In the imagination of artist, yacht designer, and composer Imero Gobbato, Maine merges with myth.
- By: Virginia M. Wright
Imero Gobbato came of age in northern Italy during the Fascist era. "I was ripe to go into some army - God knows which one, the situation was so desperate," he recalls. "The enemy was the English, the Americans, the Germans, the Fascists . . . oh, it was an awful mess. Anarchy. Terrible."
Gobbato sits on the sofa of his modest Greek Revival home on Camden Harbor. At eighty-five, his hair is nearly as white as that of his beloved bichon frise, Maurice, who sleeps curled at his side. Against a backdrop of paintings on easels awaiting his brush, he is telling the story of how he, a native Italian schooled in late nineteenth-century neo-impressionist techniques in Venice and Milan, came to be, of all things, a Maine artist - a rather successful one at that, steadily selling his soaring seascapes for thousands of dollars apiece.
"I was able to avoid the military to a certain extent," he continues in accented English, his words flowing in a gently rocking rhythm, his R's lightly trilled. "There was a draft, but they didn't get me." He fled to the mountains, where a kindly priest, a member of the Italian resistance movement, took note of his musical abilities and provided him a cover: church organist. But the army harassed Gobbato's father about his son's whereabouts. Hearing his father had been arrested, the eighteen-year-old Imero came down from the hills. "But that was not the end," he says with a hint of mischief. "I escaped again."
Escape is a recurring theme in Gobbato's life and work. As a boy, he escaped the gloom of Mussolini's Italy by inventing a utopia he called Humbravana, and for more than seventy years he has continued to ride his imagination there, returning with hundreds of written and visual artifacts - short stories and travelogues; etchings and intaglios of people, places, flora, and fauna; detailed maps of important cities; a dictionary of the language; even musical compositions and blueprints for instruments.
After the war, he escaped Italy, a place he loves dearly but where he says he cannot live because of the injustices he witnessed. Over the next dozen or so years, he would try life in Argentina, Guatemala, New York City, California, Connecticut, and Florida before settling in Maine, which he and his wife, a California beauty named Josette, first visited on vacation. "The coastline is what attracted me. I like very much this contrast which is reflected so often in my life - the liquidity, the fluidity of the water, the constant, sometimes friendly conflict of water caressing the beach, then retreating, then caressing. Sometimes the water comes against the rocks and there is no more caressing. That reflects so much - the rocks, the harshness of the coastline."
Even Gobbato's renderings of Maine, where he has lived for forty-two years, are escapes of a sort. He never works en plein air ("The winds moving the canvas, the bugs getting me, people coming and looking at me, telling me, `I paint, too' - oh, I can't concentrate!") and paints instead from his memory, imagination, and dreams, pulling elements of a remembered geography into places that shimmer and beckon.
Gesturing to a painting of a house on a marsh that glows goldenly under heavy dark clouds, he says there is no such place, but it was inspired by a small building on Scarborough Marsh he'd seen years ago. "One time I dream it exactly like that. It kept repeating in the dream - the house and the marshes, the house and the marshes - so I paint it. I have a pretty good visual memory. If I like a place, I can paint it after ten or twenty years. My guiding principle - not always - is would I like to be there? If I like to be in that place, that intrigues me."
Painter, children's book illustrator, etcher, composer, musician, yacht designer - Imero Gobbato, gifted with an exuberant imagination and an irrepressible need to act on it, is all of these. "He is a genius in the fullest sense of the word," says Tom O'Donovan, whose Harbor Square Gallery in Rockland is celebrating its twenty-five-year relationship with the artist this summer. "Genius is the same root as generous, to create and bring forth and give. That's what Imero has been doing all his life."
Gobbato's paintings hang in homes around the country, and he has a following in South Carolina, where he is represented by a Charleston gallery. His original ink, charcoal, pencil, watercolor, and tempera book illustrations are in the Children's Literature Research Collections at the University of Minnesota, and his works have been selected for a number of group shows, including the acclaimed Maine Print Project. Still, Gobbato's paintings have not attracted the attention of museum curators and art critics; his philosophy of art as an expression of beauty and hope is not embraced by contemporary art movements, say his defenders.
"I'm surprised he hasn't had more attention," says painter Gideon Bok, who teaches art and drawing at Hampshire College in Massachusetts and was the artist in residence at the University of Southern Maine this past year. Gobbato was an important influence on Bok, who grew up in Camden. "I was about four when I first met him. All my favorite books were illustrated by him. He has always had a childlike enthusiasm for life and philosophy. He has seemed to think of his life as a creative endeavor. He moved seamlessly between musical composition, boat design, fantastical book illustrations, and his paintings, and they were all interrelated in a beautiful way."
