Artist Francis Hamabe came to love Maine as much as Maine loved him. In a new book, The Art of Francis Hamabe, Carl Little looks back at the former Down East art director’s enduring legacy.
Excerpted from The Art of Francis Hamabe by Carl Little. The book is published by Marshall Wilkes, Inc. (Ellsworth, Maine; 96 pages; hardcover; $35), a fine-art publisher affiliated with the Courthouse Gallery in downtown Ellsworth.
Harbor Painitng Stonington 1958, oil on canvas, 25×30”. Collection Univ. of Maine Museum of Art, The Kenduskeag Fund
At the celebration of Francis Hamabe’s life held on Thursday, August 1, 2002, at the Blue Hill Country Club, on what would have been his eighty-fifth birthday, the tributes were many and heartfelt. Friends and family praised the man; fellow artists, including Vincent Hartgen and William Shevis, honored the art. Shevis, who passed away in 2010, recalled his friend’s key role in founding Maine Coast Artists Gallery in Rockport. He reminisced about weekends at the Hamabes’ home “Wakonda” in South Blue Hill and paid tribute to the way Frank went his “own quiet way with the serenity of a guru showing us how to live life in harmony with the universe.”
Francis Emritz Hamabe was born in Orange, New Jersey, on August 1, 1917, the son of a Japanese father, Frank Otto (Otokiche) Hamabe, and a Swedish mother, Emma Tiedeman. His father, who was born in Yuge, Japan, in 1887, and came to America in 1912, owned and operated the Art and Gift Shop at 406 Main Street in Orange, which featured a doll hospital, Japanese novelties and toys, and tropical fish.
Hamabe attended Orange High School, graduating in 1935. From high school, Hamabe enrolled at the Newark School of Fine and Industrial Arts. He also began a career in commercial illustration. Early work included assignments for the display departments at Bamberger’s and Kresge’s in Newark, primarily lettering signs, and for Yogg & Co., a Newark advertising firm. For the big bands he designed bandstands and backdrops for dance halls; the bandleader Raymond Scott ( 1908–1994 ) was one of his clients. He also drew cartoon vignettes for several publications, including The New Yorker and the Philadelphia Enquirer.
In 1942, at age twenty-five, Hamabe joined the infantry, 86th division, where he served in the medical corps. He went to Germany and Austria. When the war came to an end in Europe, he was sent to the Philippines. Hamabe completed his service in 1946, after which he attended the Rhode Island School of Design under the GI Bill. The Rhode Island School of Design opened up new artistic avenues. “I had a chance to paint, rather than work from the illustrating angle,” Hamabe told an interviewer in 1969.
The artist also learned serigraphy, or screen printing, a technique that, along with oil paint and Japanese Sumi ink drawing, would serve as a principal means for making art throughout his life. When he moved to Maine in 1947, Hamabe was among the pioneers of silkscreen printing in the state.
The artist had first seen Maine as a teenager while working as a chauffeur for a New York businessman who lived in Orange (he drove his employer to his summer home in Bridgton). In 1933 and 1934, Hamabe returned to the state as a member of the Ridgewood Puppet Barn troupe. Ruth Trappan of Orange directed the troupe, which toured through the Poconos and all the way north and east to Bar Harbor.
In 1947 Hamabe married Sydney Gardner, of Boston. The following year they moved into her family’s summer home in Stockton Springs, a farmhouse that had been built in 1820. When Hamabe told his father he was moving to Maine, he replied: “Artist who live near clam flat no starve.”
It didn’t take long for Hamabe to make a place for himself on the Maine art scene. A clipping from around 1947 features a photograph of the artist displaying his work at the Seamount Restaurant near Camden. According to the caption, “The former New Jerseyite, who has a studio in Rockport, works in the restaurant during the winter season, using walls as a private gallery.”
Hamabe was named the “official artist” of the first Lobster Festival, held in Camden in 1947 [it later moved to Rockland], and served as the first art instructor for the Farnsworth Art Museum, which opened in Rockland in August 1948. He taught there for two years before being invited to be assistant art director of the Pavilion Gallery in Blue Hill where he arranged exhibitions of modern art under the guidance of Dorothy Chester Heywood and Lynn Thompson. Hamabe stayed with the Pavilion only a short while, but long enough to fall in love with Blue Hill.
