m just going to take a little run around,’ and he’d go out in his boat and go around the little islands for an hour before going in his studio to paint.”
Late in his life, Hamilton suffered from macular degeneration and sported a patch over one eye. His vision declined to the point of near-blindness, but he never stopped painting and creating his own frames.
“He loved to make these frames, and for a man who couldn’t see very well … every time I heard the saw going, I’d think to myself, ‘This will be the day,’” Nancy said as she fastened the wire on a newly framed painting for an exhibition of his work, “Robert Hamilton: The Last Paintings,” which will be on display May 28-July 10, in Gallery 2 of the Center for Maine Contemporary Art in Rockport.
One of his last paintings, titled “Same Old Dreams,” is of a mischievous boy, framed in a circle and holding a model airplane.
“He never told me it was a self-portrait,” Nancy said, “but of course, when he left it, I realized that’s what it was.”
Though Hamilton kept to Port Clyde, his talent didn’t go entirely unnoticed. Years before his death, he was presented as a “Maine Master” on the Maine Public Broadcasting Network in an ongoing film series of some of Maine’s most distinguished and often less recognized visual artists. A DVD of Hamilton’s Maine Masters artist profile is available at www.mainemasters.com.