With the July 14 death of artist Stell Shevis of Camden at the age of 101, Maine lost a pioneer who played a pivotal role in transforming the arts landscape in Maine. That transformation and her role in it were underscored by the opening on June 26 of the stunning new home of the Center for Maine Contemporary Art in Rockland, an event she fortunately lived to see.
Stell Shevis — and her artist husband, William (known as “Shevis”), who died in 2010 — moved to Belmont in 1945 at a time when artists who could make a living in Maine year-round were rare. Despite Maine’s longstanding importance as a source of inspiration for artists, most of the artists associated with the state before then were seasonal residents, who spent summers on the coast before returning to Boston, New York, or Philadelphia to sell their work.
Stell loved to tell the story of how suspicious her neighbors were when she and Shevis moved to Belmont. In the heightened atmosphere of World War II, with rumors swirling of German submarines and spies along the coast, two newcomers claiming to be artists living year-round in Maine were cause for concern.
Over time they were accepted, proved they could make a living on their own terms and became true champions of the arts in Maine. Together they made woodcut and silkscreen prints and sold them as art and as household products, including postcards, calendars, scarves and neckties. The range of products reflected the reality of trying to make a living as artists year-round.
It was at times a real struggle, and at one point they lost their wooden presses and most of their work in a fire and had to start over. But they were resilient and persevered.
Married for 72 years, they were linked together professionally throughout that time as “Stell and Shevis.” Much of their artwork was signed that way, without distinguishing further whose work it was. It often was a collaboration at least in concept, even though they each had recognizable styles. Their work typically depicted life on the Maine coast, but his was somewhat more hard-edged and hers more atmospheric.
Along the way, they advanced the arts in Maine by example and through additional roles. They were co-founders of the Haystack Mountain School of Crafts on Deer Isle and Maine Coast Artists, which over the years became what is now the Center for Maine Contemporary Art, as well as Maine Coast Craftsmen and the Maine Art Gallery. Stell also illustrated Lew Dietz’s now classic children’s book, “Andre,” about the seal whose statue today stands in Rockport harbor.
In subsequent decades the arts have become a major catalyst for Maine’s economy, playing a crucial role in the revitalization of many downtowns, large and small. Portland has long been known as a center for the arts, but the arts are thriving in Bangor, with the University of Maine Museum of Art, the Downtown Bangor Arts Collaborative and the city’s renowned music festivals and concerts, among many other activities. Rockland now has more than 20 art galleries to complement the Farnsworth Art Museum, The Strand Theatre and the Center for Maine Contemporary Art. Belfast has 14 downtown galleries, and the Tides Institute and Museum of Art is a vital center of arts activity in Eastport. These are just a few examples, and many galleries, like the Island Institute’s Archipelago Fine Arts Gallery in Rockland, are champions of year-round artists, including those living in more remote settings like Maine’s islands whose work would otherwise not be as accessible.
That’s the transformed arts landscape of Maine today, and Stell Shevis — and, she would quickly add, her husband — played a pivotal role in making it happen. Even at 101, she was still making art, and her work is part of a current exhibition of the Nine Lively Ladies at the Eastern Tire and Auto Service in Rockland. Her participation in the show underscores her lifelong passion for the arts and her belief that the arts should be accessible to all — even when you’re changing your tires.
With the passing of Stell Shevis, Maine has lost a true pioneer, but the state has gained enormously through her life and commitment. She lived to see the arts become a major component of life and the economy of the state year-round. Her legacy should be an ongoing one — the continuing evolution of an environment in which the arts are cherished and accessible to all and in which artists can live by their art. That’s a legacy we should all work to extend — in memory of a lively lady, indeed.
Henry L. Miller, a friend of Stell Shevis, is a member of the board of directors of the Island Institute, based in Rockland.