The flowers and ferns have all but disappeared in an ocean of colors. Poppies are mixtures of pink, coral, violet and blues. The shadows and undersides of their tiny petals are combinations of neutrals, painted in tiny, measured strokes. Jerri Finch loads her paintbrush with a specific hue and forms the tip of a leaf, a drop of ocean water.
“It takes me a day or two to mix my palette,” said Finch on a sweltering Monday afternoon as she sipped mint iced tea in her new and temporary “Garage Gallery.”
The transformed garage lies at the end of Battery Road, which leaves Route 1 in Belfast to make a beeline for the rocky coast. If you turn to the right, you’re in Jerri Finch and John Holmes’ driveway, bordered by ferns and lanky day lilies. Their orange trumpetlike blossoms usher you to their coastal gardens and the artwork of Finch’s fellow artist, Kerstin (Kris) Engman, displayed not only in the garage, but in two additional galleries on the property.
They titled the six-day show “Split Complement,” a term used by those who talk color theory, artists such as Finch and Engman.
“I’d ask the viewer — though I rarely expect them to be able to do it — not to look for the representation of the subject matter. I really don’t care what the subject is. It’s not important. For me, it’s the color dynamic,” said Engman, an adjunct professor at the University of Maine in Orono.
On the color wheel, a split complement is found by drawing a line from a color on one side of the wheel, say green, to the color on the opposite side of the wheel, red, and then splitting to the color on either side, red-violet and red-orange. The resulting combination is appealing — it has strong visual contrast without the severity of red and green.
The term also accurately describes the two artists’ friendship.
When it comes to Finch and Engman, who have been friends for 15 years, they aren’t opposites. In fact, Finch learned color theory from Engman by taking her painting courses at UMaine. But they have since split off to interpret and express color in their own styles. Their paintings exhibit together as naturally as split complements.
Engman, a sculptor for 25 years, stopped sculpting to devote her creativity to color and paint seven years ago when she started noticing color behaviors in the environment and found the phenomena too irresistible not to explore.
“When I drive from Belfast into Liberty, there are constant changes in the landscape and bands of color behavior stratified in long patterns,” said Engman, who has a series of paintings composed of small dots built up on each other, capturing patterns and bands of color that represent Queen Anne’s lace, morning fog and the tips of evergreens.
She dredged up the knowledge from her formal post-secondary education in painting and color theory, dusted it off, and got to work.
Even in her still life works, an art form made popular in 17th century Europe, she makes the image contemporary by reducing the number of arranged objects she’s painting in an effort to limit distraction from the actual focus: color. She chooses to paint just a few grapefruits sitting on a plain surface — or further still, just the red, netted bag the fruit came in.
“I’m trying to find a way to bring a color pique with a minimal amount of subject matter,” Engman said. “I want to express what color relationship occurs in certain light conditions, how dull shadows make vibrant colors pop.”
Finch spent the first half of her life creating multiple-piece corporate commissions, intricate and technically demanding airbrush fabric paintings, large in both size and scope, for businesses such as MBNA. She stopped 10 years ago and dove into oil painting, exploring not only color, but the act of using a brush on canvas and mixing unique palettes starting with just three primary colors.
One of her favorite things to paint is the water she kayaks on nearly every day in the summer, but now, rather than trying to tell a narrative with her oceanscape, she’s more concerned with capturing the colors of the swirling tide and texture of frothing white waves breaking over the rocks.
Engman’s teaching has influenced Finch to shift her focus from painting subjects to color, which to Engman is three things: value, saturation and temperature.
While the large-scale paintings are in the Garage Gallery, smaller paintings are in the “Calfornia Gallery,” a former rental cabin. Finch’s older paintings, such as the ones she produced while learning from Engman, are in the Studio Gallery.
On Monday, Finch held up an abstract painting of flecks of colors and said, “For example, [Engman] told me I didn’t put enough neutrals in this,” and laughed.
“No, I think I told you that you depended on white too much for this one,” said Engman, smiling.
It takes a practiced eye and knowledge about balancing colors to see either of those “flaws” in the kaleidoscope image.
“It’s a cerebral process,” said Finch. “It’s like being a juggler and trying to toss all these balls in the air. Color is a combination of value, temperature — so many questions go into each and every brush stroke.”
Finch practices this way of seeing every time she sits down to paint her gardens, which will be open to the public during the six-day exhibit.
For the past 13 years, Finch expanded the gardens to marry the forest of oak and ash with stone-walled beds of cranes neck geranium, six kinds of hosta, creeping thyme and climbing hydrangea. A dogwood grows tall in bloom in contrast to a charming dwarf Alberta spruce.
Mischief Mary and Jumjpin’ Johnny scarecrows guard a fruit and vegetable patch of raspberry, asparagus and squash. Beside her home, a kitchen garden is a mix of tomatoes, cosmos and herbs beneath purple clematis and grapes.
Though most of the garden is decorated with beach rocks, homemade birdbaths and found objects, it’s also the home of two steel sphere sculptures by recently deceased sculptor David McLaughlin and a Forest Hart sea otter sculpture. But perhaps the most eye-catching structure of the gardens is the 16-foot tall trellis Finch constructed out of wood scraps.
Finch burns and rakes the naturally occurring fields of ferns each spring to ensure each new growth is lush and healthy. Seaweed and decaying leaves she saved from a fallen oak act as mulch. But as for insects, they don’t concern her, except the Japanese beetles she tries to keep contained to the wild roses growing along the edge of the beach.
Meandering beach-stone paths lead you through layers of such gardens cascading down several hundred feet and ends at a spacious lower deck where Finch sits on Adirondack chairs and relaxes to the sound of waves washing over the rocky beach below.
The Finch-Holmes gardens and the “Split Complement” show will be open 11 a.m.-5 p.m. Saturday and Sunday, July 23-24, and Friday-Sunday, July 29-31. For information, call 338-1060.
The 6th annual Belfast Garden Club Open Garden Days, which began June 3 and runs through Aug. 26, features 13 gardens in the Belfast area. One garden per week will be open to the public 10 a.m.-4 p.m. Fridays. A schedule of the gardens is available at belfastgardenclub.org. For information, call Diane Allmayer-Beck at 948-2815 or 338-3105, or email firstname.lastname@example.org. Tickets, which can be purchased at each garden on the day of the tour, are $4 for one garden or $15 for a five-visit ticket. Proceeds from the 2011 Garden Tour will benefit the Belfast Garden Club’s civic beautification projects.