In 1952, Hamabe began teaching at the Bangor Children’s Art Center, which was operated by the city’s Junior League. Hamabe was a remarkable puppeteer. Before the war he had worked at the Ridgeway Puppet Barn in Campgaw, New Jersey. His interest was rekindled in Maine by Adelaide Pearson, who had collected puppets from around the world. He performed his Maine-style Punch and Judy and Grand Guignol shows at schools, fairs, and churches all over the state. A 1956 New York Times magazine article about rural television stations features a photograph of puppeteer Hamabe, who, the caption relates, was often featured on WABI-TV’sHal Shaw Show.
As one admirer recalled, at a friend’s house Hamabe might put on an impromptu puppet show for the kids, but weave in conversations the adults in the audience had had over dinner. In addition to puppets from around the world, he used his own handmade Maine lobsters and lobsterboats and a puppet named Eggemoggin “outfitted in a complete foul weather suit.” He was known to have done a brilliant Richard Nixon.
Hamabe taught at the Bangor Children’s Art Center for six years; he also offered adult classes through the Bangor Art Society and organized private classes. Writing in the Portland Sunday Telegram in November 1954, columnist Berniece Cram Gill reported that an art class in Bar Harbor (nineteen students in all) had been the idea of Mrs. Nathan Brown who had attended his classes in Blue Hill and Castine. Over the years he taught in Ellsworth, Southwest Harbor, Bar Harbor, Bucksport, Camden, Bangor, and Orono. Photographs of the classes often show Hamabe in a white shirt and bowtie; he was a stylish dresser throughout his life, whatever the occasion.
Even as he established himself as a teacher, puppeteer, and graphic designer, Hamabe sought opportunities to exhibit his art. Starting with a one-man show at the Portland Public Library in December 1946, he displayed his work on a regular basis in a wide range of venues across the state, from Trundy’s Store in Stockton Springs and the Paint Box in Blue Hill to the Maine Art Gallery in Wiscasset and the Portland Museum of Art.
In the early years, the Hamabes spent winters in Stockton Springs and summers in Blue Hill, where they rented local homes. In 1955 they bought the Anders house, “Wakonda,” on Tide Mill Island near the reversing falls and Stephens Bridge.
Hamabe became friends with a number of artists, including Denny Winters, Stell and William Shevis, William Thon, Mildred Burrage, and William Kienbusch. They joined forces in 1952 to start up an artist cooperative in the former Rockport schoolhouse on Route 1. Thus was born Maine Coast Artists, the flagship showcase, which, later, in 2002, expanded its mission and reach to become the Center for Maine Contemporary Art.
Hamabe kept track of work and sales in small spiral notebooks. In a listing from the mid-1950s, under “Commercial Work,” one finds Perry’s Nut House, Hancock County Creamery, Blue Hill Kitchens, Inc., Breen Real Estate, Chase Manhattan Bank, Grindle Agency, Eastern Maine Guidance Center, and American Tel and Tel, among many other accounts. One ad, which shows a lobster nipping the backside of a naked woman, reads “When you’re in a pinch, call Hamabe!” and offers layout, lettering, cartoons, and silkscreen. “There is scarcely a village in the area today that doesn’t have a restaurant, shop, or public building identified by Hamabe’s characteristic block lettering,” noted Ellsworth American reporter John Wiggins in 1969.
Hamabe was often a featured artist at festivals and fairs. At one point, six of his prints were featured in the Traveling Exhibitions of Maine Artists program (later called the “Vincent Hartgen Travelling Shows”). In a letter dated January 20, 1965, Hartgen thanked his friend for lending work, expressing his belief that “the young people of our state ought to be made familiar with the aims and styles of our resident artists.”
The July 8, 1954, edition of the Camden Herald included a story about the founding of a new magazine called Down East, created “to satisfy a long-felt need of people throughout the country for a magazine about the wonderful world of Maine.” The accompanying photograph showed the publication’s team: publisher-editor Duane Doolittle; associate editor Margaret Shea; T. V. Sproul, vice president and business manager; Lew Dietz, associate editor; and Frank Hamabe, art director.
Hamabe was an active art director. He provided the cover art for many issues of the magazine, as well as numerous spot illustrations. He also contributed the well-known design of weathervanes that served as the masthead for the magazine’s signature “North by East” column. Hamabe’s illustrations appeared in the magazine into the 1970s.
