Both as a painter and a gallerist, Marsha Donahue has been a force in Maine art for 50 years.
Since she graduated from the Portland School of Fine and Applied Art (now Maine College of Art & Design) in 1972, she has been an active part of the statewide art scene, working at both Bayview Gallery and Greenhut Gallery before moving from Portland to Millinocket, where she operated North Light Gallery for 17 years.
As a painter, Donahue is one of Maine’s best plein air watercolorists, but it is her oil paintings that are primarily on display in “Marsha Donahue: A Native Eye” at Bayview Gallery in Brunswick (through July 30).
The deft, fluid touch of her watercolors carries through in her oil paintings, capturing both the coastal landscape and North Woods in clean, sure, strong brushstrokes and a palette of naturalistic blues and greens accented by blazes of fall oranges.
Donahue was born in Waterville and grew up in Pittsfield, West Paris, and Auburn. She has known she wanted to be an artist at least since she was 3 years old and smuggled a crayon into her crib at naptime so she could draw on her mother’s freshly painted walls.
In art school, she studied with James Elliott, an accomplished watercolorist. But when Bill Collins and Ed Douglas took over, they made Donahue put her brushes away and start painting with palette knives, a prominent feature of the old Portland art school aesthetic. In grad school at American University, she was encouraged to pick up brushes again and developed the steady hand that defines her art to this day.
Donahue is a traditional Maine landscape painter who makes no apologies for the regional quality of her work. After all, no one does it better.
In an essay on regionalism in a recent Maine Arts Journal, Donahue wrote that “regional as a damning label began to lose validity as I came to know regions in the world that represented a standard in art; the Barbizon woods where Parisian landscape painters painted en plein air, Aix-en-Provence where Cezanne made the light and shapes recognizable, Cuzco with its golden Peruvian art, Benin in Africa known for some of the earliest sculpture, and many more of which I came to be aware by education and travel.
“The denouement was when I walked into the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C., as a young art student and saw that the signature painting in a show of Luminist Hudson River painters was Frederick Church’s painting of Katahdin from Millinocket Lake.”
Donahue says you have to paint what you know: “It’s not what you paint but how you paint it.”
Years in Millinocket mean Donahue knows Mt. Katahdin and its environs, having painted it on her own and having led many al fresco workshops. And Donahue does not just relate to the North Woods as subject and scenery: In 2016, she received an award from the Maine Natural Resources Council for her work helping to create the Katahdin Woods and Waters National Monument.
The 26 paintings in the Bayview show (24 oils, two watercolors) are roughly evenly split between images of northern Maine and coastal landscapes, Donahue having moved last year to Belfast.
Not surprisingly, given the artist’s strong connection with Maine’s iconic mountain, the first painting in the show to sell was “Daicey Meditation,” the blue-grey bulwark of Katahdin reaching into the sky and reflected in Daicey Pond.
Most of Donahue’s subjects are unspoiled natural scenes, but as she becomes increasingly intimate with the coast, the human hand begins to appear in the lobster boat in “Work on the Coast” and the buildings around the harbor in “Dark Cove.”
Donahue knows what she is painting and how to paint it. Her sure hand is a match for her native eye.
Edgar Allen Beem has been writing about art in Maine since 1978. He also writes the weekly Universal Notebook opinion column.