Down East 2013 ©
By Carl Little
Portrait by David Etnier
An excerpt from Eric Hopkins: Above and Beyond by Carl Little. Down East Books, Camden, Maine; hardcover; 131 pages; $50.
In the lower level of the Portland Museum of Art, black-and-white photographic portraits of some of Maine’s great artists circle the wall in the broad well of the staircase. Winslow Homer, John Marin, Bernard Langlais, William Thon — these and other artists speak to the stunning legacy of this single state’s art.
Among the most dramatic portraits is David Etnier’s photograph of Eric Hopkins, the Maine-born, world-eyed painter and glass artist. Hopkins is shown crouched, barefoot, on the top of a large canvas that is spread on the floor of an open-air studio space. He is in mid-stroke, creating that arcing landscape he grew up with on North Haven Island and which he has further explored by boat and plane. He looks part beachcomber, part beatnik, but the confidence and energy of his person belies the raggedness of his appearance. He is in the act of creating a parallel world to the one he loves, and he is all business.
The photograph is reminiscent of the famous Hans Namuth shots of the abstract expressionist Jackson Pollock, cigarette in mouth, doing his drip-and-splatter paintings in his studio in Springs, New York. In fact, Hopkins can trace his artistic lineage to that movement: several of his professors at the Montserrat College of Art studied with Hans Hofmann, one of the gods of abstract expressionism.
Hopkins’ lineage also includes the American modernists. His studies of shells recall those simplified still lifes of Marsden Hartley while his lively watercolors are akin to John Marin’s. Arthur Dove, another aesthetic ancestor, spoke of extraction, of representing the essence of a view or scene or atmosphere. So, too, Hopkins distills the landscape to energized lines and forms.
Eric Hopkins was born in Bangor, the second of five boys, in early April 1951, but he was — and remains — an islander through and through, having spent the better part of his life living on, and traveling in and among, the islands that make up the vast Maine archipelago. North Haven was his home island, Penobscot his home bay.
Hopkins counts himself fortunate to have grown up where and when he did, to entrepreneurial parents. His mother, June, ran a gift shop on North Haven; his father, Bill, had a marina and fish market, ran the ferry between North Haven and Vinalhaven, and taught English at the island high schools.
A part of one of the oldest island families, the artist conveys the spirit of the place in whatever he pursues. Even as he has soared well above and beyond his Maine roots, he has never lost sight of his sea-girt launching pad.
From an early age, Hopkins and his brothers explored the world — and experimented. He recalls building “hellacious” bonfires on distant island reaches and being fascinated by the effect of heat on glass bottles laid among the coals. He watched seagulls drop mussels and whelks from the sky and studied the broken fragments on the rocks.
“I came of age when God and painting were considered dead,” Eric Hopkins has written. He ignored these pronouncements. While his spirituality does not originate in any book or commandment, he searches all the time for meaning in the world. And working with paint is an integral part of his creativity. Painting had been on Hopkins’ radar early in his education as an artist. He had studied its foundation — drawing — with Michael Moore at Gorham State Teachers College (the name changed three times while he was there; today, it is the University of Southern Maine-Gorham), filled sketchbooks at the Haystack Mountain School of Crafts, and taken several turns at testing oil on canvas, as well as watercolor and gouache. Along the way, he developed the discipline of a calligrapher and the confidence of an action painter.
Hopkins also had tried painting with glass, in his pyrographs, or “fire drawings,” which he began making in 1974 (and which were conceptually related to the space program and ideas about Earth). After flinging hot glass across prepared particle board, he painted the fire-marked panels. His later “pyros,” inspired by thoughts on space and the hereafter, recall the work of earlier American abstract painters. Art historian Helen Ashton Fisher has tied them to the Color Field artists, including Jules Olitski, Morris Louis, and Helen Frankenthaler.
Several images of fish from 1979, made with lobster buoy paint, are wonderfully simplified — dynamic finned creatures that hark back to the cave paintings of prehistory. Hopkins painted them in his Providence, Rhode Island, loft studio after his father died — a way to work through grief, but also a tribute to an island livelihood he himself had pursued over the years. He has created many fish since then, in paint and wood (and painted wood), as symbols of the bounty of the world, but also as appealing water-dynamic shapes.
