“Liberty Pines,” 3x4' oil painting by Kerstin Engman
“Liberty Pines,” 3x4' oil painting by Kerstin Engman
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I first met Liberty artist Kerstin Engman at a talk she gave about her sculpture at Round Top Center for the Arts in Damariscotta some 20 years ago. I was taken with the cast bronze, fabricated steel and copper sculptures of haunting women figures, expressing ideas about womens roles. Fast forward to now, and I see her as a driven and dedicated artist, committed with a passion to her work in painting and as a teacher.

Engman describes herself as an representational oil painter — “but not afraid to walk the line between abstract and imagery.” She was educated at the Maine College of Art, Rhode Island School of Design and the University of Pennsylvania. She has taught in the Hungarian public schools. In 1997, she founded Project Kalocsa, a cultural exchange between Kalocsa, Hungary, and her hometown of Belfast. She has lectured and taught at colleges throughout the Northeast and has been an adjunct Professor in Art at the University of Maine in Orono since 2003.

She was always an avid drawer from a young age, coming from an artistic family — her father and mother were both artists. After her college years, she worked in sculpture for 25 years, also having a life and raising a family. There came a time when her interest in painting took over. “I always wanted to do something ‘important’ with color and had tried painting on and off, and finally settled into it as a commitment about 20 years ago.” She then delved into the craft, spending five years working privately, away from exhibiting. When she felt ready, she had an exhibition of her paintings with fabric artist Jerry Finch in 2011, with a gratifying and encouraging result.

She says in her artist’s statement, “Until recently, the still-life and landscape paintings have been about color behavior, compositional structure and the simple arrangement of information. I hope to establish a delicate aesthetic, which is perhaps hard to recognize as the role of the subject is understated. Often, with the help of drawings, abstractions of color are manipulated until a certain light condition is struck and a sense of territory is explained. The innovations vary from brilliant to dull, depending on how observation interacts with memory. I believe that by painting the ‘ordinariness’ of [our] surroundings, I can be reminded of how beautiful it is. Seeing beauty in something may lead to safeguarding it.”

She is disciplined to “show up” in the studio daily — a large, open space, tall ceilings, full with works in progress and finished paintings on the walls. When I visited her there, she was in the middle of the room, at what looked like a control center with computer monitors, table tops, materials of the trade at strategic points, working surfaces, and a painting lying flat between two chairs that she is currently drawing on (this may be because she is recovering from knee surgery). 

The paintings do end up on an easel — the piece “Liberty Maples” was on the easel when I came in. It felt to me like I could walk right into the woods — a good size that emphasizes that sense of being in it when you stand before it; a feeling of the subdued light, and deep, rich color — yet it’s painted with a limited  “monochromatic” palette.

To me, she has an uncanny sense of color — but this shows her deep understanding of color theory (and my lack of it). I took a class with her five or six years ago, and I could take it again; it’s complex, requiring many studies, learning how to observe, delving into the properties of paint, and what happens when mixing colors, different light qualities on a subject, observing the temperature of the light, the proximity of colors and what the color is in the shadows … along with painting using just the paint and a palette knife (instead of a brush) — a simple but challenging exercise. 

Her surfaces are complex, textured and layered. As the base, she uses linen, mounted with an adhesive onto a board — it is rigid, but retains the rich surface of the linen but without the “give” of canvas stretched on stretchers. She then uses a clear gesso ground, so it is a tan-ish, homespun color with a clear coating on it. She sometimes uses a cold wax medium that is thicker than other mediums, and can be scored, or dug into. Another surface she works with is roofing paper — a black oily sort of rigid paper, that she then prepares with a clear oil painting ground. During our conversation she described some of her techniques — like using digital photographs that she can manipulate for different color choices,  gleaning the lines to draw, trying different possible compositions and lighting that trigger her ideas of color harmony, drawing, layering paint — she is so willing to share and explain her process — I’d say a born teacher!

She is an adjunct professor at UMaine Orono, choosing not to be a full-time professor with the additional time commitment, which allows her time to do her own work. She teaches introductory painting, and that includes color theory, as well as drawing. She has a clean, precise skill in her rendering — I watched her lay down a few marks to demonstrate the needles on the tree in “Liberty Pines,” and she makes it look so easy — touch, touch, touch, with an economy of movement; it’s a pleasure to watch the skill. One time she demonstrated painting with a palette knife in the class I took, and again it was the same pleasure to watch her laying on the paint with her precise, economical movements.

She often works in ongoing series, like the floral series, where flowers are juxtaposed with patterned backgrounds that complement the flowers, creating a complex and dramatic context; or the wooded landscape series that includes  “Liberty Maples,” a painting that took seven months to complete. “Icons” is another series, reflecting unsung heroic women in history held in a kind of reverence done with gold leaf and other materials that echo old religious icon paintings. Another series features farm animals, including several paintings of pigs in the farmyard; these came about when she was paired with a farmer through a grant organized by the Harlow Gallery and Maine Farmland Trust. She also works in encaustic, and these paintings tend to be more abstract, still maintaining her style of composition and rich color, with the added thick texture of the wax medium.

I remember being floored when I saw Van Gogh’s paintings in person after seeing them in reproductions — the texture and paint surface so hard to photograph, and this may be the same — seeing Engman’s paintings in person is worth it; the surface, texture, sense of depth, and of course, the color is outstanding (for lack of a better word). Engman’s paintings are on view at Harbor Square Gallery in Rockland and some smaller works will be on view at the Betts Gallery holidday show in Belfast from November 15 through December 24, with a reception Friday, December 6, from 5:30 to 8 p.m. Engman’s website is: www.kerstinengman.com.