Armature III, 2018, collage/painting, by Daniel Anselmi
Armature III, 2018, collage/painting, by Daniel Anselmi
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In most Maine cities and towns, above the street-level shops, restaurants, stores and galleries, there are artists in their studios working away at painting, sculpting, and making photographs, drawings and prints. It’s far more usual to see artists’ work in the context of a gallery or museum, but many artists are open to a personal visit. I would recommend this very special experience: contact an individual artist, and climb a worn set of stairs to visit a working studio.

I contacted Daniel Anslemi recently, and up a few short steps, I was in his workspace looking, asking questions and talking about what he makes and why.

Anselmi is refreshingly open about his life and process as an artist. He grew up in Laguna Beach, California, about five blocks from the annual “Pageant of the Masters” where, every summer since 1932, fabulous living tableaux of famous paintings from Velasquez to Monet and Homer feature a cast of local residents and artists, and astonish thousands nightly. Hard to know the far-reaching effects of such an annual spectacle, but we can safely say that a lively and absorbing community arts scene sends ripples through the future in mysteriously unexpected ways.

Daniel Anselmi’s work couldn’t be further from a living tableau, but it ripples to the viewer through its own mysterious route. Anselmi studied two years of art history in college and then, in his 20s, began a 15-year career about as circuitous of art as you can imagine — behind a desk as a retirement pension counselor for the huge conglomerate ADP. Artists do take labyrinthine routes! Gauguin started as a stockbroker; the poet Wallace Stevens was a lifelong insurance agent.

That desk finally ejected Anselmi to Honolulu with a dream, maybe like Gauguin, to paint on an exotic island. Another retirement pension job briefly collared him again, but he finally shook free with a serendipitous position designing Christmas windows at a department store. Finally, creative work and a living wage!

Windows, displays, fashion show mannequins — all aesthetic arrangements, transitory and temporary, but calling for imagination, color, design, communication, turnover, always a fresh take on a new idea. It’s the creative life, and you follow its lead.

Where cabin fever eventually drives the Mainer out of his mind, island fever finally drove Anselmi out of Oahu to Boston, and the windows of Bloomingdale’s, and eventually to a partner, a house in Belfast, a studio and a career as a full-time artist. The labyrinth twists and turns, but finally it leads to a center.

Since 2007, Anselmi has developed into an enormously interesting and productive artist, working in series both large and small, showing extensively, and developing a growing public audience for his work. His first exhibit in 2007 at Belfast’s own Betts Gallery sold out, and from there he has gone on to show at Center for Maine Contemporary Art, Carver Hill, the Rochester Museum of Fine Arts in New York, Portland Public Library, and the University of Maine Museum of Art in Bangor.

His 2013 residency on Monhegan Island proved to be a decisive experience — five uninterrupted weeks alone with his art and no interference from the minutiae of daily life. “It was my lightbulb,” he says, “where I could ask myself, ‘Who am I? What do I do?’ Those five weeks made me serious in my own and others’ eyes.”

Well, what does Anslemi do? He says, “My work is based in both Modernism and Abstract Expressionism — modern in that it is not representational but enjoys innovations of color and shape; AbEx in its welcome of spontaneity, accident, and expression.”

With a workbench of various-sized scissors and a limited color palette, he explores an ever-changing vocabulary of painted and cut-paper shapes, collaged as if each piece were a brushstroke, partly random, partly recycled, textured, or paint-splattered that create an intimate aesthetic conversation, both random and intentioned. The excitement of this process reveals itself in elegant rhythms of shape and line, overlapping, interpenetrating. In and out of space and across the surface plane, a grid structure is never far from sight, though it easily disappears and then just whispers, intertwined amidst a complex tangle.

The aesthetic is classical and spare but spontaneous and rich besides. Each carefully allowed color — most often earth or flesh tones with accents of contrasting hues or gestures — states itself with clarity and finds its location for the viewer’s eye. There is a lovely sense of invention, exploration, and a feeling of possibility.

Anselmi says, “The works are all untitled. I do not want any references to interfere with or assist the viewer.” The pleasures of rhythm and organization, intention, permission, and play are within these artworks. You are on your own here, dear viewer! Somehow, you might sense your imagination opening to the wonderful endlessness of making and looking.

Anselmi’s studio is on the second floor at 75 Main St., Belfast. To schedule a visit, email: danielanselmi@earthlink.net, or visit danielanselmi.com.