In the early 1980s, Hopkins began developing the aerial perspective that became his signature view of the world. From an earth-bound, heavenward point of view that had him wondering about space travel, following contrails across the sky, and musing on higher planes, spiritual and otherwise, the artist took off, literally. In a nod to those famous fliers Charles and Anne Lindbergh, who had frequented North Haven, Hopkins flew.
The artist began taking flying lessons in order to, in his words, “experience the freedom of flight through space.” Once Hopkins ascended, however, revelation took over: He could see the connectedness of the world, “the big forces of nature at work,” and how sky, water, and land interact. As he put it in one interview, he could feel “the claws of a giant glacier scraping away solid rocks and depositing the sediment miles away.”
The coast of Maine, especially, perhaps, its mid-section, is breathtaking to begin with; Hopkins knew from his many crossings and inter-island travels that Penobscot Bay sight lines are alluring. From on high, that hint of curvature one gets in a boat expands dramatically: horizons arc, islands torque, bristle, and stretch.
This new big picture, one might say, demanded big pictures, and Hopkins began to move toward fully developing that vision that has consolidated his stature as an American master. Never one to dwell on detail, he set out as a kind of minimalist, seeking to render the world in its essential components in as simple a manner as possible.
“What I’m doing,” Hopkins once explained, “is taking natural forms and playing around with them.” Apropos the license he takes with the motif, he cites one of his father’s favorite sayings: “Never let the truth get in the way of a good story.” Yet the painter has always recognized that he must be true to what he is observing, even if what appears on the canvas or sheet of watercolor paper is exaggerated or distorted.
This aerial aesthetic began to receive serious critical notice in the mid-1980s as Hopkins began to show this bold new work. Edgar Allen Beem, art critic at Maine Times [and a Down East contributing editor], devoted one of his signature feature pieces to the painter in April 1985. Beem’s portrait presented the artist as a daring young man in a Cessna, worldly-wise yet nurtured by family and island, who had a “hidden wholeness that makes all this — the art, the place — his own.”
In a 1986 profile written for Down East magazine, Norah Deakin Davis echoed Beem. “Jagged spruce and the turbulence of great swirls of ocean are offset by flowing shorelines that proclaim the unity of all things,” she wrote. In relating his aesthetic to that of Marsden Hartley, Davis observed that the painter was not concerned with producing representational art, “but with expressing archetypal ideas — the platonic form of island, if you will.” Other critics concurred. “The economy with which [Hopkins] expresses ‘place,’ ” wrote Philip Isaacson in a 1987 review, “is wonderful.” He noted that while the artist had exchanged “grand gestures” for “quick lines,” his command of line and understanding of his subjects were “not diminished.”
Many exhibitions followed, in Maine and well beyond. Several Hopkins paintings were selected for the Art in Embassies program (one of them briefly appeared in television coverage of the 1989 coup in the Philippines). Collectors began to seek out his work and his paintings entered museum collections.
How does Hopkins go about making these remarkable images? He has jokingly referred to himself as a “resposivist,” a term he came up with to describe his approach to the blank canvas or sheet of paper. “First I make a stroke on paper,” he related in a 1994 interview, “then I react to that stroke.”
In the same interview, Hopkins explained how he works from the video he takes from a plane. “I just let it roll,” he recounted, sometimes painting along while the video is playing or freezing a frame in order to “get something specific as a starting point.” The footage offers its own abstracted representation of the landscape moving past. As critic Beem put it, “These are fast, shorthand paintings conveying a sense that a winged perspective does not allow for static, detailed, concentrated vision.”
One of Hopkins’ special strengths is his ability to work quickly, intuitively, fueled by experience. He does his thinking before he paints and then tries to “brain-free” while in the actual act, music (jazz, rock-and-roll, blues) playing loudly in the background. As a true improviser, he is also open to accidents. “I might grab the wrong brush by mistake,” he once noted, “and go with it.”
Painting can be problem-solving: covering over a canvas, scratching into it, searching for the right balance. For Hopkins, it is all about energizing the flat white picture plane — with flying fish, an armada of spiked islands, or “new waves” sweeping across the water.
Hopkins considers drawing a second language. He once described it as “a kind of shorthand to express what it feels like to Be Here Now.” Making notes on location makes him feel “tuned in to the universe.”
Line often serves as a kind of armature for the paintings. In the mid-1980s, Hopkins sometimes drew a black frame on the picture, “to keep me focused,” he has stated. The format brings to mind a view finder: framing a part of a larger vista in order to bring it into focus.
