Martha Truscott and her dogs at home near the New Meadows River in Harpswell. (Kelli Park photo)
Landscape painting has taken on new meaning in the hands of local artist Martha Truscott, who leans into the darkness while shaping the light with an ethereal cast that reminds the viewer that less is more on the coast of Maine.
“A lot of times, I just start,” said Truscott, who relies on an organic process to achieve the desired effect in her work. “I don’t even think about what I’m doing. … Sometimes you stop when it feels raw and natural, and you’re not overthinking and overdoing it.”
Truscott’s evolving connection with nature began during her childhood, when she spent endless hours in the woods along a brook next to her family home in Kennebunk. She began drawing still lifes to supplement the monthly art classes that were common during what she called the “Sputnik era,” when the K-12 emphasis was on math and science. From there, Truscott pursued her interest in special education at the University of Maine at Farmington, only to find herself spending most of her time in art studios, printmaking and silk-screening.
After starting a family, Truscott pursued her interest in the arts at the University of Southern Maine, where she majored in art education with a minor in special education. For a number of years, she taught middle school and high school art and theater arts in the Auburn area, while participating in artist residencies through the Maine Arts Commission and L/A Arts.
During this time, Truscott raised her four children to cultivate their individual creativity into their adulthood. Each of her children is involved in the arts in some way, from the visual arts to architecture to singing and songwriting.
Following a series of life changes, Truscott left her position at Spurwink Services, a nonprofit that provides behavioral health and education services, to pursue a new opportunity at Spindleworks, of Brunswick, a nonprofit art center for adults with disabilities. Her new job led her to discover Harpswell in 2010.
“When I saw this house, I was like, ‘I’m here!'” said Truscott, who immediately fell in love with an Arts and Crafts-style cottage built by Maine architect Rob Whitten in the woods along the New Meadows River. “I’m living in a treehouse!”
Since finding her way to Harpswell, Truscott has divided her time between pursuing her own craft as an artist and supporting approximately 40 artists at Spindleworks in a mentorship position. She encourages her mentees to center their voices as artists through the medium of their choice, which can include fiber arts, theater and improvisation, mixed media, painting and printmaking.
“From five minutes to an hour there (at Spindleworks), it’s never the same! It’s like a big family,” said Truscott, who is currently running a weekly improv theater workshop. “It’s pretty wild!”
With time, Truscott has found that she is not just drawn to wild improv sessions, but also to the wild spirit of her surroundings on the coast. She has noticed a shift in her work toward the abstract while living and working in Harpswell, which has driven her to develop a style similar to that of Mark Rothko’s field paintings.
“When I go to any museum, I’m like, ‘I gotta find him!’ You get swallowed up. The color pulls you in,” said Truscott, in reference to Rothko. “I just enjoy using color in atmospheric settings that aren’t really defined as landscapes, but, because they have this horizontal aspect to them, they’re like landscapes.”
“If something catches my eye, like the light, I’m there and I’m soaking it in. I’m studying it,” said Truscott, who often finds herself making mental and written notes about specific colors needed to depict passing scenes. “When I’m going by in the car, I catch the blur of the colors out of the corner of my eye with that motion behind it. I smudge and pull that color out and call it that. I’ve done a fair amount of work that is on the blurry side for that reason.”
A notebook of Martha Truscott’s ink paintings lies open on a table in her home studio near the New Meadows River. (Kelli Park photo)
Like the light that Truscott is always chasing, the processes that define her art are fleeting. She facilitates her creativity by stepping back and allowing nature to take its course.
“Light shifts all the time, so you have to catch it,” said Truscott, who realizes her vision with painting, pastels, drawing, wood, paper, and birch panels. “I like the atmosphere. I like to spatter and do washes in the background. I let it flow. I don’t think about it; it just happens.”
Truscott knows no limits when it comes to artistic expression and often finds herself mixing media to hone her vision in response to the interplay of natural elements in her pieces.
In one of her Rothko-inspired depictions of blueberry barrens, she mixed pumice, beach sand, cold wax medium, and oil paint in layers to achieve the smoldering reds of the barrens at dusk.
In her current series, Truscott trusts acrylic ink and charcoal to absorb into wood panels in a way that reveals the likeness of wood grain to tidal waters. She builds up the layers and scrapes texture into the dark, smoky scenes.
More recently, Truscott has diversified her working relationship with natural elements while returning to her roots in political street theater. She is rust-dyeing the American flag and experimenting with deconstructive techniques that involve stenciling and printmaking. The new work uses the flag as a landscape to make a political statement about capitalism, the mistreatment of Indigenous peoples, racism, and gun violence.
Only time will tell how Truscott’s work continues to take shape as it evolves in response to her surroundings. “I don’t know where it’s all taking me,” said Truscott.
But she knows when to work. “When the light hits, it’s like, ‘OK, quick!'”
Freelance journalist Kelli Park has contributed to The Times Record, The Working Waterfront, Edible Maine and The Coastal Journal. A part-time college instructor and teacher of English to speakers of other languages, she lives in Cundy’s Harbor with her son, Kieran.