“Winter Pasture,” oil on canvas by Julie Cyr
“Winter Pasture,” oil on canvas by Julie Cyr
Sheep Jones and Julie Cyr, sisters, dear friends, and the artists of the show “City Country” are exhibiting their paintings at Betts Gallery through Friday, February 21.

Born and raised in Waterville, Sheep is the first of five siblings, while Julie, who passed away from a long illness on December 28, 2019, was the third. Though their young lives went in different directions, their closeness as sisters and their love of Maine eventually brought them back together when, over 20 years ago, they and their husbands bought a house above Belfast Harbor on the north edge of town. They came during their summers from winter lives farther south to sing, paint, and work near their Waterville family and the seacoast, and, in the process, they became part of the Belfast creative community.

Though Sheep has made paintings since her teens and studied formally at the university level, Julie discovered the painter in herself only after a career in piano and singing and a career in nursing. In Sheep’s Belfast studio, Julie soon became fascinated with visual art and found her own interest in color, process, and media. She soon got the hang of paint and found her imagery, and the paintings began to flow.

Sheep kept on right beside her sister, teaching from her example and tutorials and, most importantly, from trading stories, jokes, songs, paintings, crazy ideas, cooking, and travels — the creative matrix that buoys all artists and keeps sisters close.

And so life passed along, with exhibits during summers — at Susan Tobey White’s gallery, Aarhus Gallery, Darby’s front window — and an annual exodus to winter homes in Virginia and New Hampshire. Everyone in town noticed and knew their work, even if they had never met the two artists.

Julie was a force of nature, according to all who knew her. A gourmet cook, a deeply loved nurse, a mother of four and grandmother of more, a professional musician and arranger with a beautiful voice, an hysterically funny conversationalist, and delightful, cherished friend.

Julie died a day shy of her 66th birthday and less than a month before this exhibit opened.

The planning for “City Country” began a year ago, and everyone, including Julie herself, expected the show to go on, no matter what. And thanks to Betts Gallery’s Anne Warren and Sheep, it has, with Sheep’s paintings representing the city, and Julie’s, the country.

Julie’s lightheartedness and affection for life, the countryside, and weather is expressed through colorful relationships between cows, birds, deer, flowers, sheep, bears, dogs and cats, and it includes children, always children. Children who look, think, sing, read, reflect; children who pet wild foxes, each as natural and comfortable in their skins as the other.

In Cyr’s “Winter Pasture,” three brown and ochre sheep graze through winter drifts before a windowless white barn while the quiet rhythm of snowflakes coats their heads and backs. One sheep looks up attentively at the viewer; the long ears of the other two flop down as they nibble the cold grass. Cyr trowels, brushes and scrapes the snowdrifts into existence, and there it is, heartwarming though frozen. In each painting, Julie expresses the innocence and joy of being in nature, the child in each of us.

Sheep Jones got her name from her youthful bangs that kept covering her eyes. “Who’s that sheep-dog girl?” asked her eventual father-in-law, and the name stuck. She has made paintings since she was in her teens, studying art at UMaine Portland Gorham, Amherst, Virginia, and, interestingly, in a Japanese paper-making village through a travel grant early in her marriage.

Her “cities” are strong compositions of dark sheds and industrial rooftops, chimneys, power lines and warehouses against light- or color-filled skies. In the midst of the palette-knifed gray walls and reflections of water, photo transfers of windows and bricks work seamlessly with the paint to create shadowy silhouettes that suggest closed or abandoned innards.

Nearby flowing water plays a strong role in these paintings, and though they are cities, the full range of Sheep’s images also focuses on natural life: outrageous fields of wildflowers, bulbs dramatically sending out networks of roots and sprouts, invented insects and bees, many, many bees at work.

In “Industrial Workers,” the dark top half of the painting is an industrial landscape at dusk, a place you likely would be leaving after a day’s hard work, or seeing as you drive home. In the bottom half, though, worker bees carry on with their identical chores, while a golden queen rises straight up from a rounded hive between two hexagonal plates held down like factory lids with six bolt heads; such a final statement of closure on either side of a queen who carries on.

“City Country” runs through Friday, February 21, at Betts Gallery, 96 Main Street, Belfast. Just go. It celebrates and carries on the memory of the artist and force of nature Julie Cyr. Sheep Jones, her older sister, also carries on as a remarkably prolific and gifted maker, in whose Belfast studio the art still churns, hand in hand with sweet memories and reflections.