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Art and politics in Maine

September 03, 2012


I RECEIVED a much warmer welcome when we drove into Maine from Canada last week than when I flew into Boston last year. The Homeland Security official was very polite as he did the paperwork at the border crossing in Calais, and was curious about my book when I mentioned I was a writer.

Indeed, everybody I have met here in this huge, under-populated state has been warm and welcoming. I’m glad my impression of small town America has been confirmed. As I am here in the middle of the election campaign, much of the talk has been about the Republican nomination convention in Tampa.

Almost all my American friends and acquaintances are Democrats and they have all been sneering (and fuming) at the speeches we have been watching from Tampa. Clint Eastwood, in particular, has been skewered for his bizarre performance. Watching him on TV, I was saddened to see this great movie icon making a fool of himself.

The other sour note at the convention was the news that two Republican delegates had thrown peanuts at a black CNN camerawoman, saying: “This is what we feed animals.” This was a crass and embarrassing reminder for the Republicans that racism is alive and well among their ranks.

Maine is a long state situated along the Atlantic extending from Canada to near Boston. It has an even longer coastline thanks to the craggy coastline that contains thousands of bays, inlets and small islands. Thickly wooded, it attracts tourists and retirees from across the United States. Most of its small population of just over a million lives along the sea, and fishing is the main occupation for many.

The state is famous for its splendid lobsters, and some 50 million pounds are harvested every year, with many being exported to faraway places like Japan. Virtually every restaurant has them on its menu in one form or another. Scallops, crabs and oysters are other delicacies commonly available. Although these are all high in cholesterol, I have not been able to resist. No doubt my cardiologist will chide me for my excesses when we next meet.

For a relatively small population, Maine has produced a large number of outstanding artists, many of whom have painted the sea and the dramatic coastline. Perhaps the most famous of them are the three generations of Wyeths, and several of their works hang in the well-designed Farnsworth Arts Museum. The best known of the three is Andrew Wyeth whose haunting painting of a wooden Maine house in the background with a mysterious, half-turned woman sitting on a grass-covered field has been reproduced in millions of posters and post-cards over the years.His son Jamie is still painting brooding seascapes, and his vision is bleaker than his father’s. A set of three paintings recreates a dream he had with mysterious figures overlooking a boiling sea where the waves take on a startling, electric violet hue. In another, a dog with mad, staring eyes battles the waves.

The local paper mentioned an exhibition of miniature seascapes at a private gallery, so we stopped there to have a look. The owner informed us that he had the biggest collection of seascapes in the world, and I had no reason to disbelieve him as the walls were indeed full of small and large paintings depicting various aspects of the Maine coastline.

We picked up a print by John Dehlinger that I’m very pleased with. It shows a black, irregular rock being pounded by powerful waves with ominous clouds in the background. Seeing so many seascapes in a short period reminded me of a question I am always plaguing my artist friends in Pakistan with: why don’t we have good paintings of the sea, given our long coastline? After all, we have produced many outstanding landscape artists like Khalid Iqbal, Ijaz ul Hasan and Shahid Jalal.

I remember how, many years ago, when my old friend Ijaz was visiting from Lahore, I took him to the beach near Karachi’s nuclear power plant, and he set up his easel to attempt his first seascape. Apart from the wind, his biggest complaint was that the sea refused to stay still for him to capture it on his canvas. For some reason, we seem to have turned our backs on our coast. While there have been a few paintings of Karachi harbour, no artist I know has caught the restless power of the sea with all its changing colours and moods.

But it’s hard to get away from politics in the States these days: when I was talking to the gallery owner, he complained that nobody was buying paintings in “this Obama economy”.

Another couple who were waiting for their purchase to be rolled up, immediately agreed, saying how encouraged they were by the Republican convention. “Maybe we’ll get our country back now,” said one of them.

Left unsaid was the sentiment that somehow, Obama was a foreigner from whom the US had to be “taken back”. Another American, an avowed Republican and somebody I have known for a long time, declared that Obama was ill-equipped to “project American power abroad.” Tell that to Osama bin Laden and the many terrorists who have been killed in drone attacks these last three years.

America today is more polarised than at any time I have known it to be. This is reflected in the polling figures that show Romney and Obama tied at around 48 per cent each. The fight is over the relatively few Americans who are still uncommitted and who could well determine the outcome of the November election. But whoever wins will have a tough time pulling America out of the economic mess it is in currently.

While blaming Obama, Republicans conveniently gloss over the fact that he inherited unemployment of around 8 per cent and a huge deficit from Bush. And when Mitt Romney airily announced at the convention that he had a plan to create eight million jobs, he forgot to share it with his audience.

But that’s the nature of political campaigns where you hit your opponent with everything you have, and the truth be damned.