By David M. Fitzpatrick
Of The Weekly Staff
ETNA, Maine — Ken Massar first visited Maine in 1957, when he had earned a summer scholarship to study at the Skowhegan School of Painting and Sculpture. During a day trip with friends to Bar Harbor, he cruised up Route 2 right past where he’d eventually settle.
“Somebody could have said to me, ‘Listen, we have just passed four miles [from] where you’re going to come back 16 years from now and live the rest of your life,’” he said. “I’d say, ‘Are you joking?’”
Talk about life having other plans. Now, after living and painting in Maine for 38 years, this professional artist will exhibit his work at the Bangor Public Library from Nov. 2 through Nov. 30. The exhibition, “Garden Party,” will highlight his unique style of biomorphic imagery. Massar will open the exhibit with a public reception 2-5 p.m. Saturday, Nov. 9, and be on hand for discussion and questions.
Massar was artistic from his youngest days, and attended Ohio Wesleyan University to earn his BFA with an eye on cartooning. But during a summer trip to New York in 1952 to study at the Art Students League, he saw the work of Jackson Pollock. He was intrigued, even though the press derided Pollock.
“They don’t understand his work at all,” said Massar. “I like the baroque.”
He abandoned cartooning and jumped into his painting, knowing that he was consigning himself to the life of the quintessential struggling artist — or else teach art, unless he struck it big commercially. And for a small-town Midwestern lad, he had thrown himself deep into an alien culture.
“I went to college a pure Philistine — I didn’t know anything about the fine arts,” he said.
He was still a neophyte with the masters such as Rembrandt, but he knew what he liked — Honoré Daumier, for example, and Paul Cézanne. When he immersed himself in his painting, he discovered quite a world.
“It was all intellectual, but when I started to doodle, it was emotional,” he said. “I would start looking at something and I would abstract it. I saw a scene and I would change it — [to] my shapes and my forms, which are baroque.”
Even still, he never discovered his unique style until he was 33. After years of drawing abstract flowers, one day in 1965 he completed an abstract flower painting. As he looked at the finished product, he was surprised to find something unintended within the leaves and petals: an eye.
“An ‘eye’ placed on a leaf turned the leaf into a small bird,” Massar said. “I found other ‘eyes’ and other flower forms transformed into hybrid forms — creatures existing in a world of their own.”
Today, he refers to that first painting as the “birth certificate” that commemorates that “Eureka!” moment of his self-discovery. From then, his images of plants, flowers and vegetables was full of subtle, unconscious features of human forms, little creatures and faces — whole faces or elements of them.
“I developed this language of my own, and this is what it resulted in,” he said.
He began following the evolutions of these forms, and was doing so when he settled in Etna, Maine, in 1973 — a humble location for an artist who studied with the likes of Karl Zerbe, George Grosz, and Sigmund Menkes.
In 1993 he began painting more realistic subjects, including landscapes, and then back to flowers and plant forms. His biomorphic forms were always lurking in his paintings.
At 81, he’s actively trying to get his work out there. It’s never been about fame or fortune; he just wants to find kindred spirits at his exhibition — people who identify with the vision he’s painted. But he hopes to attract those who aren’t art-experienced who are interested in seeing if they discover something for themselves.
“If you study the painting, you may see something in it that speaks to you,” he said. “That’s what it has to be: that somebody responds to something that’s genuine — not that some artist has told you what to see or some professor has said.”
You might not find it in his work, he concedes, but you won’t know until you look. You might find a connection with a painting that you never expected.
For this exhibition, Massar hopes his new series reflects what he’s tried to achieve in his paintings — that people see beyond the literal.
“The overt subject matter simply served as a stimulus to create a metaphor for the drama and mystery that I sensed in the flowers,” he said. “I hope to find viewers that respond — and relate to the metaphor.”
He welcomes art lovers and the uninitiated as well.
“Go and see if it speaks to you; if it doesn’t, forget about it,” he said. “If it does, you made some new friend — some new thing in your life, maybe.”
Massar is represented by the Fogg Museum in Cambridge, Mass. and in private collections in the U.S., Canada, and Mexico. He will exhibit in the Bangor Public Library’s Lecture Hall from Nov. 2-30, and will be present at the artist’s reception 2-5 p.m. Saturday, Nov. 9, for discussion and questions.
To view more of Massar’s work, visit www.KenMassar.com.