Artists, Neighbors, and Friends

March art shows feature Barbara Sullivan and Abby Shahn

Fifteen miles northwest of Skowhegan, the tiny town of Solon, Maine, is perhaps best known for the South Solon Meeting House, a National Historic Landmark built in 1842 whose walls and ceiling were covered in colorful and fantastical frescoes by artists in the 1950s. Solon is also the home of Barbara Sullivan and Abby Shahn, friends and neighbors whose work is featured this month in shows in Farmington and Portland, respectively.

Like the artists who decorated the South Solon Meeting House, Barbara Sullivan learned the ancient art of fresco at the Skowhegan School of Painting and Sculpture, where she was the head cook for eight summers. A Skowhegan native and one of nine children, she lived in Bingham where her father was the doctor until age five, then on a 150-acre farm in Fairfield, and is still inspired by rural living. Her whimsical, three-dimensional frescoes depict items and scenes from everyday life: stacks of fold towels, a beauty parlor, a workshop. For her show at the University of Maine at Farmington, where she is a part-time lecturer, Sullivan will recreate four of her fresco installations: One-Room Efficiency, Beauty Shop, Inside the Bedroom, and Repair: The Workshop. Entitled “Barbara Sullivan: 40-Plus Years,” the show will cover the artist’s 15 years working in oils and 30 in fresco. “I am excited to be showing a reconfiguring of these installations and older oils, as well as new work,” says Sullivan.

Barbara Sullivan

Abby Shahn, who has lived in central Maine since 1969, grew up in a family of artists in New Jersey. She is known for her exuberant abstracts, which are mostly inspired by political events. “If I name an abstract painting Katrina, I have offered a reference point, a point of entry,” she says. “I hope to leave behind me some record of how it felt to have lived through these times. I hope to ‘bear witness.’” According to Shahn, who works in a studio that is heated with wood and has no running water, life in rural Maine has shaped her and her art. “I feel that the isolation from the ‘art world’ and from current trends in art has had both good and bad effects,” she says. “On one hand, I’m more than glad to be free of the dictates of style and of the marketplace. I like my ideas to develop at their own pace. I love growing my garden, tending my fires, picking wild mushrooms, etc. At the same time, I feel fortunate to be part of a loose group of artists scattered around in the boondocks who have evolved in many different ways, sometimes overlapping with current ideas floating around the ‘big city,’ sometimes veering off in crazy and unexpected directions. The artists that I’ve come to know here have been a constant source of inspiration to me.”

Barbara Sullivan

Abby Shahn
Speedwell Projects, Portland
March 12–May 9
Saturday, March 14
6–9 p.m.

Barbara Sullivan: 40-Plus Years
Emery Arts Center
University of Maine at Farmington
March 27–May 7
Friday, March 27
4–7 p.m.

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