Visitors of the Wendell Gilley Museum enjoyed an opportunity to hear artist Robert Pollien share his perspective during a gallery talk on August 21. Narrated to slides of his drawings, paintings, and crow photographs, Pollien told the story of how his work evolved in the context of his life.
Coming from a family more at home with mathematics and engineering than fine art, Pollien appreciated the rigorous critical framework presented in his early art schooling. He studied painting at Trinity College and cited painter Josef Albers as an influence. Albers’ integration of color and shape into one “unified expressive gestalt” served as an important guiding principle. He also earned an M.F.A. from the University of Pennsylvania under the noted Maine landscape painter Neil Welliver. He began “street painting” while in Philadelphia, a practice he found increasingly liberating when he migrated to Maine to attend the Skowhegan School of Painting and Sculpture. When Pollien became Artist in Residence at Acadia National Park in 1992, the year-round access to 47,000 acres of natural lands and seascapes offered him unlimited inspiration. He and his family planted roots and he joined “that continuum of nature painters on Mount Desert Island.”
Pollien then recounted how, in 2003, his life and his art changed. A skiing accident left him with a traumatic brain injury that required years of painstaking recovery. He needed to relearn how to be an artist—how to reconnect the “act of seeing with the act of drawing and feeling.”
During his recovery, an unlikely relationship with nature developed when loud crows began loitering outside his window. Initially loathing their presence, Pollien associated his long road ahead with the birds and began to regard his injuries as “crow-inflicted.” But he decided to set out a peace offering: a Subway BLT with cheese. The crows swooped in to eat the sandwich and graduated from being “tormenters” to being “a benign presence.” Pollien said, “They became part of my life and a symbol of my personal journey.” He decided to pull his “network of avian friends” into his work alongside the landscapes he had been creating, using a motion-activated camera that his family gave him to record thousands of photos of the birds as they visited his feeding station.
But while the subject matter could inspire him, a suitable approach still eluded him. He didn’t settle into a comfortable method of drawing and painting post-accident until he followed a friend to Belfast to try figure drawing. It was here, during long model poses, that he connected the point of his pencil with his vision of the figure in front of him. Describing the experience in terms of mirror neurons—which fire to “mirror” the action of a subject as if the observer itself is acting—he translated this process to his work on landscapes. Sketching out grids on toned paper to create three-dimensional space that he can carve like sculpture, Pollien “feels out a place and connects with it on a visceral level” to create his landscape drawings.
Pollien’s new approach to drawing intersected with his new bond with the crows, resulting in an intimate study derived from his “crow cam” photos and drawn with graphite and conté on paper. Pollien strives to make art with “punch and emotive content.” His plan is to create a drawing and a color study of each subject, be it crow or landscape, and combine that information to develop more fully realized 2’ x 3’ paintings.
About himself, Pollien said, “It has been my practice to not always know what I’m doing, but to do it very hard.” As advice for others, he offered: “Everyone should draw. It’s a wonderful way to organize your thoughts.” The rigorous, meticulous nature endures.
Naturally Drawn: Recent Works by Robert Pollien, is on exhibit now through October 31, 2013 at the Wendell Gilley Museum, 4 Herrick Road, Southwest Harbor, Maine. Visit Tuesday through Saturday from 10 a.m. – 4 p.m. Exhibited widely, Pollien’s art is held in numerous corporate and private collections. He lives in Bar Harbor, Maine. His work, resume, and blog are available at pollien.com.