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Bob Keyes

Bob Keyes has written about the arts in Maine since 2002. He’s never been much an artist himself, other than singing in junior high school chorus and acting in a few musicals. But he’s attended museums, theaters, clubs and concert halls all his life, and cites Bob Dylan as most influential artist of any kind since Picasso. He lives in Berwick.

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Posted: September 10, 2018

Portland boutique hotel gets into the art game

Written by: Bob Keyes

The painter MJ Benson feels like she is walking into the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum in Boston or the Frick Collection in New York when she enters The Francis, a newish boutique hotel on Congress Street. In those established art destinations, the paintings are resplendent and accessible in a residential setting.

The Francis, at 747 Congress St., aims for much the same atmosphere in a hotel setting. Benson, who lives in Portland, is the third artist to exhibit original paintings in The Francis since it opened a year ago, and she fills nine separate gallery spaces within the hotel with dozens of her paintings. “The variety of spaces, the changing light throughout the day and that people are, if only temporarily, living with the work really appeals to me,” she said. “It makes me feel giddy sitting on the couch in the front parlor, sipping a cocktail, looking at something I made being shown in such a special place – and that has very little to do with the cocktail!”

With 15 rooms, The Francis opened in fall 2017 in a restored 1881 home.

Benson describes her paintings as abstract land and seascapes. Most start and end with the horizon, though the horizon line is not always the most evident piece of the final image. Her inspiration comes from the ocean.

“I’m really looking at the personal manifestation of memory, mine and the viewers,” she said. “I love hearing about what people see in my work. I’m not afraid to play with tension between representation and non-representational. It’s about starting a conversation about how paintings evoke and create memories from the past, in the moment and toward the future.”

She wants her paintings to feel fluid with the ability to change within the mind’s eye, rather than feel specific about a time and place.

Benson completed most of the approximately 25 paintings in this exhibition within the past year. The painting “Fall” is 48 inches square, the largest painting she had made when she completed it. It’s a broad view of an ominous sky building with dark clouds over the water. She struggled with it for weeks, unable to resolve the space and caught up in its enormity. It was a new challenge.

“I put it away and came back to it many times, trying to read where it was going, what it was trying to show me,” she said.

She almost divided it into smaller canvases, but then she made her discovery. An errant brush, full of the wrong color, made a rusty orange mark in the middle of the painting, and pulled it all together. “I had the common sense to stop painting, stretch it, and finally named it ‘Fall,’ after the shape of the waterfall-like blue elements and in personal reference to my bruised ego.”

She painted “Sea Smoke” last December after a brisk walk along the waterfront. “After returning from my morning walk, I laid down the layers of underpainting, and then four more layers of color and texture, and by the time I was truly warm again from my walk, it was stretched and signed,” she said. “It captured the eerie, crackling cold of that morning with its muted light that contained every color.”

Benson grew up on the water in Cohasset, Massachusetts, and moved to Boston as a teenager. Moving to the city at that age opened her up to galleries, street performers and counter-culture. The fuse was lit. She’s been an artist most of her life.

She took photography courses in high school, studied at the School of the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston and earned a bachelor of fine arts degree from Tufts University. She taught and practiced photography for many years and took up painting a few years ago. She has taken courses at Haystack Mountain School of Craft and Maine College of Art, and shown her paintings publicly since 2016.

MJ Benson’s “Recent Works”

WHERE: The Francis, 747 Congress St., Portland
WHEN: On view through November

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