Tens of thousands of people each year ascend Maine’s peaks, sit on its rocky shores and wander through its seemingly endless woods, just to be closer to nature. Philip Frey, a Hancock County-based painter, does the same — though for him, the effort to be closer to nature is a spiritual, philosophical and creative practice.
Frey has painted Maine landscapes since he was a student at Ellsworth High School. But through his eyes, Maine’s rocky coast and endless expanses of forest become something far more meaningful than a nice painting of a lighthouse.
In Frey’s paintings, the light and shadows feel natural, unforced, neither precise nor loose. The colors are deeper. There’s a stillness. Frey’s paintings — of landscapes and small towns, yes, but also portraits and urban scenes — allow the viewer’s eye to relax, and be present in the scene. It’s much like Frey’s dedication to mindfulness, a term that describes the act of being present in the moment.
“The obvious connection to painting is concentration,” said Frey, who has lived in Hancock since the mid-1990s. “Mindfulness helps me stay with the process of painting, and it has helped me be more present with the business side of things, as well as interpersonal relationships.”
Frey, 48, has practiced meditation at Ellsworth Meditation Center for more than two decades, and also built a painting career that has brought his work to galleries and museums across Maine and the Northeast. His current exhibition, “Parallels,” is on display at the University of Maine Museum of Art in Bangor through Dec. 31, showcasing a wide array of the paintings he’s completed recently — from intimate portraits of friends to the bold, dazzling colors of his Maine landscapes.
Frey was born and raised in Ellsworth, where he was first exposed to painting as a child.
“I’ve been making art of some kind, drawing and painting from a very early age … I think my earliest memories of making art is as a toddler, being in my father’s arms and me drawing in the shaving cream that he had smeared on the bathroom mirror,” said Frey.
It was his Ellsworth High School art teacher who first instilled in him the idea that painting could be a career.
“I had a tremendously gifted high school art teacher, Ken Mike, who was instrumental in giving me a solid foundation in visual arts,” said Frey.
While attending Syracuse University’s nationally renowned fine arts program, studying painting, he was exposed to Buddhism and meditation. During a home visit, it was that same high school art teacher — Ken Mike — who gave him the book that set him down the path towards exploring meditation.
“He gave me a seminal book on meditation, ‘Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind’ by Shunryu Zuzuki,” said Frey. “From that seed, I began exploring Buddhist practice and philosophy by attending many retreats at both Zen and Tibetan Buddhist centers and monasteries around the country as well as in Nepal and India.”
Upon returning to the Ellsworth area after college, two important things happened: he began attending the Ellsworth Meditation Center, and he moved into a stripped-down studio without running water in Hancock, then owned by a fellow member of the Meditation Center.
Today, Frey still works out of that same studio, tucked into a leafy corner of a road just past the Hancock bridge. He does have hot running water now, and an indoor bathroom, and now owns the studio and the small house next door.
The studio itself is minimal, yet full of the trappings of Frey’s varied interests. An image of the Dalai Lama and fellow Tibetan Buddhist lama Thrangu Rinpoche sits above his computer. Power tools are neatly lined up on a countertop. Music plays softly in the background. Outside, Frey has built a Zen-inspired garden, complete with a hand-built foot bridge, as well as flower and vegetable gardens.
Frey maintains an active social life with a circle of friends in the Ellsworth area, some of whom have ended up as subjects for his portraits, a style he’s increasingly turned to in more recent years. Patrons of former Ellsworth restaurant Cleonice may remember his paintings of staff and other scenes from the now-closed eatery, some of which hung in its dining room.
Still, though, it’s the pace of life and natural beauty of Down East Maine that continues to inspire his work.
“The slower, simpler pace of life and the four seasons offer some basic sanity in a very distracted world that’s moving faster and faster,” he said.
In his painting practice, Frey works both out of his studio and en plein air — outside, with just a brush, canvas, paints and the natural world around him. Both have their benefits and challenges, whether the subject is live in front of you or not.
“Painting from life, whether in the studio or plein air, brings with it a sense of time passing, that things are in constant flux. It’s especially evident while plein air painting, as the light and weather changes right before you,” said Frey.
Painting from memory, or from a photograph, is even more challenging.
“Memory, in my experience, isn’t so reliable. There is a sense of freshness when painting from life. Painting from photographs in the studio setting has its drawbacks as well. There is far less information there in terms of color and value and texture,” he said. “It comes back to being in the present moment and the richness of experience and information that is there, versus the trickiness of bringing things forth from memory.”
The passage of time, the movement of light, a glance cast casually by a friend, the play of wind on trees and water; these are things Frey is mindful of, as he translates what he sees and feels onto the canvas. They may seem like little things, but they’re far from that.
“I don’t attempt to capture a moment or a scene,” said Frey. “Rather, I work with the inspiration as a means to experience the present.”