January 14, 2018
It was rainy today. It was the right time for me to go north, to Portland, Maine and see the works of a long lost friend.
I attended MECA (Maine College of Art) with Debbie Bates. We were both painting majors in the class of ’83. I first met Debbie when she invited me to her apartment a block off Danforth Street. I was new to city living and was staying temporarily at the YMCA on Forest Avenue. She invited me over and offered me some rice.
I was very sad to learn of the passing of Debbie in the winter of 2013. I had tried contacting her in the recent past but received no reply. I suspected she had moved on and likely acquired a new address.
The rice Debbie served me was in a bowl and she told me she had only chop sticks. I am not sure if I had ever eaten rice before but clearly recall I didn’t have the slightest idea of what to do with chopsticks. Already, I was a hungry artist, it had been a while since my last meal. Newly away from home I hadn’t even been to the grocery store.
Being famished, I sat there pondering what to do with the chopsticks. I was hoping to watch Debbie for clues but she busied herself in the kitchen area as I sat close by. Finally, I could wait no longer. I did the best I could with what I had. The rice was dry, plain and I remember being so grateful. I think it was just rice, no soy sauce, nothing else. I remember as I picked the last piece of rice from the bottom of the bowl with those chopsticks how proud I was. I didn’t tell Debbie this until years later.
From my first encounter with Debbie it was apparent she had great resolve. She had a direction that she intended to follow, she had backbone. When Debbie enrolled at what was then PSA (Portland School of Art) she had already accomplished several careers.
I liked her right away and we talked about art and her past. She was especially fond of her mom who was a violinist for the Bangor Symphony. At MECA Debbie painted landscapes and spent a lot of time one winter painting from inside a greenhouse. Her work was representational with bold brush strokes. Debbie had strong beliefs in what art was and held to them, swaying slightly at the suggestion of our instructors but I don’t remember her ever swaying completely.
After graduation we connected a handful of times. We both had work in a show in Cornish, Maine. She lived very close to the Saco River at one time. Many years ago during a flood I called Debbie to see if she was OK. The river was actually at the edge of her lawn and during floods it was a cause for concern.
I woke her from a sleep. She slept up in a loft and after she answered the phone she climbed down the ladder with phone in hand to look out at the river. As she traversed down the ladder she fell and broke her leg. I was still on the phone with no possible way to help her. Of course I felt terrible.
One summer I worked for Debbie building a stone wall in front of her Drakes Island home in Wells, Maine. It must have been before my senior year at MECA. I remember arriving in the mornings and her then partner, David Crowley was always frying green peppers. The luscious smells lingered out into the yard mingled with the fresh salt air of the ocean. Each morning Debbie would ask me in, before I got started on the wall to look at her freshly painted canvases.
My ’83 classmate and friend, Tracy Ginn told be about a show she happened to see at MECA during the Portland Art Walk and that Debbie had passed. Yesterday, I had the privilege to visit the show and meet some of the MECA staff. The show is on the second floor at MECA.
As I approached the paintings I was at first disappointed to see them on both walls of a narrow corridor leading to offices. There was very little room to stand back and view the large, bold paintings.
I asked a staff member if it would be ok to photograph the paintings, she disappeared behind a partition and returned with a yes. I was happy to be able to take photos and look forward to sharing them with members of our class of ’83, among others.
As I began to look I was approached by Dietlind Vander Schaff, development officer who was curious about my interest. Soon she shared the circumstances of Debbie’s show which I had not known. Dietlind told me also, that Debbie had helped organize this show.
It took me a while to interpret Debbie’s paintings. They were very complex with letters and words, amino acid chains and double helixes. Except one, all of the paintings had images of people who Debbie was entirely connected to. The one exception was of a home, Debbie’s family home.
Immediately I realized Debbie and I both shared a fascination with DNA. As I looked more the feeling of determination became prevalent. Debbie painted her way to one of the biggest questions of modern science…where have we come from? Layers upon layers of sienna and umber supported the many gestural geometric marks creating spatial relationships interwoven with molecular iconography. I started to feel Debbie’s reach, her resolve, her determination to explore a vast unknown in the convention of organized paint on flat surfaces.
Not being able to stand back and view the paintings became an asset. I thought about Debbie and her long extended family, their many accomplishments and how we all share DNA. I let the paintings take me on a journey, I rid myself of preconceived ideas of what art should be and became dissolved in the solution Debbie painted.
As the staff walked through the narrow hall to their offices I thought how appropriate this viewing space was after all. It is the ivory tower of her alma mater. Dietlind had introduced me to the MECA president, Donald Tuski, Ph.D., whose office was at the end of the corridor. Other administration offices were also at the end of the hallway which opened into a waiting area. In this open space were three of Debbie’s portraits. I couldn’t help thinking of how they all commingled and became one. Of how we all possess atoms that are all the same, I mused, our differences are how we react to our environment, how we live our lives.
Debbie has reached back into the past and painted a connection providing us with sensical explanation of her quest. She has orchestrated her compositions using concise elements which she has a primary and endearing connection to. She has painted her way to glimpses of affirmation.
I regret that I will never be able to speak to Debbie about her paintings. Ultimately, Debbie has left behind what she could not express in words. She has created a vocabulary in paint and organization. Her concepts are revealing and are a testament to how in life she searched. I can imagine her in her studio painting icons in and out, scribing lines and shapes as she pressed for resolve.
Seeing how Debbie expressed her existence has further inspired and re-enforced me to search for my own uniqueness. We are all so different and so alike. We all breath in and out. We don’t all paint on canvas. And very few have explored their identity with the distinction that Debbie has. I feel a kinship to Debbie, she was a searcher in life. I am a searcher as well. We that search never really know what we are looking for but all along the way we find things that are remarkable. Debbie developed an eloquent method of revealing and sharing her unique life through epoch events in the lives of those to whom she was connected, biologically. Way to go Debbie Bates!