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Tom Sullivan at Dana Tillou Gallery

"Mount Desert Runoff" by Tom Sullivan.

All the Ships at Sea

Late August in 1986—in fact it was August 31; I remember because the sculptor Henry Moore had died that day. We were into three days honeymooning on Little Cranberry Island in the Frenchman’s Bay chain off the Maine coast—just two off-islanders in a community of lobstermen where everyone knew we were newlyweds. Taking a break from the connubial while my bride read Melville back in the boathouse flat, I decided to walk the rocky banks surrounding the boundary channel. It was already a cool, brisk, sparkling day on the water, and as I reached a spit of land facing the lee side of the island, a brace of sloops rounded the point, rainbow-striped spinnakers billowing, headed toward Bar Harbor. Prancing high in the four-knot chop, they seemed close enough to touch as both helmsmen, faces beaming, gave me a knowing salute, as if to say: “Right on, brother.”

This is very much the feeling in Tom Sullivan’s excellent series of 30 oil paintings on view at Dana Tillou Gallery. Something in his work gives a sense of being witnessed by a passing ship. Sullivan knows well every boat he paints, from the lake freighter riding a November gale to a day sailer moored in a placid cove. His self-taught skills at painting over the last 30 years match his seamanship, both arts of experience, illustrious and dexterous.

Originally from Western New York, Sullivan has been living and working in Maine for the last 15 years. In the summer he lives on his boat, where his relationship to the water is intimate and immediate, and his knowledge of boats of all kinds has sharpened his accuracy in depicting the complexity of each craft’s scale, shape, and complexity of masts and rigging.

But it is the lustrous depiction of atmosphere—the weather in the chosen time and place—that brings the paintings to their characteristically meditative presence. Sullivan paints disarmingly but he knows the weight of weather, often choosing a red underpainting to hint at a storm that might break the calm respite of soft, seductive skies. Once in a while he comes ashore to paint flowers, trees, and rocks with the same care and clarity given to his watercraft, simplifying their shapes, silhouetted against a mystically atmospheric blue. In these paintings I was transported back to our 10 days on a remote barrier island, as lovers now married, winnowing away the cares of Manhattan, listening to the rhythms of the channel buoys as we spooned like two day sailers moored in a placid cove.

Though the Tillou Gallery rarely holds art openings, the flag at the entrance to the manor house at the corner of Franklin and Virginia Street has beckoned patrons to peruse Fine Art and antiques since 1966. Sullivan’s paintings are on exhibit though November 10

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