Gretna Campbell: Paintings from Great Cranberry Island

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Gretna Campbell, Small Rosebush, 1981, oil on canvas, 42 x 48″. All images courtesy Courthouse Gallery Fine Art.

By Carl Little

Painter Gretna Campbell (1922-1987) first came to Maine in the late 1940s not long after graduating from Cooper Union in New York City. She and her husband, artist Louis Finkelstein, bought a house on Great Cranberry Island off the southern end of Mount Desert Island in 1950. Over time, the island’s granite edges and deep woods became her principal muse, a place she returned to every summer. Gretna Campbell: Paintings from Great Cranberry Island at Courthouse Gallery Fine Art in Ellsworth, ME gathers a dozen oils dating from 1976 to 1985, all of them Great Cranberry subjects.

Seeking immediacy through immersion, Campbell transported her canvases, some of them as large as 50 by 50 inches, to her chosen motif. While she used the term “painterly” to describe her work, the term seems almost too dainty in light of the expressionist gusto in her plein air pieces. Art historian Martica Sawin, in an essay written for the show, traces the source of this dynamism to Campbell’s “ceaseless efforts to reconcile contradictions between representation and abstract structure.”

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Gretna Campbell, Dark Woods, 1982, oil on canvas, 42 x 42″.

Campbell sought to capture the inherent motion of the landscape; her strokes are like shorthand for rendering what she was seeing before her. In Blue Rocks (1976), abbreviated brushstrokes represent dappled light while in Looking Down (1983), gestural lines of pigment create a downward motion. In Dark Woods (1982), elements of the landscape reveal themselves as the eye travels—is led—across the canvas. Trunks of trees and gray rocks catch bits of light.

Campbell was a part of a distinguished group of New York City artists who set up easel on Great Cranberry Island after World War II. Each responded differently, even to the same motif. Drawing the Pool, a tidal body of water on the island’s north side, Emily Nelligan used charcoal to limn its atmospheric contours. By contrast, Campbell found a full palette’s worth of color in the tide pools, water and sky as evidenced in The Pool (1980).

With many solo shows in New York City in her lifetime, Campbell rarely showed in Maine. This exhibition represents a welcome return of the artist to her favorite milieu.

Gretna Campbell: Paintings from Great Cranberry Island runs through September 30.

Dear Gretna, I enjoyed seeing your beautiful artwork in Art New England. I have fond memories of visiting Cranberry Island in 1959 to spend a night with my distant cousin (the age of my parents) in 1959 who was an artist and lived in Boston and Cranberry Island in the Summer. I don't know if that is the same as Great Cranberry Island - I never knew there was more than one Cranberry Island. We got there by taking the mail boat from Southwest Harbor. In Boston he exhibited at the Boris Mirsky Gallery on Marlborough Street, as I recall. He did many paintings of the rocks and the white birches of Cranberry Island.He several decades ago - probably in the l980's. Best, Nancy A contributor to Art New England
Posted by: Nancy Helle    On: Sep 21, 2016 9:42 pm

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