Norm Stern, 89, of Hampden received from his wife, Marie, a gift on his 75th birthday that has never left him. Her gift was 10 painting lessons from an artist in Baltimore, where they lived at the time.
“I had never painted before, I never drew anything. I still don’t draw,” Stern said. A man of nimble intellect and lively energy, he took to painting quickly. His instructor, he said, allowed students to develop for themselves how painting worked for them.
At that time, Stern already had a 15-year career as a teacher of English and history in public schools, and more than 30 years working for Maryland Paper Box, opening a distributor network for the company throughout the United States.
He had come into the paper box industry at an opportune time.
“Gift boxes had rigid sides,” he said. “Making them was a local business because they were too difficult to ship anywhere else.”
Then someone figured out how to make flat boxes that could be opened into the familiar four-sided shape.
“That changed everything,” Stern said.
Now, boxes could be shipped to stores nationally and internationally, a very new niche.
Several years ago, painting and Stern’s past experience in the packaging industry merged. He arranged to have prints of three of his paintings — a hibiscus, a sailboat and a still life with lobsters — transferred to canvas and paper tote bags. Previously he had experimented with having a local business affix the images to towels, which proved to be popular with friends he gave them to, he said. The tote bags received a similar favorable reaction from people, including myself, who purchased several at the Hampden Garden Club craft fair in October.
“Painting for me is about identity and an expression of things I like,” Stern said. “I paint everything that I see that I like.”
He describes his painting style as “rugged realism.” He often makes photographs of what he wants to paint and works from those images.
Stern, a World War II veteran who served under Gen. George S. Patton, paints every day, though now it is often in short segments of time, These days he devotes much of his time seeing to Marie’s care. Marie, a retired food chemist, recently had a downturn in health, making it necessary for her to use a wheelchair.
Each year on Marie’s birthday, Stern paints a special picture just for her, which he signs, “Normy.” No one but Marie ever gets a painting signed that way.
“I’ve done hundreds of paintings and given many to friends around the United States and world,” he said. Including Israel, India and Europe.
Stern has had one-man shows of his paintings in various venues in the Bangor area. Plans are in the works to exhibit his work in December at the Edythe Dyer Library in Hampden.
Recently, he painted a table that will be auctioned, along with many others, on Saturday, Nov. 23, as a fundraiser for the Maine Discovery Museum in Bangor. The title of the scene he painted on the table is “Birch Trees of Argyle.”
Images of his work, including the tote bags, can be viewed at thesterngallery.com.
Stern’s tote bags be be available for purchase at The Congregation Beth Israel Sisterhood annual Holiday Marketplace and Craft Fair 11 a.m.-3 p.m. Sunday, Nov. 17, at 144 York St. The event will feature knitted items, fleece-lined mittens, baby items, beaded jewelry, crochet items, scarves, charcoal drawings, vintage jewelry, books, Judaic items and an afghan raffle. Lunch will be available at The Cafe, offering falafel, traditional potato pancakes, fresh pizza and desserts.