Gobbato's styles vary, sometimes dramatically. He calls his mysterious "Transfigurations" paintings "landscapes of the mind," in which spiky rock formations, spheres, and other shapes float in a black void. They bear no resemblance to his seascapes, which are executed in a palette that is rich in blues and greens, over which he may briskly dot, in pointillist fashion, yellows, greens, purples, and oranges so the canvas fairly vibrates. Even among these, there is great variation. Near Monhegan is nearly all ocean, a study of fluid chaos; the island of Monhegan is but a distant gray smudge. Other works have a gauzy, dreamy quality achieved through long, soft brushstrokes. Often, the seascapes are quite grand, with towering cliffs and steeply sloped banks and a hint of humanity, such as a sailboat or a dwelling that lends a sense of both scale and awe. In Evening Duet, for example, fir-covered cliffs frame a distant pair of schooners floating on a lavender sea. The blue and green trees are gilded with gold from a setting sun. "The light and space of these places feels familiar and fantastical at the same time," Bok says. "It's exciting how broad his artwork is and yet you also can see how relatable it all is. I love it all."
Boats make frequent appearances in his work, which is not surprising given his passion for them. Before he moved to Maine, Gobbato spent a few years designing yachts for individual customers in Florida and, during a brief return to Italy, the fishing village of Portofino. "Think what a colossal invention is a boat!" he enthuses. "This earth is almost all water and this poor little human being, he can hardly swim for ten minutes before he goes down like a piece of lead, but by putting together little pieces of wood and building a boat, he explores this entire planet. It's an enormous invention, the boat. The ingenuity, the courage, the imagination!"
When fiberglass diminished the demand for custom yachts, Gobbato turned to children's book illustration to make his living. In the mid-1960s, he and Josette bought a house on Swan's Island. "The only telephone on the island was Mrs. Stella's and she had one of those things" - Gobatto, laughing, cranks his arm in the air to indicate an antique telephone - "you wouldn't believe it! And there would be a line of people waiting to use the phone in her living room."
That didn't go over so well with New York publishers trying to meet deadlines, so the Gobbatos moved to Camden, where Imero befriended several of the windjammer captains who invited him onboard whenever there was room. "I sailed Penobscot Bay more than if I had a boat of my own," he says. "Sometimes I would take the wheel, but mostly I would just sit and look and dream. I owe so much of my paintings to these captains." In 1980, he designed his last boat, the 110-foot ketch Angelique, for Captain Mike Anderson. About that same time, he began selling enough paintings to quit book illustration.
An avid walker, Imero Gobbato never learned to drive. He prefers being a passenger, taking in the scenery. Since Josette's death in 2003, he has relied on his studio assistant, Rose Willson, to take him on errands and the two have become close friends. She describes Gobbato as private, humble, and gracious. "He's very supportive and he listens. He doesn't ever try to load anything on you. He is just there to listen and offer kindness."
A versatile musician (pianist, violinist, cellist, guitarist), Gobbato holds himself to a high standard, insisting he's not good enough to perform publicly. Nor has he shared his compositions. "They are amazing pieces of music," Willson says. "He'll sit at the keyboard and write a piece of music in its whole form that could be played by an orchestra."
Music is a major component of the Humbravana works, a massive, richly layered collection of intaglios, woodcuts, paintings, and compositions that Willson, herself a skilled printmaker, is cataloging with an eye toward an eventual multi-media presentation. "Humbravana is Imero's most personal work. It is very autobiographical in some ways. Throughout his life, it has taken on various forms. At one point, he wrote some short fiction; at another, he wrote journals in which he is a traveler, reporting on what he finds in this land. Its real strength is in the visuals and the music. It is like a Tolkien world, but instead of words and literature, it is based on a visual and musical language. I feel that in some ways I am traveling on my own journey, following a thread of his life. It is a hopeful life. His world is not without strife and war, people still have problems, but, in general, it represents a way of life that is sustainable, caring, and good."
Dozens of the Humbravana prints reside at Harbor Square Gallery. Tom O'Donovan says that Gobbato, if asked, could spin an hour-long story about each one, so deep and detailed is the world he's created. "Imero knows everything about this place - the political system, the currency, the music. The king, for example, doesn't have a palace. He goes from house to house. He is forever the guest of one of his subjects. He is constantly flowing through the kingdom, being cared for by the people he takes care of. Imero has considered every detail." Gobbato himself cannot explain how he found the time to create Humbravana while painting, designing boats, and illustrating books. "It's a strange thing," he says, shaking his head in wonderment. "I was always very busy trying to make a living. Sometimes I wonder, what is life? We have this life, we have dreams, and we have dreams with open eyes like Humbravana. The more I live, the more I see this is a strange world."
What his dreams - his seascapes, Humbravana, his music - have in common, though, is their optimism. "I try to make the world a little more joyful," Gobbato says. "I've been very, very lucky. I have had wonderful friends. But every time I look around, I see awful things in this world, so I make a supreme effort to bring more joy."
- By: Virginia M. Wright