By Susan Sherrill Axelrod
Painter and sculptor Matthew Barter has spent his career paying homage to the downeast Maine fishing community where he grew up. With their iconic shapes, his bold, elemental paintings capture the stark beauty of the landscape and the rugged reality of making a living from the sea. They represent the coastal Maine I see in my dreams, which in a way reflects Barter’s process. “I don’t go to a place, sketch it, and then come back and paint,” he says. “I get everything up here in my head, come back, and work from the essence of what I have seen and what I’ve experienced. It’s not a typical landscape, it’s from memory, and it’s more of what I want to create instead of what it is.”
Barter’s rustic wooden sculptures are similarly elemental; they are built, rather than carved. “I take chunks of barn beams I’ve collected — the wood itself is hundreds of years old, so it already has a vibe — and I’ll split it, cut it into sections, and from there I put the sculpture together piece by piece to create a blocky figure,” he says. “At first, I used my grinder to make everything smooth and to make it look more human. But I realized the more I worked on trying to carve in a perfect face, carving each finger of the hand, and rounding everything, I was actually making them look less human. I was taking away the character and taking away the essence of what I wanted to say.”
His current work came out of a “lightbulb moment” he had while visiting Kyra West, whose husband and Barter’s good friend, Maine sculptor and boat builder Dan West, had recently passed away. “She gifted me a few items from his shop, so I took some of his boat paints — amazing colors — and I found this buoy,” says Barter. “It was about 8 by 4 inches, carved out of wood, but the shape was truly abstract. It didn’t look like any buoy I had seen before. As an artist I’m always looking to abstract things, and push the limits of my comfort zone, and see how far I can reach. And I realized that anything that floats is a buoy, especially when there’s a hole in it and it’s attached by a rope. I started to think I could make my own abstract fishing buoys.”
Using the boat paints, neon buoy paint and a coil of rope he found on a beach in Corea, Barter began to create a new kind of sculpture. “Fishermen make strings of things with rope as a part of their trade,” he says. “I thought, why don’t I connect some of these elements that are always in my work—the blocky heads, the bait glove — I tied them all together in a line and it tells a story.”
Barter installed his biggest story, “Cantown Company Store,” which was on view at Portland Art Gallery from Dec. 1 to Jan. 1. The walk-through art installation — his recreation of a small-town store — is a tribute to life in downeast Maine communities before the demise of the sardine canning industry. “When you go into that corner of the gallery you’re going into another world,” Barter says. “My main figures are the downeast kid and the cannery girl; you’re going to get the vibe of these two kids falling in love.” The Cantown Company Store is slightly different each time it is shown, and he is especially excited about a cobbled-together shelf he found in the back of a barn, which he will repurpose to hold sculpted fishing bobbers and lures. “I’m constantly finding ways to change things up, to make something new, and to make it better and better,” he says. “My new saying that I’ve come up with for my style — it’s on my sketchbook — “easy go heavy 2023.” What it means is: Find the easy pathway, and when you find it, go heavy. Walk so heavy with your footsteps that you crush everything in your pathway. When I start on something and I find the little pathway that I’m really excited about, I bring the heavy. That’s what makes it fun. I just tear it up.”
From Portland Art Gallery’s Art Matters series.