At 90, painter looks back on a life in art

Posted May 15, 2014, at 5:34 a.m.
Last modified May 15, 2014, at 3:59 p.m.

PORTLAND, Maine — From serene lighthouses to mysterious skulls to myriad self-portraits, Robert Nason’s work covers a panoply of genres, decades and wives.

For the seven years he has painted at Running with Scissors in Portland, the 90-year-old has outlasted creatives who are years younger.

On Saturday, his show Nason At Ninety opens in the collective’s gallery. Like the man himself, the work dating back to the 1950s is evidence of a multifaceted life.

“It’s really an experiment,” he says of the show.

His watercolors, oils and charcoals were selected by relatives, friends and a fellow artist who “looked at everything in my studio and storage space, thousands of pieces,” he said.

The result? “New and surprising.”

That sums up Nason’s approach to life. Unlike his neighbors in the nearby apartment complex where he lives, he is up and out every day in his studio creating. In a cramped room lined with colorful canvases, paints, crayons and work spilling out into the hallway, there is always something to keep him engaged.

“I don’t usually wake up and decide what I’m going to do,” he said of his daily practice. “A lot of them are not finished. So as I look around, I see something and I say, ‘That one needs work.’ That gets me going.”

The teacher and family man, who grew up in Cranston, Rhode Island, attended Brown University and the Rhode Island School of Design, made a quiet splash on the regional art scene.

He perfected his lithography technique by taking classes at the School of the Museum of Fine Arts. In the late ’70s he started to show work in Newbury Street galleries. Black and white photos of an eclectic group celebrating an opening are testament to his freewheeling days.

Later, he taught art in public schools in Boston’s leafy suburbs.

In many ways, he is still teaching.

“Bob is definitely the oldest, in years only, artist at Running with Scissors, but is the youngest person I know,” said Susie Schweppe, who co-founded the studios in 2002. “He is unbelievable. He just can’t stop with the ideas and the energy.”

Walking only slightly gingerly down the hall, he greets the warm faces of artists in their 30s. A young woman with close-cropped hair comes over to introduce him to her mother.

Nason exudes the confidence and ease of an the elder statesman, but elder rings hollow.

In his twilight years, when most people his age are powering down, he is free and unfettered. At 90, Nason appears at the youth of his creative arc.

“His life making and art making are one in the same,” said Schweppe. “They are completely intertwined. You can’t separate the two. He is compelled by this incredible passion to make, make, make, every single day.”

Nason will offer practical advice to an artist on a work-in-progress. He has scraped the floors in the nomadic collective that finally settled in East Bayside last year. “His energy runs circles around mine,” said Schweppe.

Like thousands of artists who never achieve blue chip status, Nason is a hidden master. Schweppe considers him “one of the old greats, like Picasso, Cezanne, Matisse. He’s the real deal.”

Holding up naturalistic paintings of trees painted on Martha’s Vineyard, lead pencil drawings of flowers and canvases of abstract faces, he is amused and taken aback at the work he has amassed.

“I’m kind of appalled,” he said. “When you think of all that stuff produced. The accumulation is pretty appalling.”

But produce he must. Constant creativity keeps him in the stream of life. And this weekend, a retrospective is long overdue.

“I’m looking forward to it very much. We are going to have quite a party here.”

Nason at Ninety is on display at Running with Scissors, 250 Anderson St., Portland, through June 20. An opening reception is set for 5-7 p.m. Saturday, May 17.