‘David Estey: A 65-Year Retrospective’ in Boothbay Harbor
The orange fish floats in a red sea. A black-outlined fish skeleton is floating past it. The orange fish seems to be alive, yet one senses this is not to be. The tell tale black edging around his tail alerts the viewer to its fate. In the right corner of the painting there appears to be a cylindrical container of bones. Are these the remains of other fish that used to populate what is now a sea of blood? Is this painting a cautionary tale of what will be if mankind’s pollution of the sea doesn’t end?
This painting, entitled “Fish,” is but one of the abstract works in Belfast artist David Estey's 65-Year Retrospective at Studio 53 in Boothbay Harbor. Estey's works are provocative in a thought-provoking way; his abstract pieces are an intriguing invitation to the viewer's subconscious to come out to play.
The retrospective, running through Oct. 10, includes portraits — including one of the artist himself painted at the age of 8; life drawings/sketches, works from his “realism years,” recruitment posters he created while in the Army, as well as posters and paintings created during his 26 years as a public affairs officer for the Internal Revenue Service.
The idea for this retrospective stemmed from Studio 53's 2015 RISD show, featuring over 40 grad artists including Estey, in late August-September 2015; it led to gallery owner Terry Seaman asking Estey if he wanted to have a solo show or a retrospective there this year.
“I thought you had to die before you had a retrospective,” said Estey with a chuckle. “I'd never had the opportunity to show, what I feel is a certain, let's call it gravitas, in my work that has come over 65 years of working away at stuff that has come from different settings, different styles and different explorations. I think that gives you a certain weight behind what you're doing. And, I wanted a chance to show that this stuff I'm doing now — some people wonder why I'm painting abstracts. They may just look like I'm having fun, and I am having fun, and it may seem odd at times, but there's a lot more behind this work.”
Estey selected 57 paintings in oils, acrylics, charcoal, on Yupo, canvas, and panels from his youth, 8-18 to present day. There are portraits, life drawing sketches, posters from his four years in, and working for, the Army, and his IRS years, landscapes, and abstracts. The retrospective is exhibited throughout the entire first floor of the gallery.
The show is displayed in time periods — his youth (through high school), RISD, the Army, the IRS, and his return to abstracts. Estey estimates that over this 65-year period he has over 10,000 works — that's paintings, life drawings/sketches (he has 91 notebooks of these alone) portraits and posters. Fortunately he had recently cataloged and photographed works, past and present, which made it easier to get his hands on pieces to include in his show.
“I really wanted to get as much stuff as I could in the show and then an idea for a book came to me,” Estey said. “I've written a few books and have written on blurb.com, but I wanted to tell my whole story for once in a book where I could talk more about my work and include others talking about it.”
The book, begun in May of this year and delivered to Studio 53 four days before the show opened, is simply entitled, “David Estey: A 65-Year Retrospective.” The book chronicles how he got where he is now.
“I had a lot of hangups stemming from my being a RISD grad working in the bureaucracy. I was always trying to reconcile those two things; at RISD we learned to think more abstractly, to push the envelope, but there I was working for the IRS,” Estey said. “I spent years wracking my brain over it, but I thoroughly enjoyed my career in IRS public affairs.”
Estey also found that the design studies at RISD served him well in the bureaucracy. “Specifically I refer to conceptual thinking, getting to the big picture while paying attention to the details, looking for the truth in all issues and the real root of problems, not wasting time solving the wrong problem, brainstorming possible solutions, and being open to the idea that there is often more than one answer,” Estey said.
Five years ago, Estey finally vanquished those hangups and returned to making abstract art, after being visited by two Belfast artists. The first, a neighbor and inspiration to Estey, Harold Garde, stopped by and was looking at paintings. At that moment Estey was working on a portrait of Garde — in Garde's style. The 93-year-old artist asked Estey if he wanted to know what he thought of the portrait.
“He said, 'I think sometimes you let the narrative get in the way of making a good painting,'” Estey recalled. “It was like he put a dagger in my heart because I knew he was exactly right. I was getting hung up on a piece of imagery or something that meant something to me in my past. I wouldn't let it go.”
About a week later, a woman who had just seen him at a talk in Rockland dropped by Estey’s studio. He knew of her and had seen some of her art around the area.
“She said she saw all the different styles of paintings there, and the stuff on my studio walls. She said, 'I see de Kooning, Picasso ... but who are you? You are so many things because of your background, but you're lost. But, you still have time — not much time — but you have time!' That gave me something to think about. But she and Harold were talking about the same thing: I needed to free myself up from all the things in my head and see what happens.”
Estey began experimenting with some Yupo paper (a 74 weight Japanese product coated with a thin layer of plastic) he had starting with black acrylic paint. After a few weeks he began mixing families of colors applying them with putty knives, sticks, Q-Tips, even paper towels dampened with water. The Yupo paper doesn't absorb water the way regular paper does. And the acrylic paint dried faster.
“I was doing three to five a day. And I liked them. I didn't care if they worked or not, I was having fun,” Estey said. “For a couple of years I didn't show anywhere until a show at Carver Hill Gallery in June 2012 and in 2013.”
Today Estey is working on larger pieces and strives to be more minimalist in his work. “Truth” is an example of the new paintings. Truth is represented by a red, vertical line on a green background atop a yellow line outlined in pale blue above a bold dark blue area. Truth is reality, it can never be fiction. That truth is represented in the color red and makes a bold, passionate statement about the state of being.
On the lighter side, Estey's “1040 easy revised” tax form is a hoot and a holler. For instance, under Exemptions: Significant Other (no animals allowed), Kids under 35 still living at home (If over 25 they better not be here next year), Kids over 35 still living at home (Subtract as a minus for being stupid); Parents who've moved back in (welcome to the club). Chuckles to hearty laughter can be heard in Studio 53 by folks taking in this piece.
“Iraq (Horrors of War)” is one powerful painting. Estey said he didn't start out to make a political statement, it just evolved. The dark colors, the ghostly figures of fallen soldiers, blood drips on the flag, three silver stars (the rank of a U.S. Army lieutenant general), barbed wire … the images draw you in.
This is a powerful piece for Estey as well.
“I meant it to be. The ghost figures are collateral damage, the pockmarked walls of war ravaged buildings in Afghanistan and Iraq, the stripes of the Flag, the bloodied barbed wire representing explosive devices,” shared Estey. “But, if you stand back from the painting, it’s an image of a monstrous toad with a flag coming out of its mouth. It's a jarring kind of monster; it's how I felt about Iraq. It's one of the few paintings in which I combined how I felt about politics and war in my art.”
“Ice Cream” Estey describes as a “simplified version of (Willem) de Kooning,” a major influence on Estey in atypical colors for Estey — pinks, lavender, gray, ochre. A lighthearted piece.
The retrospective also includes a 2008 homage to another influence, former RISD instructor Robert Hamilton. It is so well done you'll think you are looking at an actual Hamilton.
The unpredictability of abstract art really jazzes David Estey.
“It's about exploring, being in that moment ... going into your subconscious to another plane and transferring that onto canvas,” Estey said.
Don't miss David Estey's 65-Year Retrospective and the opportunity to get into an Estey state of mind. Studio 53, located at 53 Townsend Avenue, is open daily 11 a.m. to 5 p.m.
For more on the artist, visit http://davidestey.com.