Lorna Crichton at Waterfall Arts in Belfast was pleased to hear the news that her community arts center would be receiving a donation of all the remaining paintings of deceased local artist Sandy Balmforth.
There was just one thing: Who was Sandy Balmforth?
“I’ve lived in Belfast for over 30 years, and I’d never heard of him,” said Crichton, promotional director for the arts center. “And then this huge amount of paintings and sketches and drawings just arrived here. It was a little overwhelming.”
Looking at the collection now displayed at Waterfall, it’s clear that Balmforth, who was 39 when in 1991 he drowned in the Penobscot River in Winterport, was indeed a bit of a mystery. The nearly 200 paintings, all for sale and most priced between $1 and $25, reveal an imaginative man who appears to have been deeply troubled.
At least, that’s the impression one gets from his work, and from recollections gathered by Jay Davis, a retired journalist and editor who set out to find out just who Balmforth was.
“A lot of people who graduated with him [from Belfast Area High School] didn’t even remember him,” said Davis, who wrote a story that accompanies the exhibit. “Those who did remember him as a bit of an eccentric, I think. He was often fairly withdrawn, though he could also be very sociable.”
His paintings appropriated many styles, and range in size from tiny to nearly 5 feet wide. One corner of the gallery is full of tempestuous seascapes, lacking in technical skill but full of energy; another is hung with scenes of snowy fields and country roads. A few paintings of animals are mixed in with a handful of still lifes of random objects, like broken lightbulbs and wilted flowers. An entire wall is covered in wildly colorful, surreal, at times disturbing paintings of strange figures, faces and landscapes; often imbued with Christian symbolism, but sometimes much more abstract and bizarre.
“He wasn’t a great artist, technically,” said Davis. “But he certainly had something to say.”
What is known about Balmforth is that he was born in Belfast in February 1953, with reddish blonde hair that garnered him the nickname Sandy, to differentiate him from his father, also a Harold. He developed juvenile diabetes at age five, which complicated much of his life.
After graduating high school in 1971, he attended University College of Bangor, as it was then known, where he received an associate’s degree in 1974. He briefly attended the School of the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston. According to Balmforth’s friend Joanne Willis, of Belfast, whom Davis interviewed, it was when he went to Boston that his problems with alcohol abuse began, though by the end of his life Willis said he’d quit drinking. By 1976, he was living in Maine again, where he’d remain for the rest of his life.
In Davis’ story, Willis recalled him as “complex,” always with “16 things going on at once,” and that he often had trouble coordinating the introverted and extroverted sides of his personality. Other classmates remember that he was an artist from early childhood onward. Later friends from the 1980s that Davis interviewed said Balmforth was frequently seen walking along rural roads, picking up bottles, and had a handful of scrapes with the law, though he never went to jail.
He participated for several years in the Sidewalk Arts Festival in Bangor, and displayed at the Belfast Free Library and the Farnsworth Museum in Rockland. Many of the paintings at Waterfall are dated between the mid-1970s and the late 1980s, and a box of personal papers that came with the paintings contains a number of letters and forms from that same time period.
Little other record of his life exists, until several Bangor Daily News articles from 1991, which reported Balmforth missing on Oct. 7, and a search that went on in Winterport for 11 days. His body was recovered in the Penobscot River on Oct. 18. No foul play was suspected, though it’s not known why or how he ended up in the river.
Balmforth’s parents both died in the past few years, and according to Davis, other family members were cleaning out their Belfast home when they came across the paintings, which had been tucked in closets for the past 22 years. The family’s original plan was to donate the paintings to the Belfast Lions Club, but the club didn’t have a way to properly display and promote the art, so they in turn donated it to the gallery.
“The family gave all their stuff to the Lion’s Club, and the Lion’s Club gave the paintings to Waterfall,” said Davis. “That’s when we started trying to figure out just who this guy was.”
Balmforth’s paintings could easily fall in the category of “outsider art,” a term used to describe artists that fall outside the mainstream art world, or whose work may be colored by their mental illness or lack of training. He painted many Winslow Homer-esque landscapes and pastoral scenes, but most of the paintings at Waterfall depict an often chaotic world, full of demonic figures and grotesque characters, reminiscent of the violent, sinister paintings of Francis Bacon.
“He was definitely searching for something, some meaning or sense or identity,” said Davis.
An essay found in the box of Balmforth’s paperwork offered up some context for some of the wild swings in style and tone of his paintings — as well as for his seemingly turbulent inner life.
“I myself don’t want to paint what it looks like,” wrote Balmforth. “I want to paint what it is and what it is to me. Since most of what I paint is from my imagination, what I don’t paint is important as what I do paint… you don’t paint what you see but instead what you feel.”
The Sandy Balmforth display and sale continues through Dec. 22 at Waterfall Arts, 256 High St. in Belfast. For information, visit waterfallarts.org.