By Lynn Fantom
The fundraiser for the Southwest Harbor Public Library on Mount Desert Island kicked off with a reservation-only event. Maine artist Judy Taylor looked intently at her subject, author Christina Baker Kline, then back to the blank canvas in front of her. With rapid brush strokes, the painter outlined hair, shoulders, face.
Self-conscious as she sat frozen on a stool, Kline began asking audience members what they’d read lately. A library staff member requested silence.
For the next half hour in a room of 60 onlookers, only the artist moved, standing back from her easel with brush poised like a conductor’s wand, then approaching the canvas to paint. The audience was tense with anticipation. Not a whisper or fidget interrupted the artist’s concentration.
Then gradually, as if by magic, the novelist’s image appeared on the canvas, with her blue eyes, blonde bob, and cautious smile beautifully emerging. Taylor took a deep breath and described how she would finish the
portrait in her studio. Indefatigable, she smiled and began articulately answering questions from an eager audience.
That kind of performance takes courage, which Taylor says she derives in part from making Maine her home. “It stabilizes me. I think an artist needs some kind of grounding.”
Maine is a magnet for artists of all types. Poets come for the quietude. Musicians seek summer audiences. Painters covet the landscapes. But Taylor is different. She is, well, of Maine, even though she is from away.
“To have so much talent and to be so unassuming” is how Mary Anne Mead, Assistant Director of Public Services at the library, describes Taylor. “Yet she stands tall. There’s pride. She could live anywhere, but she chooses to be here.”
Born in Kansas City, Taylor grew up in the Chicago suburbs and spent summers with her grandparents, soybean and wheat farmers in Fullerton, Nebraska (population: 1,234). Her grandmother wore overalls and had a big part in managing two farms. “Saturday nights were like this: dress up, go downtown, walk around,” Taylor says.
Something about that ethos stuck, even though her life routed her through advertising jobs in Chicago, atelier-style training with leading figurative artists in New York City, and teaching at the Austin Museum of Art. By the time she became an artist-in-residence at Acadia National Park in 1996, not only was she a prolific painter, but she brought a multitude of experiences, including where to find an affordable rental in Brooklyn and how to make a mean chicken-poblano soup.
Taylor’s paintings, primarily oils but also gouache (an opaque watercolor), include figuratives, portraits, and landscapes. They are found in three galleries, as well as at her own studio on the Quiet Side of Mount Desert Island.
Designed with her husband, the son of a Swan’s Island lobsterman, the studio has exhibition space, a large room where she hosts a summer lecture series, and a second floor with raised stage and coveted northern light, where she paints.
She works with students there, too, as well as outdoors, and, during the COVID-19 crisis, remotely. Twice a year, small groups have joined her to study in museums in London and Paris, and en plein air in Amalfi, Sicily, and the Pyrenees. For Barbara Springer, who has taken one of these art workshops, Judy Taylor has proven to be an attentive instructor, who picked up on “an illustrative quality” in her drawing. “It was an inspiration for me,” she says, and one that led to her drawing political satire. “Judy believes that you should be honest with who you are,” Springer adds. And she helps her students get there.
Art history plays a big role in Taylor’s instruction. She rattles off references to Velasquez, Caravaggio, Sorolla, and Sargent as if they were daily necessities, like detergent. Yet, their impact on her is almost physical: “They create a vibration in your gut,” she says.
Like the painters she admires, Taylor receives both private and public commissions. One of those was to portray pediatrician and geneticist Barton Childs, and it is now in the Johns Hopkins Medical Institutes’ collection with other portraits of physicians by John Singer Sargent, William Merritt Chase, and Jamie Wyeth, among others.
Another commission to depict the Maine labor movement received national attention. That’s because in 2011 then-governor Paul LePage ordered removal of the monumental mural from the Department of Labor building, asserting it was too pro-labor. At the time, Taylor told the New York Times, “By default, it’s honoring the working man and working woman.” (The mural is now on display at the Maine State Museum in Augusta.)
But LePage may have been right about one thing. There is something heroic in how Taylor portrays people who have made Maine what it is. That elevation of common cultural experience pervades much of her work: a lobsterman knitting a trap head, a trail-building crew, a young man fiddling in the Acadian kitchen party tradition.
“I admire these people. Maybe that translates when I’m painting,” Taylor says. “I’m a contemporary artist, but I might not have a contemporary bent. I have no interest in painting somebody looking at his cell phone,” she notes.
Where do ideas come from? “As I move around my world, in a split second I know what’s going to make a painting,” she says. During a hike on Beech Mountain in Acadia, a trail crew sparked a thought, and she recruited some neighbors with shovels to enact a scene. Local residents often serve as models.
Recently, a special grant delivered some new students to Taylor: local middle schoolers. The challenge was to teach them how to work from a model. Taylor chose someone she herself had painted, Wayne Davis, a third-generation lobsterman who had attended the very same school. The class was a hit. But worry bubbled up when Taylor proposed that a “slew of kindergarteners” pose for the next session. “Nobody could believe they would sit still, but I knew they would!” After all, she says, the small ones would want to impress the bigger ones.
Clearly, with the humanity she brings as a neighbor and teacher, this Maine artist has talents that go beyond what meets her eye.