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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: August 27, 2018

An unusual twist from Barbara Prey: Loose watercolors from Cuba

Written by: Bob Keyes

People who appreciate the paintings of Barbara Ernst Prey are accustomed to seeing her work at her seasonal gallery in Port Clyde, which she has operated for 18 years and now is known as Barbara Prey Projects.

This summer and fall, her paintings also are on view up the coast at the Wendell Gilley Museum in Southwest Harbor, a museum best known for showing the decorative bird carvings of its namesake. “Barbara Ernst Prey: Earth, Sea, Sky” is on view in Southwest Harbor through Oct. 14. The show includes several large-scale watercolors and new oil paintings of Maine, including scenes from around Mount Desert Island.

Fans who visit her gallery in Port Clyde will see a mix of oils and watercolors, as well as a recently completed series of paintings that she finished on site in Havana, Cuba, this spring.

Her father had a home in Cuba in the 1940s and 1950s, and her spring trip was her first opportunity to paint there. These are intimate, loose sketches, and somewhat surprising given Prey’s reputation for creating precise and finely detailed paintings in watercolor and more recently in oil. In Cuba, she painted long, soft views of sunsets in yellows and blues and structured scenes of old Havana and its lively painted homes in pink, green and yellow.

“I took my son, and it was very personal for me. It gave me chills,” she said. “It was something I that I have wanted to do, to go see a part of your father’s life. I was painting in places that he had been.”

The Cuba paintings reminded Prey of her illustration for the New Yorker early in her career that focused on the architecture of the city. They were quick, loose sketches that captured the energy of the place. The Cuba watercolors felt similar, she said.

The Cuba paintings are part of the larger travel exhibition, “Here and There,” on view through Sept. 4 in Port Clyde. In addition to Cuba, subjects in the exhibition include scenes from Europe and her environs close to home in Maine and farther afield. Her travel paintings reflect a world perspective that she honed as a young woman when she studied and worked in Asia and Europe after receiving a Fulbright Scholarship and a grant from the Henry Luce Foundation.

But ultimately, as it has been for countless painters before her, it is all about Maine for Prey, who splits her time between the midcoast and Long Island, New York. She has been painting in Maine more than 40 years and showing her work on the St. George peninsula for 35 years.

And it is paintings of Maine and the fishing villages that she knows best, in addition to paintings of Cuba, that people will see in Port Clyde, as well as in Southwest Harbor.

In a press release, Wendell Gilley Museum director Sean Charette said “Earth, Sea, Sky” celebrates Prey’s “long engagement with the landscape and people of Maine.” Prey’s paintings are displayed alongside Gilley’s carvings, creating what Charette called “a celebration of art and nature, from the stunning vista of mountain, ocean and sky in Prey’s paintings … to the mastery of proportion and personality that Wendell Gilley brought to his bird carving through knife and brush stroke.”

In addition to showing in Maine this summer, Prey also has a painting, “White Wash,” in the “True Colors” exhibition through Nov. 4 at the Nassau County Museum of Art on Long Island. “White Wash” is watercolor of laundry and a colorful patch quilt drying on a clothesline in Maine, with a coastal cove visible in the near background. She’s part of an exhibition of modern art heavyweights, including Paul Gauguin, Henri Matisse, Wassily Kandinsky, Mark Rothko, Helen Frankenthaller, Ellsworth Kelly, Frank Stella, David Hockney and Robert Motherwell.

Prey is credited with creating the largest known contemporary watercolor painting, on view at Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art, and serves on the National Council on the Arts, an advisory board to the chair of the National Endowment of the Arts. Prey’s paintings are in the collections of the Smithsonian American Art Museum, the White House and the Brooklyn Museum. She has painted commissions for the White House and NASA.

“Barbara Ernst Prey: Earth, Sea, Sky”

WHERE: Wendell Gilley Museum, 4 Herrick Road, Southwest Harbor
WHEN: 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Tuesday to Saturday through August, 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Tuesday to Saturday in September and October; through Oct. 14
HOW MUCH: $5 adults, $2 ages 5 to 12, free 4 and younger
INFO: (207) 244-7555,

“Here and There: Coastal Maine to the Shores of Cuba”

WHERE: Barbara Prey Projects, 855 Port Clyde Road, Port Clyde
WHEN: 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. daily, through Sept. 4

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