Doug Bane leans on a sculpture of a tiger amid a diverse collection of work in his gallery on Orr’s Island. (KELLI PARK PHOTO)
The strength of the natural elements has come to define the life and work of Orr’s Island artist Doug Bane, who now finds himself evolving with the changing tides in Gun Point Cove. There is little that Bane hasn’t done — from living off the grid to logging with horses to exhibiting his art internationally to farming oysters — and there is nothing that will slow him down.
“Everything is connected. If you build a house, it’s a creative thing. If you create a painting, you’re building something,” said Bane, 75. “Everything that I’ve done, in one way or another, is connected.”
The nature of Bane’s connection within his life and later within his work began in the woods before he was born. He grew up in the forest, among apple orchards, on a mountainous property in Bethel that had been owned by his family since 1750.
Bane spent a lot of time with, and learned a lot from, his grandfather, who spent the last 20 years of his life living in a cabin on the mountain, away from society. Bane continued the tradition by building a log-and-stone house on the same mountain, where he lived without electricity for 10 years with his wife and daughter, before his son was born.
“Living in Maine, you do everything,” said Bane, who, along with his wife of 55 years, has owned and operated different kinds of businesses for most of his adult life. “You have to be able to do everything to survive. I’ve done just about everything under the sun, which is fine, because if I want a house, I can put one up.”
Although Bane first encountered Harpswell during his time as a park ranger at Reid State Park in the 1960s, it would be many years before he returned to the coast to lay down roots. In the meantime, Bane became a Renaissance man. He studied with a European painting conservationist and eventually developed the skills necessary to restore $400,000 paintings for museums, collectors and antique dealers.
His career as an entrepreneur began when, at 22, he opened a store that sold rare books, art and antiques, which preceded an antique business that he owned and operated in Palmyra for almost 20 years. When he wasn’t dealing eclectic antiques with decorators and restoring pieces for clients who were traveling between New York and Bar Harbor, Bane was logging his land with horses, buying truckloads of Indigenous basswood to carve animal sculptures, and building houses.
In the midst of his entrepreneurial pursuits over the years, one thing remained the same. “No matter what I’ve done, I’ve always painted. I always have a painting on the easel,” said Bane, who has painted since he was 17 and is currently working on three paintings. “I used to work all day doing carpentry and I’d paint until after midnight. I’m a great believer in discipline. … I’ll never stop painting.”
Although Bane’s artistic interests are diverse, with wildlife paintings in exhibitions across the U.S. and in Italy, and whimsical sculptures of carousel animals adorning his property on Orr’s Island, his lifelong focus on Native Americans has recently taken on a life of its own.
“It’s a separate thing, but at the same time, it’s connected,” said Bane. “I’ve always had this interest. I grew up in the woods. I was brought up that way.”
In the past six years, Bane has painted 400 portraits of Native Americans from archival photographs as a way of bringing awareness to the culture. The paintings had been exhibited as a celebration at his gallery every year on Indigenous Peoples’ Day prior to the COVID-19 pandemic.
Bane is looking for an organization that will exhibit and auction the paintings in order to donate the profits to the American Indian College Fund. College scholarships are “the only way anyone’s ever going to get ahead,” said Bane, who hopes to call attention to the historical mistreatment of Native Americans in Maine and the U.S.
Bane’s lifelong connection to the land has, in more recent years, undergone a metamorphosis, much like his work as an entrepreneur.
“I never really intended to be sitting here on the coast growing oysters at this time in my life, but here we are. Things happen,” said Bane, who has lived on Orr’s Island since 2006.
In the past, he hosted Second Sunday events at his gallery on Gun Point Cove. At Second Sundays, local artists could display their work and gather with fellow artists and the community. “I’m not afraid to jump into something and try something new. It makes life interesting,” Bane said.
Bane began exploring his connection with the water five years ago as a part-time oyster farmer, hoping to create supplemental income from a cove steeped in a shrouded history of rum runners, smuggling and a house of prostitution. Now, however, the cove caters to a different palate.
“We’re getting a lot of people coming here who used to go to Damariscotta (for oysters). I’m encouraged by the enthusiasm for the oysters here and people coming in and saying, ‘Well, these are better oysters than I’ve had anywhere else,’” said Bane, who has become a full-time oyster farmer with 140,000 oysters, supplying two restaurants and his own retail business, Devil’s Back Oysters. The business’s motto is “Art and Oysters.”
“The flavor is very salty and very sweet at the same time. It’s that perfect brine because it’s open ocean. It makes the flavor that much better,” he said.
Bane has other projects in the works — from building a stone house to possibly resurrecting Second Sundays — but for now, his connection to the water is steadfast.
“I love going out early in the morning, just as it’s getting light. I love rowing out, hauling a bag of oysters, sorting them, watching the sun come up, waving to the lobster boats going by. … You’re built by the tide. You live by the tide,” said Bane. “It’s absolutely beautiful. You can’t ask for a better life.”
Kelli Park, a freelance journalist and English language teacher, has reported for The Working Waterfront, The Times Record, The Coastal Journal and other publications. She lives in Cundy’s Harbor with her son, Kieran.