SIDNEY, Maine — Passing on a stable career path to pursue art is a gutsy move even for a recent high school or college graduate, but Suzanne Savage Brewer was turning her back on an established three-decade work life when she decided to focus on painting three years ago.
“I had a nearly 30 year career designing houses,” said Brewer, now 51. “But we had moved and the economy was bad and I was tired of doing the work anyway. So I decided to get back to where I started. When I was a teenager, I was a painter — before I decided to grow up and get a job.”
The life reboot, which Brewer said was made financially possible by her husband’s career as a nurse practitioner, has gone better than she could have hoped. Less than two years after her 2010 decision to get back into painting after decades away, Brewer was selected as the sole artist in residence for Baxter State Park in her first application for the prestigious post, and this month she has claimed a coveted spot in a top watercolor class taught in Belfast by world-renowned Australian artist Joseph Zbukvic.
Works from her Baxter residency will be on display at the Blue Moon Gallery in Houlton under the exhibition title “Drawing Strength” through July 25.
Next up for Brewer is a series of auctions — first online through July 23, then a live painting event along the Kenduskeag Stream on July 24 — in which Brewer and 11 other plein air painters are helping raise money for a complete inventory of plant life at Baxter State Park.
Brewer said her quick return to the art scene was helped by her decision early on to join the Plein Air Painters of Maine. “En plein air” is a French expression meaning “in the open air,” which for painters means taking their craft outdoors, where the scene can be changed by weather in a moment.
That environment challenged Brewer to focus her depiction of a scene on “what first catches your eye,” and emphasizing those colors and qualities while “suppressing, subduing or deleting other elements that aren’t going to contribute to [the image] in your head.”
“Everything that I had done previously had been done in the studio,” the Island Falls native said. “Getting outside to paint opens up a whole new way of working. It forces you to grow much more rapidly as an artist. You have to push what you’re seeing into a painting.”
Her selection as the 2012 Baxter artist in residence, she said, gave her an additional push as a painter.
“The Baxter trip was amazing because that was two weeks of doing nothing but painting,” Brewer said of the residency period last August. “The paintings got better as the time went on. To be able to get that residency in Baxter after only being back in painting for a couple years was mind-blowing. It was a real honor.”
In addition to at least one more involved painting each day at the nearly 210,000-acre park, Brewer kept a blog and started her mornings off with a small daily watercolor of Mt. Katahdin, Baxter’s best-known feature and Maine’s tallest mountain. Brewer said the small paintings became a visual diary of sorts for her stay there, capturing the weather and light of the majestic peak however it appeared every morning.
The exercise ultimately taught her that everybody has different tastes in art. The weather didn’t agree on her first morning there.
“My first little painting was just a bunch of clouds, then the treeline and some water,” she recalled, noting that the peak of Katahdin was obscured in the weather. “I thought I’d have that little painting forever. I thought I’d be eventually ripping it out of the frame and using it for something else. But it spoke to somebody.”
Fast forward to her June 14 opening at the Blue Moon Gallery. That first little painting was the first of her artworks to be sold that night.
“It’s amazing the reach that Baxter State Park really has,” Brewer said, recalling visitors she met from all around the world while painting there. “I met a man who has hiked mountains all over the world, and Katahdin was his favorite. There are a lot of mountains around the world that are more grand, but there’s something about the way Katahdin comes up off the land that makes it unique to people.”
With her new painting career, Brewer said she wants to continue finding ways to give back to the park and state that have served as her muse.
“I have a real love of the park, a real love of the area, and I’m jazzed up about doing something that can help,” she said. “There’s always something exciting to do, and there’s so much going on in the state of Maine artistically.”