The picturesque fishing village of Port Clyde lies at the easterly end of a long and winding road that starts on coastal Route 1 in Thomaston. Remote as it is, it seems an unlikely place to find the most recent works of an internationally renowned painter whose vibrant watercolors hang in the Smithsonian American Art Museum, the White House, the Bush Presidential Library, the Taiwan Museum of Art, the galleries of the New York Historical Society and many other public and private collections worldwide.
But for Barbara Ernst Prey, the rambling Port Clyde peninsula offers more than a second home away from the crush of Long Island, New York, where she lives most of the year. This is the land her family settled hundreds of years ago and the inspiration for many of the paintings that have won her stature and reward over the span of her creative life: color-drenched images of sea and sky, dark, spruce-rimmed meadows and golden-grassed salt marshes, salt-rimmed lobster boats and rowing dinghies and the flat morning light falling, plain and square, on the houses, storefronts and rooftops of Port Clyde village.
Now in her mid-50s, Prey has been visiting, painting and exhibiting in this area for nearly four decades. Her gallery, Blue Water Fine Arts, is housed in the former Village Inn in Port Clyde, where Maine-affiliated artists such as N.C. Wyeth, his son, Andrew Wyeth, and many others have visited and taken their meals over the years. The gallery is celebrating its 15th year this season.
She spends summers in nearby Tenants Harbor, though she currently is traveling and painting in Europe for a few weeks.
“My family were among the first settlers of Vinalhaven, North Haven and the midcoast,” she said in an email to the Bangor Daily News. “So perhaps there is something in my blood that is drawn to the area and the subject matter.”
In her current show, “Re/Viewing the American Landscape,” Prey serves up dozens of her visually arresting paintings, including boldly pigmented watercolor landscapes and seascapes, the delicately rendered, flag-themed paintings she created in response to the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001 and a few weightless, finely detailed images of the International Space Station and other spacecraft created on commission for the NASA Art Program.
Importantly, this new show also showcases Prey’s return to working with oils, a significant departure from the watercolors with which she is so at home. Like her watercolors, many of these new oils depict familiar architectural scenes around town.
“I painted in oils when I was younger; we had a large studio in our home,” she said. “This new ‘Village’ series of my oil paintings is something I’ve wanted to explore for a while. … I like to push myself in new directions and try new things. I like the intimacy of these new oils.”
Prey’s sensibilities have been steeped in art from the very beginning. Her mother, Peggy Ernst, was an accomplished oil painter and the head of design at the Pratt Institute in Brooklyn.
“My mother was a great painter and a great inspiration,” Prey said. “We would often go out painting together. She was an oil painter, so I began with watercolors.” The habit of “going out painting” is deeply ingrained — Prey still prefers to work en plein air, setting up her easel on site and painting amid the distractions and enhancements of the natural environment.
“I was painting last November in Maine when the first snowstorm hit, and I kept on painting until I had to go home because my fingers were too cold to continue,” she said. “And then I kept working through the loss of my electricity and heat because I was so involved.”
From her early days at her mother’s side, Prey continued to develop as an artist. One of the first paintings she sold — an oil, when she was 17 — was purchased by New York Gov. Hugh Carey. She studied at Williams College, completed a master’s degree at Harvard Divinity School and worked as an illustrator at The New Yorker and the New York Times, all the while pursuing her own creative vision and technique, frequently drawing on the iconic imagery of the Maine coast.
These days, Prey serves on the advisory board of the National Endowment for the Arts. She is a sought-after lecturer, speaking on American art traditions at special exhibits at the National Gallery of Art, the Corcoran Gallery of Art, the Thyssen-Bornemisza Museum in Madrid and other major venues.
Prey’s works are showcased in major museums worldwide and in the private collections of former President George W. Bush; Nobel Laureate Dr. James Watson, co-discoverer of the structure of DNA; actors Orlando Bloom and Tom Hanks; and many others. Through the Art in Embassies program of the U.S. Department of State, her paintings are on exhibit in embassies and consulates around the world, including Prague, Seoul, Baghdad, Abu Dhabi, Bogota, Mexico City, Athens, Cairo and Rangoon.
Barbara Ernst Prey’s show “Re/Viewing the American Landscape” will be on exhibit through Sept. 20, 2015, at Blue Water Fine Arts on Main Street in Port Clyde, Maine. Gallery hours are 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. daily. For more information, call 207-372-8087.