In 1960, the Maine legislature financed an educational television network to be operated by the University of Maine in Orono. Hamabe was hired as art and staging director. His responsibilities included designing sets and creating graphics for programs, including network identification slides and drawings for sets.
In 1965, Hamabe resigned the television position because he “didn’t want to move up there [to Orono] and it was too far to commute.” He also wanted to get back to painting; “I had found that I couldn’t hold down a job and paint, too,” he told a reporter in 1969.
Hamabe had a medical scare in the spring of 1964. He went blind in one eye for several months, the result of a viral infection. As he once explained, he could only work big during this period, “with no fine detail.” The illness inspired him to produce a series of twenty-four prints of Maine scenes for blind tourists. The raised paint on the serigraphs enabled the blind “to ‘see’ the beautiful Maine coast just as they ‘read’ Braille.”
Hamabe was quick with the brush — and could turn an accident into a commentary on contemporary art. “Once, when his second water color began to run during his demonstration of acrylic mixtures,” the reporter related, “he made a fast swipe with a Japanese brush to smear the line and mix it with other colors. ‘This is part of my new modern technique,’ he said, ‘and you have to dribble with just the right feeling!’ The comment brought forth a huge laugh.”
Hamabe was also a muralist. His wall works, many of them scenes of his adopted state, could be found in the Blue Hill Hospital, the Bears’ Den at the University of Maine, the children’s rooms at the Ellsworth Hospital, the Southwest Harbor Medical Center, and several corporations. The fiddleheads featured in the mural for the Eastern Maine Medical Center cafeteria had a direct connection to the site, beside the Penobscot River: it was on “that very spot,” said Hamabe, that the Penobscot Indians came to the riverbanks to gather these edible ferns.
In the late 1960s and into the 1970s, Hamabe continued to explore and experiment. At one point he worked on a series of “wind sculptures,” inspired by sailboats. “Their shapes are so simple, abstract, and graceful,” he reported. “I’m not a yachtsman,” the artist confessed, “but the lines, the movements, and the colors of the sailboats that pass are beautiful.”
In the 1970s Hamabe taught art at the Blue Hill Consolidated School and the University of Maine at Machias. As he noted in a 1997 interview, he enjoyed teaching “because it . . . helps with your own ideas. You try to keep ahead of your students.” Hamabe became art director for Maine Life in 1978. As he had with Down East, he contributed covers and illustrations, and designed ads. His subjects included ice fishermen, a wood splitter for rent, and other vignettes of life in Maine. The cover of the January 1978 issue was a memory of the skating pond in Stockton Springs. The death of his wife, Sydney, that year may have led him to remember his early days in Maine. Hamabe remained art director until 1982.
Hamabe continued to take on commercial work; it was a part of his creative being. He often turned to humor: an ad for Wilbur Marine Services in 1986 showed a couple in a rowboat towing their yacht with the legend, “Better Call Wilbur.” He illustrated numerous publications, from The Road to Poetry ( 1972 ), an anthology of children’s poems from the Poetry in the Schools program (funded by the NEA and Maine State Commission on the Arts and the Humanities), to Sunrise County Cook Book ( 1979 ). He also continued to contribute designs to Rowantrees Pottery.
In 1980 Hamabe left the University of Maine at Machias after seven years of teaching. That same year, he married Phyllis Parker. They first lived in New Rochelle and then moved to Hudson House in Ardsley-on-Hudson north of New York City.
For many years Hamabe was associated with Studio Five in nearby Pelham. The arts and crafts cooperative had been founded by ceramicist Susan Nathensen. He showed paintings and prints, some of them scenes of the Hudson and Long Island Sound, and produced pottery designs. He collaborated with Nathenson, adding calligraphic designs to her ceramics.
In May 1994 the Hamabes moved to Bristol, Rhode Island, where the artist set up a studio. The couple continued to spend summers in Blue Hill. The University of Maine at Machias awarded him an Honorary Degree of Doctor of Fine Arts in 1996.
Hamabe died in Bristol in 2002 at age eighty-four. He maintained his positive outlook on the world up to the end. While undergoing treatment in the hospital he made lively sketches, including empathetic — and humorous — tributes to his caregivers. His was a life of art lived to the fullest.
Carl Little, of Somesville, is the author of many books on fine artists. He is also the director of communications and marketing at the Maine Community Foundation.