The seeds of Jeff Wahlstom’s artistic calling took root in a childhood household where art time was integral to family time: never pushed, but always present.
The walls of his Bangor home are covered with original artwork by family members, several of them professional artists. Beginning with his aunt Ollie’s art classes in her barn studio, Wahlstrom studied art throughout his life. He has worked in watercolors, pottery, wire and papier-mâché sculpture, collage, print-making and more.
And yet, it wasn’t until he was in his sixties that he began, tentatively, to call himself an artist. Perhaps the fact that he’s about to hang his first solo art show this summer—in the Sohns Gallery at the Rock and Art Shop in Bangor—has helped convince him to claim his artist identity.
Professionally, Wahlstrom is the longtime president of Starboard Leadership Consulting. By his own assessment, he has a highly organized managerial personality that values utility and control—not the usual menu of artist aptitudes. However, after spending an afternoon with Wahlstrom in his well-appointed and cramped basement studio, I understood how the pieces of his world fit together beautifully, like the layered scraps of paper in one of his signature watercolor collages.
When Wahlstrom and his wife, Lisa, were raising their two boys in Maine, Wahlstrom made sure that art was a part of his sons’ childhood, as it had been part of his own. Paper and art supplies accompanied every vacation around Maine. During one of those trips, Wahlstrom started cutting out bits of watercolored paper and piecing them together to depict a scene. He had worked in watercolor for years and found it extremely difficult.
“I like a sense of realism and control,” Wahlstrom said. “Watercolor is hard, and getting control over the medium is very important to me.”
This was how Wahlstrom stumbled into his medium of choice, watercolor collage. It combines the immutable characteristics of watercolor and the sculptural textures of layering.
An artist admired Wahlstrom’s first collage and invited him to produce more for a show. Wahlstrom was flattered, but never got around to producing the scenes. Work, home, fatherhood—life got in the way. He still did not think of himself as a serious artist.
“I was probably intimidated by all the professional artists in my family every time I looked at the walls of my house.”
Two or three years ago, something changed. Was it the empty nest? The perspective of age? Whatever it was, Wahlstrom finally “got the courage” to submit work to a juried competition at the Bangor Arts Society. By this time an artist neighbor had introduced Wahlstrom to printing, opening new creative challenges in wood block and linoleum.
“A lot of art is problem solving,” Wahlstrom said.
Watercolor collage and the complexities of printing techniques present a perpetual array of problems to solve, ways to evoke the scenes that Wahlstrom wants to depict. Wahlstrom won ribbons in that first competition and the next, which led to an invitation to place work in the Boyd Place Gallery. Later, in a show at the Rock and Art shop, Wahlstrom’s art was sold on the first day—his first sale “not to a friend.” Each morsel of positive feedback fed his inspiration to continue putting his work into the public sphere.
One of the prints that will be in Wahlstrom’s solo exhibition is a white line wood block print that depicts a mountain in Newfoundland, “Gros Morne.” As Wahlstrom stepped up to his workbench to produce one of those prints, all tentativeness disappeared. Every print is an “original,” Wahlstrom explained, because each one is printed individually with subtly distinct color and shading. I watched the scene grow as Wahlstrom assessed each step with undisturbed concentration, even as he talked me through his process. This is a veteran artist, I thought. Here is a man speaking with the erudition and ease of long experience.
Just as Wahlstrom feels connected to his relatives’ lives through their art on his walls, he likes the idea that his art might tell stories from the walls of someone else’s home. His enchanting artwork, from potato harvests to whitewater canoeing, from cityscapes to rocky coasts, will surely speak their stories from many walls in days to come.
Jeff Wahlstrom’s artwork will be on display at the Rock and Art Shop in Bangor until Aug. 24.