Michael Kolster's photograph of his wife and son playing in the grass
Michael Kolster, 'Christy and Calvin on grass (home60f22), 21 Jun 2020', 6” x 9” toned silver gelatin print, 2020
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Michael Kolster’s “Home and Other Realms” at the University of New England Gallery in Portland (through Jan. 22) is a perfect exhibition for a college that has cornered the market on health care education in Maine.

A school that educates occupational and physical therapists, doctors, nurses and social workers can surely benefit from an exhibition focused largely on an artist’s teenage son who suffers from “significant neurological problems of unknown origin.”

Calvin, son of Michael Kolster and Christy Shake, cannot speak and is the subject of grand mal epileptic seizures. His father’s black-and-white images and the frank, heartbreaking words of his mother’s blog paint a portrait of pain and suffering, love and devotion, perseverance and exhaustion.

“He does not seem to be aware of being seen and as a result does not hold still for my camera (or anything else, for that matter),” writes Kolster. “This makes photographing (and parenting) Calvin vexing, if not utterly exhausting. In these moments I am struck by how hard it is to forge a bond with him, either spiritually or emotionally. Camera in hand, I feel apart.”

“Home and Other Realms” consists of thoughtful groupings of white-framed photographs of Calvin, self-portraits of Kolster himself and urban landscapes of flat-roofed tenements in Lewiston. Kolster, who teaches at Bowdoin College and lives in Brunswick, is perhaps best known (at least to me) as a practitioner of antique photo-technology such as the glass-plate ambrotypes he made a decade ago of the Androscoggin River.

Kolster's black and white photograph of his wife and teenage son
Michael Kolster, ‘Calvin and Christy (mouth on nose, home118/f25), 29 Jan 2022, 7” x 7” toned silver gelatin print, 2022

Kolster’s gelatin silver prints in the “Home” exhibition are much more immediate and personal than his ambrotypes. There is a warmth to them that speaks to a father struggling to solve the mystery of his son, a universal parenting puzzle made so much more difficult by Calvin’s cruel disability.

Kolster’s exhibition occupies the second level of the UNE gallery and he has several archival prints of rail bridges on the ground floor where black and white photographs from the Stephen K. Halpert Collection are featured.

Steve Halpert is an emeritus professor at UNE and still serves as the curator of photography, his ability to acquire prints for the collection enhanced in recent years by an endowment given by photographer and philanthropist Judith Glickman Lauder. The photographs currently on view include images by such Maine photo artists as Berenice Abbott, Bruce Brown, Arthur Fink, Sean Alonzo Harris, Larry Hayden, Nanci Kahn, Lauder, Rose Marasco, Abelardo Morell, Ni Rong, Claire Seidl, Juris Ubans and Todd Webb. 

Despite its concentration on professional health care education, UNE maintains some of the liberal arts and fine arts interests of its past as Westbrook Junior and Westbrook College. The UNE Art Gallery remains an elegant modernist space for the exhibition and exploration of visual arts. This concurrence of photographs demonstrates how the humanities can inform the sciences.

Edgar Allen Beem has written about art in Maine since 1978. He also writes the weekly Universal Notebook opinion column.

“Home & Other Realms,” photography by Michael Kolster | Through Jan 22 | UNE Art Gallery, 716 Stevens Ave., Portland | 207-221-4499 | https://library.une.edu/art-galleries

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