Soon after we meet, Mary Bourke takes me to her studio — a converted barn behind her home in Lincolnville, just outside of Camden. For eight hours a day, nearly every day, Bourke sits in this white-walled retreat creating some of the most colorful and popular paintings in contemporary Maine art.
Bourke spreads dozens of photographs over a table. The pictures, curled with age, show children at a lakeside, a woman reading alone on a couch, a boy holding a drawing of a Michelangelo sculpture.
"This little girl has shown up a lot in my work," she says, picking up a black and white Polaroid of a skinny girl in a bathing suit standing in the middle of a boat ramp."This is me in the Adirondacks when I was nine."
Bourke picks up another photograph, this one of her mother reading to her and some of her siblings. This was the inspiration for her painting One Wish, which depicts a faceless woman in a purple dress with three children, one of whom is reading an oversized, lime green book.
Bourke tells of a woman who purchased one of her paintings — a rendering of Bourke and her sister in orange life jackets — who later cornered the artist at a gallery and pulled a picture out of her purse of her two daughters wearing the same orange life jackets.
"For me, it's been very rewarding because I'm painting about something that's very personal, and it kind of strikes a chord with the viewer to their own past," the artist says. "These days, I know a lot of work is, well, not like mine. I'm not making a grand political statement about this great mess of a world we live in. I'm just trying to create something beautiful for people in a time when there is quite a lot of darkness."
Like the liveliest offerings from American painters Fairfield Porter, Milton Avery, and Marguerite Zorach, Bourke's paintings capture the essence of everyday serenity. In this world of remade memories, cherry red, cobalt blue, and lemon yellow blur together softly at the edges. Earth tones are present as contrasting anchors, but are often in the minority. Shapes are slightly exaggerated, normal rules of depth perception are ignored, and details like stars or ripples on the lake become multicolored marbles or oversized white sprinkles.
These dreamlike paintings are designed to be anyone's memories, enhanced. Unlike Porter, for example, who painted the faces of his figures in some detail, Bourke paints people with only peach-colored ovals where faces should be. Bourke's faceless children and adults frolic in purple ponds under swaying teal-colored pine trees, swim in neon orange inner tubes, or dive from rock ledges. Others seem to stare at us from their front lawns, rake in hand. Her paintings, finished with a high gloss varnish, look like family photos taken through sea glass.
"In thirty years, if you see a painting of Mary Bourke's, you'll know that it's hers," says Bruce Brown, curator of the Center for Maine Contemporary Art in Rockport, which exhibited Bourke in 2000. "It's kind of interesting, in a way, because other people don't always give you razor-sharp edges, and other people have the same palette, but I guess it's the way these elements come together to make it a Mary Bourke."
Back in her studio, Bourke ushers me to a coffee table strewn with postcards, press photos, and loose paper. "I wrote notes for myself," she says, pointing to a stack of lined notebook pages. "So I don't forget anything important."
Mary Bourke's notes explain that she grew up in suburban Long Island, one of nine children. "I suppose I was born a romantic and an idealist," she says, reading aloud. She was a "very shy and quiet child" who looked forward to the family's annual summer vacation in a rustic cabin in the Adirondack Mountains. Those two weeks along Raquette Lake helped forge an artist who would stake her career in the everyday habits of rural living.
"This was where I think I learned where I belonged, in the countryside," she says.
Bourke's work has largely been about remaining where she belongs. This meant a life in Maine — though moving to her adopted state, hundreds of miles from her siblings, was a long process. In the early 1980s, Bourke lived in Kittery, and later the midcoast, with her then-husband and two children. A life change took her briefly back to Long Island with its densely packed neighborhoods, noise, and harsh landscape. It was then that Bourke became committed to re-settling in Maine. By the early nineties, she and her family moved to Lincolnville, where she has stayed ever since.
In 1998, with one child approaching college and the other in her teens, Bourke decided to give up teaching art for a full-time career as a painter. She'd taken only a handful of studio arts classes in college and otherwise never had any formal training. But she began basing her work on old photographs of family and friends on vacation or relaxing at home. Bourke has since produced hundreds of scenes on birch panel or canvas of leisurely country life, often transferring people from her own past to landscapes here in Maine.
"In this world that we live in [Bourke's paintings] are an escape and a breath of fresh air," says Peggy Greenhut Golden, owner of Greenhut Galleries in Portland, where Bourke's work has been sold exclusively in Maine since 1992. (Her art is currently sold outside of Maine in galleries in Cape Cod and Acton, Massachusetts.) "[Her work] is not necessarily intellectual," says Golden, "but it makes us feel good."
One of Mary Bourke's favorite places at the moment is the secluded island cabin on nearby Lake Megunticook that she bought with her second husband a year and a half ago. The cabin does not have running water, plumbing, electricity, or a phone. "It's just a wooden building with a dock and an outhouse," she says.
Here, Bourke escapes from her Lincolnville home, which itself is an escape from the crowds on Long Island. New memories made at her remote cabin are already appearing in her work, blurred and enhanced by her imagination.
Adding color to the past, in Bourke's mind, keeps the spirit of these warm memories alive forever.
"It is funny to me that what is very personal to us, what seems unique to our own life, might be viewed by strangers as their own personal, intimate memory," she writes in her notes. "Maybe because what seems to matter the most to people is universal — doing ordinary things with the people we care about, somehow transforming the ordinary into the extraordinary. This gives me hope that we are all connected in this world."