An artist’s perspective on the real Maine
The coast of Maine is a place of many moods, thanks to the ever-changing dynamic of sea and sky. The coast and its compelling landscapes have captivated numerous artists, but few have looked beyond the beauty to the often-gritty reality underneath. Ann Mohnkern of Yarmouth, Maine, is one of the few.
Mohnkern weaves magic with a brush, and her paintings of surging seas; wild, rocky shores, and foggy mornings immediately evoke Maine. Yet, she goes a step further with her art, reaching beyond the natural beauty to create paintings of subjects that most artists never contemplate. There is the rusty red #4 navigational buoy, critical to boaters and fishermen, yet not seen by many as worthy of note. Or the inside of a fishing shack, not picturesque, but real—cluttered with barrels and drums, buoys and gear, with an old wood-fired stove in the corner. Her three-part series on Portland shows the working side of Custom House Wharf with its pickup trucks and shabby garages, the Casco Bay Bridge in fog, and the South Portland tank farm. Each subject was selected because it helped shape Portland’s history and character.
Getting at “what lies underneath” is a key part of what drives Mohnkern as an artist and what defines her as a painter. Whether it is the workings of a city or the structure of a fishing pier, she wants to know what makes something the way it is. “I may have started out as a marine landscape painter, but I have evolved into a contemporary realist painter,” she says. “I am drawn to all aspects of Maine’s waterfront. This is where I live; I want to record all the pieces of the picture.”
Surprisingly, Mohnkern did not start out as a painter. She was a lawyer and climbed to the top of her profession before walking away in pursuit of art. The artist grew up in Massachusetts near seashores and salt marshes, so a love of the coast was in her blood. In the 1970s, she and her husband moved to Maine and she pursued her law degree. After passing the bar, she worked in private practice, clerked for the Maine Supreme Judicial Court, and then joined Unum, an insurance company, where she rose to the position of assistant general counsel. About 10 years ago, an art class through the Maine College of Art continuing education program changed the course of her life. Suddenly, a new world beckoned.
“The class was called ‘Painting for True-Blue Beginners,’” Mohnkern recalls. “Yet for me, it felt like a beginning in other ways. Having never painted before, I was immediately drawn to art making and took class after class. The more I learned, the more I wanted to know. I realized I had spent 25 years in law and it was time for something else. I wanted to be outside and leave those cubicles behind.”
Although Mohnkern became a painter later in life, she feels that coming to art at this point has made her a better artist. “I already knew who I was as a person and what I wanted from life,” she says. “I knew what I liked and what I didn’t. Being more mature, I feel like I have a sense of my place in the world. I know what I respond to emotionally, and painting is an emotional experience.”
One of Mohnkern’s most famous paintings is of the West Point Lobster Pound in Phippsburg; it has just been accepted for a national exhibition of the American Society of Marine Artists. The painting shows a battered pier with a commercial lobster shack perched precariously on top. The foundation of the pier is a jumble of rough-hewn posts and slats with wracks of seaweed drifting in and out. As Mohnkern painted, she learned everything there was to know about the pier in order to render it accurately. She discovered that the height of the pier had to be just so in order to accommodate changing tides and still allow lobster boats to dock. The rugged pilings were tree timber, not milled logs, because that is how these structures were built 150 years ago—roughly the age of this pier. Just setting them in place was an incredible feat, given that it was done by manual labor.
Mohnkern and her husband also own an island off the coast of Phippsburg, and it is there that they spend much of the summer. Ironically, Mohnkern’s painting time on the island is often limited. “Island time tends to be company time!” she says with a laugh. “We have lots of family and friends visiting in the summer, so I do not get to paint as much as I would like. Much of my painting is done in the studio the rest of the year. But, I do make time to escape now and then to a little beach on our island where I work on my plein air skills.”
Mohnkern notes that plein air painting is not easy; one has to size up the location quickly and paint swiftly before the scene changes. For that reason, she chooses to focus on a cluster of large boulders, which she calls “The Sentinels” for her series of plein air works. The boulders have stood here for eons. Once, they were buried under ancient seas, then ground by glaciers before being thrust up again on the shore of this tiny island. Their shapes have gradually altered under the sea’s relentless power, yet they endure. Within their rocky confines, tide pools form at low tide and marine life flourishes, sheltered by these timeless giants from the earth.
“For ‘The Sentinel’ series, I have worked in palette knife, which I don’t usually do,” the artist says. “I wanted something rougher and a little more raw to convey the power of these rocks. I love them—I love their shapes, the way they change in the light. They have become characters to me with their own personalities. Yes, the subject is the same, but it is always fascinating and the exercise of painting a subject again and again has taught me a lot.”
Although she has achieved much in a short time, Mohnkern considers herself an artist who is still evolving. “For me, my art is always about the process of painting,” she says. “How do I make the paint express the light of sky and water as they constantly change? How do I make colors more real and bring my audience into this world? I’ve been experimenting with increasing depth perception so that as you look at the painting you are seeing further and further into the subject. I’m seeing how far I can push that horizon and still keep it real—not easy with a two-dimensional medium.”
The painter is not sure where her art will take her, but she embraces the journey. “Art is my new career now,” she says. “I feel as excited about embarking on this one as I did when I was a young law student starting out. I can’t wait to get out to my studio and start working. There is a lot to be done, but I find everything energizing. I see possibilities everywhere. Art consumes me. I am in the right place, doing exactly what I am supposed to do.”
Ann Mohnkern’s art is available exclusively at the Susan Maasch Fine Art in Portland, Maine.