Barbara Ernst Prey sat on her third-story balcony in an Adirondack chair and watched the shadow of the railing shift as the sun set over the harbor, the water glistening beyond the roofs of her neighbors’ homes. People busied about the dock by the Midcoast Fishermans Co-Op, a place she has visited many times with watercolor paints in hand.
Prey, who also lives in New York, has been inspired by Maine scenes for the past 35 years.
She has painted the neighbor’s window, crowded with starfish and geraniums, and the fishermen hard at work mending nets.
Her most recent works of Maine now are hanging in the two stories below her studio, Blue Water Fine Arts, for her annual show titled “Barbara Ernst Prey: Open Spaces — Meditations on the Environment.” The collection of 40 never-before-shown watercolor and dry brush paintings runs through Aug. 21 and celebrates the gallery’s 10th anniversary at 855 Port Clyde Road in Port Clyde. But as is typical for Prey, this show simply marks the beginning of her next chapter.
When asked what she’ll do next, she simply says, “I’ll be out painting tomorrow.”
For those who don’t know about Prey, she is one of the key figures of 21st century landscape painting. Appointed by the president of the United States to the National Council on the Arts (the advisory board of the National Endowment for the Arts), Prey is the only visual artist on the board.
Her artwork also is part of the White House’s permanent collection, as well as a long list of private and public collections worldwide.
“I’m an advocate for open space,” Prey said. “We need them as human beings, but also in nature, for the ecosystem. And I really think we need them visually to maintain [a mental] equilibrium.”
Prey’s mother, Peggy Ernst, passed on her love of nature and bird watching to Prey, whose concern for the environment has only grown over the years. In the past year, she has experimented with her brush and paints to see what open spaces have to offer. With her art supplies, Prey flew by plane and helicopter or caught a boat to small islands along the Maine coast to capture the colors of wildflowers, grass moving in the salty breeze and sunsets over the brilliant blue ocean.
“[The show] is really about my relationship with Maine,” said Prey, who included several of her new works from her ongoing “Working Waterfront” series in the show. “It’s years and years of looking and thinking and composing.”
In the “Open Spaces” series, Prey increases the size of her paintings and pushes color as far as it can go, experimenting with watercolor, a medium she has come to love for the tactility of the paper and mixing paint with her hands.
“A clear blue sky speaks to your soul — it’s like a piece of music,” Prey said. “I play piano and I used to like to play Chopin — it’s very emotional — and I feel the same thing with colors.”
The show also includes a series of paintings Prey composed in response to the 9/11 attacks on the World Trade Center, an event she witnessed while crossing the Throgs Neck Bridge in New York City. The paintings, a majority of which are of the American flags that lined the streets of New York and Maine after 9/11, helped Prey grieve the loss of 45 people in her hometown, Manhasset, New York.
The majority of the artwork in the show, besides the prints of some of her more famous works, have not been shown before.
Blue Water Fine Arts, a 100-year-old former Village Inn, has a personal touch of the artist that may be hard to achieve at another venue. A salty breeze flows through the screen door. Photo albums of Prey’s travels around the world are propped on tables. And Prey works just upstairs and reads her guestbook with delight.
In 2004, the New York state Senate honored Prey with the prestigious “Women of Distinction Award,” an honor shared with Susan B. Anthony and Eleanor Roosevelt. In the same year, she was chosen for the U.S. Arts in the Embassies Program. Since then, her artwork has been exhibited in U.S. Embassies and Consulates in Paris, Prague, Madrid, Seoul, Baghdad, Abu Dhabi, Bogota, Mexico City, Athens, Cairo and Rangoon.
Her work is owned by private collectors including former President George W. Bush, Mrs. Henry Luce III, Nobel Laureate Dr. and Mrs. James Watson, Ambassador and Mrs. Craig Stapleton, Prince and Princess Johannes Lobkowicz, songwriter Jimmy Webb, and actors Orlando Bloom and, most recently, Tom Hanks.
While all this recognition and success make her smile, her life is really about painting, she said.
“I like to work outside because of the light,” said Prey. “Even for the snow scenes. I fell off a snowbank once.”
Sometimes, she sits in the back seat of her GMC Envoy and paints the scene through her windshield.
“I was 8 or 9 when I had a painting in my first juried show,” Prey said. “My mom painted and had a big studio in our house. I just thought it was normal to do that.”
In the past year, she has been busy with NASA as the spokesperson for the exhibit “NASA Art: 50 Years of Exploration,” which celebrates NASA’s 50th anniversary and was organized by the Smithsonian Institution and the National Air and Space Museum. Prey was featured in mid-July on “CBS Evening News” in a story on the exhibit, which has traveled to 12 museums and now has opened at the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum.
Her NASA-commissioned painting of the X-43, the fastest aircraft in the world, is included in the exhibit. The painting is just one of the four NASA-commissioned paintings Prey has completed for its collection.
At Blue Water Fine Arts is a print of one of these paintings, “The Columbia Tribute,” which commemorates the anniversary of the space shuttle Columbia tragedy and was unveiled at the National Air and Space Museum anniversary Tribute Dinner in Washington. The painting is on exhibit at the Kennedy Space Center, and prints were given to members of the crew’s family with a special message from the President George W. Bush.
For half a year, Prey researched the skies, the stars and, of course, rockets in order to paint for NASA. And while skiing in Europe, she happened upon the head of the International Space Station and commenced to drill him for information while they shared a ski lift up the mountain. Armed with his answers, she then was able to paint a sky in reds, blues and blacks; stars of silver, copper and gold.
Whether she is stargazing or interviewing lobster fishermen, Prey’s academic interest in what she’s painting is crucial to her work. To understand the content and story of her composition not only informs her in depicting it, but also enlivens the experience of creating for Prey.
Maine always has been a place of constant inspiration for Prey. Over the years, her paintings of the land and its people have traveled to exhibitions and collectors around the globe. For the 2008 show “An American View: Barbara Ernst Prey,” presented by the Mona Bismark Foundation in Paris, buoys, lobsters and red Adirondack chairs were sent from Port Clyde to France to become a part of the show. In a guestbook, visitors, averaging 100 each day, thanked Prey for sharing Maine with them.
Prey initially traveled to Maine with a friend, and it has since become her second home. It was only recently that she learned that her family history goes back to Vinalhaven in the 1700s, and Prey, unknowingly, has painted houses that may have belonged to her ancestors.
“There is this sort of connection I have to Maine,” Prey said. “It’s my roots, way back, and every time I come back, there’s something new.”
Blue Water Fine Arts is located at 855 Port Clyde Road in Port Clyde and is open 10 a.m.-5 p.m. daily, and by appointment. Prey will be at the gallery on weekends for the exhibit. For information, visit www.bluewaterfinearts.com or www.barbaraernstprey.com.