Matt Barter leans on a workbench in his Brunswick studio, next to a sculpture in progress. Barter’s work often depicts fishermen and the working waterfront. (Kelli Park photo)
One local artist has made it his mission to show the true grit of Maine fishermen in a way that channels the beauty of their connection to our natural surroundings from the ground up. Seizing every opportunity to immerse himself in the raw elements of the working waterfront, Matt Barter continues to craft his vision — one dimension at a time.
Barter, 47, traces his connection to the working waterfront back to his childhood on Frenchman’s Bay, where he navigated the dichotomy of the lifestyle adopted by his father, Philip, who worked as a fisherman and would eventually become known as one of Maine’s leading regionalist painters.
“Half the time, he was down on the pier with a thick Down East accent talking to fishermen about dragging his boat out … the other half the time, he’d be going to art galleries and museums to talk to collectors,” said Barter, whose father taught him the basics of painting, as well as how to stretch canvases. “It was really interesting to be raised in that lifestyle, shifting between two different worlds.”
“That (lifestyle) got into my blood and flowed into my art very easily,” said Barter.
Barter traveled and lived out West before he found his way back to the coast of Maine with his family. He began sourcing inspiration from Harpswell’s working waterfront more than 10 years ago, when his house-painting business brought him to the area. He has painted Potts Point and Mackerel Cove, and has incorporated objects found at Mackerel Cove into his work.
As an artist, he has developed the ability to conceptualize dimensions in a way that has allowed him to get more comfortable with his craft. In the past, he would create 10 sketches for one painting. Now, he is able to create 10 paintings from one sketch.
“When you spend enough time at your easel or your workbench, you get to the point where you don’t have to second-guess yourself, you just go and do the work,” said Barter, who has been sculpting for 20 years. “It’s a nice place to be. You’re not spinning your gears or wasting your time. That’s the goal — to get through the struggle to the point where you feel like you have your own story.”
Barter’s creative process takes inspiration from traces of the working waterfront that have, in many cases, withstood the test of time. The concept for his upcoming show called “Gear” was sparked by a handmade wooden buoy gifted to him from the collection of a longtime friend and fellow sculptor, Dan West, who lived in Friendship and died in 2021.
“That buoy got me thinking about how anything that floats can be called a buoy. Then I started to think, OK, so I can make buoys shaped like heads, bait gloves — anything that is related to the industry, as long as it floats,” said Barter. “I started to connect them with rope … as this idea of connecting generations of fishermen.”
Barter said that the buoy inspired him to start working in abstract forms, weaving together fishermen and their gear and using figurative elements that resemble hieroglyphs to tell the story with layers of symbolism.
With “Gear,” Barter is delving more deeply into the working waterfront themes that have shaped his work through the past few years by showing the ways in which fishermen and their gear are intrinsically intertwined. He explores the nature of fishermen’s identity in relation to their boat names and buoy colors, as well as the interconnectedness between their ways of living and working.
“Fishermen are brilliant in that they’ve come up with this whole way of doing things on their own. No one told them how to do it,” said Barter. “They’ve created this industry.”
As a largely self-taught artist, Barter can relate in some ways. “You feel your way through the process. There’s no real equation. There’s no A plus B equals C. You make up your own math, your own language. You create your own story.”
Matt Barter looks up at his gallery, The Barter Art House, on Cumberland Street in Brunswick. (Kelli Park photo)
The Barter Art House displays work by Matt Barter and his father, Philip Barter. (Kelli Park photo)
Barter said that his “Down East frugality” follows him wherever he goes as he repurposes humble, accessible materials, including barn beams and bait bags, to create paintings and bricolage sculptures that show the weight of the working waterfront.
“I call it ‘glomming’ things together because that’s what everyone would call it Down East when fishermen would attach one thing to another,” said Barter, who has recently been able to return to his roots with the purchase of a camp next to a lobster pound in Gouldsboro. “They’d glom that thing right on there! Glue it and screw it. It actually means to steal or to grab something and take it in Old English.”
“It takes time to take something as simple as (the buoy) to turn it into a series of works,” said Barter, who has created 30 new pieces in the past six months for the upcoming show about gear. “It takes a lot of sketching and thinking and working out these deeper ideas … I didn’t know which direction it was gonna go in.”
“It’s like the fisherman is part of the boat and part of the gear. … If you’re a fisherman who works on a boat, the boat owns you,” said Barter. “If the boat goes out, you better be on it. That’s the idea behind the ‘Gear’ story.”
In their work, Barter and his father “are telling a story from the viewpoint of someone who’s lived in that lifestyle, worn those oilskins, worn those boots, worked in the bait bin. There’s a reality there,” he said.
Barter translates his creative immersions into a multidimensional experience at his gallery, The Barter Art House, by creating and curating a selection of paintings and sculptures to convey the nuanced beauty of the lifestyle.
“It’s like you’re building not just a piano solo, but a concerto. It’s multifaceted. It’s more complicated. I love the challenge!” said Barter. “I’m always looking for the next thing. … If I keep working, I’m going to keep finding different channels. Some of these ideas fall out of the sky and you pick them up and run with them.”
“It’s like you’re following an imaginary thread and you see where it twists and turns. Sometimes it stops and you have to trace back to find the thread that’s going to lead you to the next big idea.”
“Gear” will open in June at The Barter Art House, 68 Cumberland St., Brunswick. For more information, visit thebarterarthouse.com.
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.