Outside, Looking in
The paintings of Charles Wilder Oakes reflect a hard-knock life lived with humor and gusto.
But he's not just referring to artistic touches like the mosaic of a leafy vine he laid into the floor surrounding the wood stove or the attractive way in which he turned salvaged decking lumber into floorboards.
No, Oakes is referring to the fact that, for much of his fifty years, he survived by bartering his dense, fantastical oil paintings of life in Port Clyde for whatever else he needed - some backhoe work to dig out a pond in his front yard, his red Chevy Cheyenne pickup truck, his RCA refrigerator. He even traded a painting for a portion of the funeral expenses when his beloved, irascible mother died in 1992.
The barter deals were necessary because, unlike many struggling artists, Oakes is unwilling to put his painting on the back burner while he earns a living. "He's sacrificed a hell of a lot to be an artist," says Dona Bergen, whose Mars Hall Gallery in Port Clyde represents Oakes. "He's lived in poverty for many, many years to do what he wants to do."
But the days of digging returnable bottles out of snowbanks for grocery money are quickly receding into the distance for Oakes. (His paintings now sell between $650 to $28,000.) Thanks to intervention from a few well-connected patrons - Bergen being one of them - Oakes' career is poised to take off. For the second year in a row, he will show paintings at the Outsider Art Fair in New York City - last year, all five of the pieces he showed sold quickly. This year, he's got a larger space at the fair, as well as a one-man show at a nearby gallery that runs into early February.
It's pretty heady stuff for the kid who grew up poor in a shack on the edge of Port Clyde Harbor. But Oakes seems to be taking it all in stride. He notes that he kicked a pretty powerful drinking problem last year - "I was drinking fifteen to nineteen sixteen-ounce PBRs every night and still painting," he says, shaking his head in wonder. Oakes' first can of Pabst Blue Ribbon - and quite a few after that - came courtesy of his uncle Walt Anderson, the fisherman and local character who was a muse and model for Andrew Wyeth [Down East, September 2001]. Though Oakes kept the carousing up for years, last spring he went through an introspective period. "I spent a lot of time putting the house and land together; it's a metaphor for putting me back together," he says. "I could see I've got to quit drinking, I've got to trust that the paintings are going to come. Walking through that, it feels like I've been richly rewarded."
Ralph Saltus, a New Yorker who has summered in Maine since the early 1970s, feels strongly that Oakes' moment has come. Saltus first saw Oakes' work a few years ago and has since taken him under his wing, not only buying three of his paintings but also talking up his work in Manhattan and eventually making the connections that led to Oakes' inclusion in the Outsider Art Fair. "He has, to my mind, one of the most thoroughly original styles and folk inspirations and color I've seen in many years," Saltus says. "He's entirely genuine; he's not affected at all. His paintings are from a wellspring of many experiences in Port Clyde, with the best and the worst that's gone on there."
Muse in the Pumpkin Way
C W Oakes
Oakes knew early on that he wanted to draw and paint. A book that he and Bergen are compiling of his work - Oakes writes stories, essays, and poems that go along with many of his paintings - includes some of his earliest drawings, such as a pen sketch, dated 1973, of a mouse hole as seen from the inside. Even at age seventeen, Oakes was creating intricately, detailed images that reward the patient viewer. His early attraction to the artistic lifestyle is evident in the motto he chose to run next to his senior portrait in the yearbook: "A poet of life, a painter of beauty, and a minstrel of love."
Margaret Lewis, an art lover and a selectwoman in nearby St. George, took an early interest in Oakes, picking up art supplies for him and signing him up for art classes. While Oakes says he's thoroughly indebted to Lewis - "She was as much a savior as a patron," he notes - the art classes didn't exactly take. "It was snotty, highbrow summer people trying to teach this local street urchin about art. But I didn't follow what they wanted," he says.
Indeed, Oakes' vision is singularly his own, rooted as it is in the particulars of his personal history. The Ex-Wives' Clambake, for example, really does feature all three of Oakes' former spouses, although he notes with a grin that the two women in the center appear a bit more amply endowed in the painting than they do in real life. Every detail in the thirty-six inch by forty-eight inch painting is significant; the buoy in the foreground, for example, displays Oakes' father's colors, despite bearing his mother's name. ("You might say my mother and him jumped the fence," he says, explaining that he wasn't given his father's last name since, inconveniently, the man was married to someone other than his mother.) A bait bag just like the one in the tree hangs in Oakes' second-floor studio, and the burgee that says "Herring Gut" is both a nod to painter William Thon and a reference to Port Clyde's original name.
"I probably try to pack a little too much into each painting," he admits. "One of my ex-wives used to say to me, 'You've painted five paintings into that one - now go get us some money.' "
Though The Ex-Wives' Clambake was finished in 2004, Oakes continues to tinker with it. He recently built a ten-inch wide frame for it that includes a mosaic border constructed out of glass and broken pottery he found in the cove where he grew up. "It's likely that some of this stuff came from my folks' house - it's likely something my mother broke over my father's head," he says, clearly pleased with the possibility.
In paintings that Oakes has begun more recently, the writing has begun to move from the back to the front, to become more integrated with his colorful, slightly off-kilter depictions of day-to-day life in the Port Clyde of his youth, a place where existence isn't easy but where good humor and a certain mysticism are pervasive. "I call this stuff a bootleg version of folk art," he says.
Bootleg or not, Oakes' work is easy to appreciate, even if the life that inspired the work had its grim moments. As Ralph Saltus puts it, "It hasn't been easy; he certainly had a colorful childhood. But," Saltus continues, "he portrays it with compassion, with warmth, and with humor where I think many others might grumble."
It's just possible, Oakes thinks, that thirty-five years of stubbornness, hard work, and sacrifice will pay off. "I've stuck to it, wondering if the lights were going to go out," he says wryly. "But I just don't know how to do anything else proper."
- By: Michaela Cavallaro