A Hopkins subject almost always begins in the middle of things: flying over the Maine islands in a small plane with the doors open, motoring across a stretch of sea in a small boat. Motion is essential to his aesthetic; motion begets motion.
Hopkins will often seek to create a kind of syncopation in his paintings, making marks and placing images in intervals across the canvas. His titles frequently feature numbers. He has sought to represent what he calls “elemental rhythms”: cycles of nature, season, visual patterns, and color codes.
While we may think of Hopkins’ landscapes in terms of blues and greens, closer inspection reveals layers and underpainting, and a full spectrum of hues.
He is a colorist, pure and simple. As Norah Deakin Davis has observed, his palette comes from nature: “The blues of ocean and ice, the reds of lobster shells, the yellows of winter rye grass.” He also uses watercolor, gouache, and colored pencil to lively effect.
Faced with fog or extreme sun, Hopkins will often produce a kind of tone poem — a Maine coast equivalent of a Whistler view of the Thames. He will sometimes work in monochromatic colors to capture an effect of light or weather.
Some of the paintings offer a highly stylized vision of the world. “Glory rays” breaking through clouds are rendered in repeated geometric shafts of light. The cloudscape as seen from a plane may be presented in repetitive patterns — rows of heavenly semi-circles stretching to the horizon.
Hopkins is not the first painter to embrace an aerial perspective. From the early bird’s-eye-viewers to contemporary American painter Yvonne Jacquette, artists have been intrigued and awed by this above-the-Earth angle. What sets Hopkins and Jacquette apart is their ongoing obsession with this point of view — a commitment to a vision that moves their paintings beyond the simply out-of-the-ordinary.
Over the years, Hopkins has explored different formats for presenting his aerial creations. In the early 1990s, for example, he turned to a diamond shape. As he explained in an interview, he was trying to “get the whole expanse from Friendship to Stonington on one canvas — the whole wide angle.”The format allowed for further stretching and curving of the landscape, moving the viewer’s orientation from the traditional horizontal to the points of a mariner-artist’s compass eye.
While Maine has been the artist’s central subject, other places have captured his imagination. He painted the Pacific Northwest when he was artist-in-residence at the Pilchuck School of Glass in 1986. He captured the swoop of roads, adjusting his vision to the verticals of the Cascade Mountains north of Seattle, and painted the San Juan Islands. Later, living near Santa Fe in Georgia O’Keeffe country, he painted mountain and desert vistas, his palette adjusted accordingly.
Based in Rockland since 2006, Hopkins maintains his singular view of the world, seeing the big curve of the Earth as distinctly from his harborside studio as he has from his island outposts. He continues to seek that glory in sunrise (which he will explain to you is a misnomer, as it is the earth that is in motion) and changing light.“The sky, clouds, tide, and currents are constantly changing, second by second, from first light to high sun,” he has written, and he translates his wonder into art.
In 2007, Hopkins installed one of his glass pieces, Helios, at the Coastal Maine Botanical Gardens in Boothbay. The piece reflects the artist’s take on the world: the sun, with its stylized rays of light, bringing brightness to a small pond on the grounds of the gardens.
Hopkins is a man in motion, living on the edge of the continent. His art is about interactions with space, and the passage of time and light. He never stops performing — or being part of performances.
His photographs served as the backdrop to Islands: The Musical, directed by John Wulp, which originated on North Haven and was performed on Broadway shortly after the attacks of 9/11. He has created the sets for productions at the Camden Opera House, and his images accompany the Paul Winter Consort when they perform in Maine.
As sacrilegious as it may seem to some aficionados of contemporary art, Hopkins is an upbeat artist. There is no avoiding it: coming across one of his landscapes reproduced on a bag of Coast of Maine Organics mulch, on the cover of a Maine Coast Heritage Trust annual report, or painted on a paddle donated to an Abbe Museum benefit auction, one feels a sense of joy and gratitude — and even comfort — at this artist’s vision of a special part of the planet.
The islands still serve as touchstones in the life and aesthetic enterprise of this amazing artist. North Haven, which the poet Elizabeth Bishop once referred to as “approximately my idea of heaven,” is a part of his blood. Hopkins is an islander; light and space fulfill him. His art, in turn, sustains us all.