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Maine aesthetic celebrated in prints

ROCKPORT, Maine -- In 1826, Louisa Davis Minot sketched a scene of the Kennebec River in Maine on a lithographic stone she'd brought with her from Boston. She captured a winsome landscape, with scudding clouds and lithe trees bending over the calm river. When Minot returned home, she took the stone to a print shop, then sent a lithograph to a friend she'd visited on her journey.

It wasn't the first print made in Maine, but as engraving shops began to thrive there in the mid-1820s, it was an early example of the democracy of fine art printmaking in the state. It also helped set the tone for the nearly two centuries of printmaking that have followed.

The Maine Print Project, encompassing 25 exhibitions from Portland to Presque Isle, celebrates that history. The shows, some of which run through March, range from solo exhibits to historic surveys to theme-based exhibitions; they are accompanied by a handsome book written by David P. Becker , "The Imprint of Place: Maine Printmaking 1800-2005."

This vast project embraces Maine artists of national stature, from Winslow Homer to Alex Katz, often side by side with local artists. There's Frances Hodsdon , who founded the printmaking studio at the Round Top Center for the Arts in Damariscotta; her moody and elegant lithographic self-portrait is included in "Maine Printmakers: 1980-2005" at the Center for Maine Contemporary Art in Rockport. Illustrator Peggy Bacon , a resident of Cape Porpoise until her death in 1987, shared her wry and generous vision of human foibles in prints such as "Maine Problems," depicting a town meeting, on view in "A Century of Maine Prints: 1880s-1980s" at the Portland Museum of Art.

Becker's book deftly walks the reader through printmaking trends, from the etching revival of the late 19th century to the rise of fine art presses such as Patricia Nick's Vinalhaven Press in the 1980s. He touches on local details, such as the short-lived Grand Central School of Art in Eastport in the 1920s and '30s. He balances tradition with innovation and covers a variety of techniques .

Given the breadth of Maine printmaking, it's hard to characterize. "It's a northern aesthetic," allows Becker, padding through the Portland Museum show in sneakers, jeans, and a sweater. "Not a tropical atmosphere."

That hints at the palette. But there's also something about the graphic power of printmaking that fits the state's rugged, rocky landscape and Mainers' famed independence and reserve.

"Printmakers start with a line on the plate, a crayon on the stone," Becker says. "Color is hard. The process is indirect. . . . You don't know how it will turn out. It's more about graphic strength and light than color."

Landscape is a constant. "We're a rural state, and our landscape is so spectacular, and spare at the same time," Becker says. You can see it in the graceful economy of Ernest Haskell's 1924 etching "Crystal Morning (Kennebec River)," at the Portland Museum, recollecting Rembrandt in its nuance and detail. At the CMCA you'll find a Neil Welliver print made in 2004, the year before he died. The stark "Trees Reflected on Ice" appears fragile, even skeletal, compared to the lush, sure-handed landscapes Welliver is known for.

The Maine Print Project is the brainchild of CMCA curator Bruce Brown , a longtime collector of prints, who plans to retire soon.

"I wondered what I might do to have a proper send-off," Brown recalls. He proposed a print show at a meeting with a handful of other Maine curators. "Everybody went for it immediately," Brown says. "Printmaking has not been much heralded in Maine. There's been plenty of activity, but not too many significant shows. This took off like a shot."

Each participating institution organized its own exhibit. Brown's own "Maine Printmakers: 1980-2005" at the CMCA is a treasure-trove of 225 prints, starting at the front door with Gideon Bok's "Wingate Studio With Aldo's Press," a haunting evocation of the interior of a print shop that references Parisian master printmaker Aldo Crommelynck . Surprises crop up around every corner, from Leonard Baskin's surprisingly delicate lithograph "Portrait of Edvard Munch" to up-and-comer Mara Sprafkin's "120 Moments Spent Alone on November 13, 2004," a pensive collage of tiny silk-screened self-portraits.

Not all the works are such gems; some are more technically adept than formally interesting. ("Sometimes printmakers can get terribly involved in technique," Becker admits. ) But the prints that stand out shine brilliantly.

The more succinct CMCA show "Vinalhaven Press Prints," organized by Bowdoin College Museum of Art, demonstrates the clarity of vision possible when an accomplished artist teams up with a master printmaker such as Patricia Nick. Alison Saar used cracked old vinyl to create the iconographic "Snake Man," in which a bare-chested man holds a snake in his teeth; you can see the crackling effect of the vinyl in his skin. Mel Chin's etching and aquatint "Self-Portrait (Bison and Hare)" is a harrowing but comic standoff between the two expertly described critters.

Colby College Museum of Art stages "Alex Katz: Woodcuts and Linocuts," a gorgeous show tracing Katz's printmaking during the last 50 years, from his first scratchy landscapes through several of his trademark portraits and his nearly abstract mature landscapes. "Big Red Smile," a 1994 linocut of his favorite subject, his wife Ada, pops with the clean lines and flat tones Katz deploys so well. Sunlight clatters into the darkened woods in a series of moody 2001 black-and-white prints, smearing onto tree trunks and burrowing into leaves on the ground.

The Portland exhibit provides some historic backdrop. It trumpets the graphic focus and illustrational technique of artists such as Winslow Homer and Rockwell Kent, and it includes lovely works by masters of the medium. Look at the linear power in John Heagan Eames's "Street Scene Maine Village," a 1934 etching, and the degrees of tone in Stow Wengenroth's 1943 litho "Dusk."

"More than anything else, the excitement of this project is based on discovery," says Brown. "We're discovering historical material. Artists are discovering each other."

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