March 18, 2019
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Belfast painter thrives off of the hustle of the art world

If there is a driving force at the core of Belfast-based artist Jerri Finch’s career, it’s work. Hard work. Sometimes even back-breaking, lung-busting, demanding, physical work.

Though oil painting is her preferred medium these days, Finch has explored countless mediums including airbrushing, acrylics, graphite, bronze sculpture and quilting. But before art was her full-time gig, she did just about any job that came her way, no matter how physically demanding the task was. Work is what drives her, creative or otherwise.

“I can’t not paint. I can’t not create. But I also have to have the painting be something I can do for work. If it stops being work, I don’t want to do it anymore,” said the easy-going, chatty Finch, now 64. “I can’t have this be just a hobby. It doesn’t work that way for me.”

Finch has lived in Belfast for the past 35 years; making a living as an artist, painting the land- and seascapes, villages and domestic scenes of Maine, selling her work to clients as big as former credit card giant MBNA, and as small as a local tugboat operator. She currently sells her original paintings, prints and cards out of her small, cozy gallery, the Finch Gallery, located in a refurbished little wooden building at 16 Main St. in downtown Belfast.

Life for Finch hasn’t always been as comfortable as it is today, however. Though she and her husband, John, today live in a beautiful oceanside home, surrounded by gardens and art, where they watch seals and porpoises ply the waters of Belfast Bay, for the first 40 years of her life, Finch had to hustle.

Born in Northwest New Jersey in the early 1950s, Finch was the fifth of eight siblings in a working class Irish-American family. As a child, she was always creative, copying illustrations from the newspaper and doodling. School wasn’t easy for her, however, until teachers realized that she was left-handed, and they had been forcing her to write with her right hand. She later learned that she was also severely dyslexic.

“I’m ambidextrous,” said Finch. “I paint with one hand. I fly fish with both hands. I can read anybody’s newspaper upside down and backwards. I have this odd way of seeing the world.”

She and her siblings were the first in her family to go to college — Finch attended a few colleges, in fact, including the Philadelphia College of Art, where she studied sculpture and drawing, and Montclair State College in New Jersey, where she also studied art, though she graduated from neither. At that time, it was the early 1970s, and life on the road — and the opportunity to make money — called to her more than school did.

Finch’s first job was scooping ice cream at a Dairy Queen in New Jersey; she became the manager at age 16. Through college, she was a waitress. She scrubbed pots at Tipi’s Taco House in Philadelphia. She worked as a telephone operator — until she realized that linemen got paid more that operators.

“I hitchhiked to pole climbing school in New Jersey in the middle of winter and I went through that. At the time, they did not want women, but they had to. It was the beginning of affirmative action, and they wanted me to be the poster girl for female linemen,” said Finch. “I was climbing poles. I was probably one of the first female linemen.”

After a few years of that, she took a job delivering L’Eggs pantyhose. By day, she wore a uniform of a royal blue tunic with hot pants. By night, she wore her hippie uniform of a t-shirt and ripped blue jeans.

“By day, hippies shunned me, businessmen loved me. By night, it was the opposite,” she said. “I never fit in either world, totally. I was in both, and I was in neither.”

Wanderlust struck again, and she went to North Dakota, where she worked on a grain elevator, shoveling grain and concrete and helping to construct 20-story structures for 12 hours a day. More than 100 feet up on those structures, she was blown away by the magnificent landscape of the Dakotas.

“The vistas. The height. The sense of, like, ‘Oh my God,’ was just overwhelming,” said Finch. “It was truly inspiring … I was always drawing. I had incredible amounts of sketchpads. But I never really got to do real art during those years.”

Not long after that, she met her first husband, and they left to run a 3.5 acre organic farm in Iowa, where she started to sew and quilt. She made potholders appliqued with images of the vegetables they grew, and the Iowa landscape, and sold them at craft fairs. Finch credits those quilted and sewn items with getting her more fully back into her art.

Soon after the birth of their daughter, Leah, in 1980, they moved to Belfast in 1982. She’s stayed put ever since.

It was in Belfast that she learned to airbrush, a medium that suited her well. In addition to her quilted items, she sold little airbrushed paintings of landscapes and seascapes at craft fairs and markets all over Maine and the Northeast. Finally, after a decade of manual labor, she was starting to make a living with her art.

“I was a machine. I would have a stack of fabric next to my Singer sewing machine. I was cranking out stuff left and right,” said Finch. “I’ve had friends say to me, ‘God, you’re so prolific. And I say to them, ‘Yeah, a mortgage is a big motivator.’ I’d be coming back from a craft fair, and I’d cross the border into Maine and see the Vacationland sign, and think, ‘Not for me!’”

By the late 1980s, she and her husband had divorced, and Finch began producing larger scale airbrushed paintings — 10- to 12-foot-wide pieces of fabric or canvas, airbrushed with images. She did commissioned work for the Maine Arts Commission and the National Endowment for the Arts. She made work for Eastern Maine Medical Center and Waldo County General Hospital. In the mid-1990s, she completed six massive pieces for MBNA in both Belfast and Delaware.

“It ended up being very successful for me, though I was just as concerned with the paycheck and with making sure the people I was doing it for were happy with it than with the art itself,” said Finch. “It started to not fill my soul.”

By the late 1990s, around the time she met and then married her current husband, John, the airbrushing had taken its toll. Years of breathing in air infused with paint particles — even with the respirator she always wore — had reduced her lung capacity by 40 percent. Holding the airbrush up for hours at a time, combined with all that backbreaking work in the 1970s, did damage to her shoulders, resulting in two surgeries. Eventually, she had to stop airbrushing.

Undaunted, however, Finch decided to take on a new medium, and some rigorous artistic training; the kind she’d only partially done as a college student in the 1970s. In the early 2000s, she studied for three years with acclaimed Waldo County painter Kris Engman to learn proper oil painting technique.

“I went to boot camp under her tutelage,” said Finch. “I’ve always loved the tactile feel of oil painting. It’s like working with butter.”

Though oil painting is a much more exacting medium than airbrush, with the mixing of colors on the palette taking hours before the painting process even begins, Finch nevertheless retains her level of output, completing multiple paintings each year. Finch travels all over the state year-round, photographing landscapes and other scenes, and then using those images as the basis for her paintings. Sometimes, though, she does paint flowers and scenes from her own gardens at home, and paints from memory scenes from her kayak trips around Belfast Bay and the rivers and lakes of Maine.

The seasonal Finch Gallery, open since 2015, allows her to sell her work to a wide variety of customers — from serious art collectors, to everyday people. Most days, Finch herself is in the gallery, greeting customers, striking up conversations. Finch is nothing if not gregarious and easy to talk to.

“I don’t want anybody walking into the gallery and not being able to afford something. I have postcards that are $1.50, cards that are $4, prints that are $17 and $20. I respect that,” said Finch. “And I get to know who buys my work. I have a need to know why someone is drawn to it. I want to know why they want it. I want that connection.”

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