A new exhibit is looking back at the work of Forrest Orr, an Ash Point painter and woodcarver known for his watercolors of Harpswell scenes.
David Hackett, president of the Harpswell Historical Society, is the curator of “Forrest Orr: A Retrospective,” now open at the society’s museum in Harpswell Center. The exhibit opened with a reception on Saturday, Aug. 12, and will run through Sunday, Sept. 3.
“I would say he was of the place,” Hackett said of Orr. The boats, docks and landscapes in his paintings are not unique subject material for a painter in coastal Maine. But something about his work sets it apart.
“He is about as Harpswell a guy as you can get,” Hackett added. “There’s a certain feeling you get when you look at his work.”
John Forrest Faulkner is Orr’s grandson. “He wasn’t one of these fine detailists,” Faulkner said of his grandfather. “He was someone who could capture the moment in simple but bold strokes.”
Orr lived from 1896-1972. He painted in the style of the American realism movement, with its focus on everyday life, according to Faulkner. An art historian might see influences of two elder contemporaries who also painted Maine: N.C. Wyeth and Rockwell Kent.
Many of Orr’s paintings depict Harpswell. In the Historical Society show, these include paintings of men at work on a wharf at Ash Point, the pulpit of the historic meetinghouse at Harpswell Center, a crowd admiring a tuna at Ash Point, and the lighthouse at Halfway Rock.
Faulkner’s favorites from the show include a painting of a construction site in Boston, which “captures a feeling of an era, postwar growth and change”; another of a rowboat in moonlight, which he views as a “statement about nearing the end of one’s life”; and a depiction of a local legend, “The Witch of Harpswell,” which conveys “a feeling of a moment.”
The painting shows a group of women in Colonial garb carrying a casket through woods. “The Witch of Harpswell,” as written by Alice Johnson Lamar, concerns Hannah Stover, a Harpswell Neck woman accused of witchcraft in the early days of European settlement.
Stover’s chief faults seem to have been that she was a Quaker and didn’t get along with her brother-in-law. The women of the settlement sought to bury her in the cemetery, in defiance of the men in their patriarchal community, leading to a confrontation.
Eventually, the women and a few men, including Stover’s widower and a priest, overcame the objections and buried her in the cemetery. Johnson Lamar described the story as a legend passed down through generations, but wrote that it was “said to be based on facts.”
Orr may have felt a connection to those settlers. He was a descendant of a family that arrived in the 1700s and gave Orr’s Island its name, according to Hackett.
An excerpt from the 1965 book “Maine Through the Eyes of Her Artists” on display at the museum says Orr was born in West Harpswell and attended Portland schools.
On Saturday mornings, Orr would draw at the Portland School of Fine Arts. Later, he attended classes at the Art Students League in New York. He was an illustrator for books and magazines, including Boys’ Life.
His pen-and-ink illustrations for books ranging from fiction to textbooks were an important source of income early in his career, according to Faulkner.
Later, Orr had solo shows in Boston and Portland, as well as Bates College in Lewiston, according to “Maine Through the Eyes of Her Artists.” His work appeared in three American Watercolor Society traveling exhibitions.
Today, Orr paintings are in the collections of the Boston Museum of Fine Arts, Rockland’s Farnsworth Art Museum, and the University of Maine’s Zillman Art Museum. In the 1950s, Orr was commissioned to paint Boston’s historic Old North Church and his painting was presented to President Dwight Eisenhower, according to Faulkner.
Faulkner grew up in Aroostook County, but the family spent summers with his grandparents at Ash Point. Orr’s studio was on the second floor above their seasonal camp. Faulkner would often watch “Grampie” work, and there was no shortage of opportunities.
“He was always working his craft and he just seemed to be at home doing that,” Faulkner said. “It was a natural thing for him to draw or to paint.”
He would draw neighbors and relatives, in the moment or from memory. “He could capture people with just a few strokes of the pencil,” Faulkner said.
Orr’s Ash Point home later left the family and has since been torn down, Faulkner said.
The Historical Society previously hosted an exhibit of Orr’s work in 2008. There was a strong turnout then, and Hackett was not surprised to have about 50 people at the opening this time, including Faulkner and his two brothers. Orr was “a very well-liked man here in town,” Hackett said.
The society owns two of the roughly 20 pieces in the exhibit, while the rest are on loan from several collections. Hackett keeps the exhibits short because the pieces’ owners don’t want to part with them for long.
“Anybody who has a Forrest Orr knows somebody who has a Forrest Orr who knows somebody who has a Forrest Orr, and they treasure them,” he said.
Orr’s work may not command astronomical prices, but Hackett called them “priceless” as objects of nostalgia. To Harpswellians of a certain age, “this is the greatest stuff in the world,” he said.
The Harpswell Historical Society Museum, 929 Harpswell Neck Road, Harpswell, is open from 2-4 p.m. on Sundays. To arrange another time to see the exhibit, call Hackett at 207-833-6322.