Dr. Lisa Belisle:

Hello, I'm Dr. Lisa Belisle. And today you are listening to, or watching, Radio Maine, with me and with artist Allen Bunker. Allen, it's really great to have a chance to actually sit down and talk with you, given that you and I have known each other for quite a few years, and, sometimes the more in depth conversations are harder to have around the art gallery when you're doing an opening and that sort of thing. So thank you for coming in today. 

 

Allen Bunker:

Well, thank you, Dr. Lisa, I really appreciate the opportunity to talk about art. 

 

Dr. Lisa Belisle:

Well, and I love talking about art because it's obviously counter to what I do in my normal everyday work life; my normal practicing medicine world. And you have a similar backstory, you were in construction, you owned your own business and you did this for many, many years. So tell me a little bit about getting into art as a full time career. 

 

Allen Bunker:

Well, construction is very stressful and there are a lot of demands. There's a lot.  You're juggling balls in the air all over the place. And, after a while you feel that, and I was probably in my forties when I really started feeling it, it was cumulative. It just built up and to the point where I was experiencing chest pains. And, it was for no reason, I'm healthy basically.  I don't know how it happened but I got a hold of some watercolor. This painting behind me is the very first painting that I ever did as a watercolor. I did it on Cape Cod. The thing that propelled me to go further was that somebody liked it and that, to me, that's what it's all about. It's probably immature but when somebody tells you that they like your work, there's nothing better than that. 

 

Allen Bunker:

And then when they buy, that's even better. My wife's friend Kathy said, wow, you did that. And I was like, yes, I did that. And it just was exciting to me. So that was in 1991 actually because it says so on the painting. That's how I remember that. And  so I just started painting more and more. And  then whenever we went up to Boothbay Harbor or on Cape Cod and or on vacation, I would bring my paints with me. I was still doing construction. I am still doing construction. But this was a way to escape and I just kept developing it. And then I remember, it was probably 2004, I said to my wife, Priscilla, I want to do this full-time and she was like, oh no.  You know, because that's not good. We were in construction. We had a nice house and everything and she just saw it all crumbling down which is kind of what happened anyways. But I just knew that I was done with construction. I just couldn't do the stress anymore. So we moved to Acton Maine. I had a great studio there and I didn't have any representation but I was learning how to paint and and developing that whole craft.  

 

Allen Bunker:

So then we moved to Boothbay Harbor. We moved into our vacation home and then I said, well, I'm in Boothbay Harbor. And, I had never been to Boothbay Harbor in July or August. We always went in September when the crowds were gone and stuff like that. When we first moved there full-time, there were a million people there, on the sidewalks they were five deep in July and August. I couldn't believe it. And I said, I can do something here. I'm a businessman. I can do something here. So we opened the Allen David gallery and I was selling other people's artwork. Other artists' work, not my own. And then someone said to me, you should put your own art out. So I put a little piece out and a guy from New York came in and  liked it and said he wanted to buy it and said, can you tell me a little about the artist? And I said, well, I'm the artist. And he's like, why didn't you tell me that? So again, that was the coolest thing ever that somebody liked my painting enough to actually want to buy it.

 

Allen Bunker: 

So this was 2008, September of 2008,  and  people had just walked off the cliff with their finances you know. Their 401ks and everything had been cut in half just about. So it was very difficult to sell any art. We thought this can't be happening. All this can’t continue. And a big store opened up in Boothbay Harbor, right on the corner of the Footbridge and it was a great space. So I renovated the whole building out of my own pocket. I didn't own the building but I did it. We had a really cool gallery but it was 2009, 2010. And we just couldn't make enough money to pay the rent, the heat and everything that was involved with it. 

 

Allen Bunker:

So we had to close, probably around 2014, we just couldn't hang on anymore. And then Portland Art Gallery contacted me, it was Art Collector Maine at the time,  and asked if I would like to be an artist in the Gallery at the Grand in Kennebunkport. And it was perfect timing. I was kind of getting out of my own gallery and I needed representation. And so there were about a dozen artists or that were the initial artists at the gallery including Joanne Parent and Bill Crosby.  I don't recall who else. I can't remember the other names.  So I don't know, that’s the long answer, I suppose.

 

Dr. Lisa Belisle: 

Well, sometimes I think it's really important to hear people’s stories of things not working out the way that they wanted to because sometimes it's easy for each of us to believe that maybe we're the only ones who have gone through these really difficult times. And then, when I hear your story, I certainly had my own experience of 2008. It's just a good reminder that, you know, you can, you can do everything right. And all of the possible things you can think of. And if you don't have the economy on your side and there's just bigger things going on, You know, there's an aftermath. 

 

Allen Bunker: 

yes. Right. yes. 

 

Dr. Lisa Belisle: 

So do you think that there'll be almost a parallel for what's going on now with COVID as we're, hopefully coming, we keep all saying we're coming out of COVID so I'm hoping that that's actually true. But, do you think we're gonna have somebody in, you know, 20 years looking back and say, well, this is what happened to me in 2020?

 

Allen Bunker: 

Well, I heard something yesterday about kids wearing masks that are developing their speech patterns by seeing  their teachers' lips and things like that. And they've been lacking there for two years. That's probably gonna come back years from now. Just that's just one example that could come back. I think little things that you don't think about like that as far as the economy, I don't know. I was just telling Kevin, I'm trying to buy a new truck and there's not available. You can't find them. So I don't know. I don't know. I'm not, I'm not an economist at all so I don't know what the answer to that is, 

 

Dr. Lisa Belisle: 

But you are a small business owner and you are a, I would call you a serial entrepreneur and you've undertaken a lot of risk in your life and you've seen kind of downturns and successes. So I think that's the question that I'm asking you really is, do you think people are going to be able to find ways to make this arguably a downturn in our world into something that we can learn from? 

 

Allen Bunker: 

Yes, definitely. But more specifically entrepreneurs are entrepreneurs. I've never, since high school worked for anybody else,  it's not me. I'm not gonna do it. So even if it means sitting at home for, you know, which is the worst thing in the world, but you know, entrepreneurs will find a way and people, some people aren't entrepreneurs and they're going to work for somebody else and they're going to find a way too. They're gonna find a job or whatever they have to do. I don't know that's right enough, but that's kind of how I see it.  I adjusted my entrepreneurial life to fit different economies and things like that. In other words, when things are going great and you have a lot of money and a lot of work, I would hire more people, but now I've cut it down to basically just my brother, myself and my cousin enough that we, you know, we're all older. 

 

Allen Bunker: 

We don't want to work eight hours, five days a week. We're just, we just don't do that anymore. So it works.  We've adjusted to what we have to do, and that gives me more time to paint stuff too, which is good. You know, you need that too. So I'm very happy with my life right now. I don't have a lot of stress and not that, not that having stress is like the worst thing in the world, but if, if you can avoid it has a value. It definitely has a value to avoid, not avoid, but minimize stress if it's too much, I think you have to have enough otherwise you won't get out of bed, but if you have too much, it's just not good. That's my experience. 

 

Dr. Lisa Belisle: 

Yeah. I think what you're describing is really true. I mean, I think if you, if there's not enough of something to kind of push up against and feel challenged by then that stunts your growth. And on the other hand, if you're pushing up against something that's just so heavy that you never feel any forward motion, then that's extremely stunting and disheartening as well. So moving back to your art it sounds like you've always kind of taken the situation, whatever situation you're in and you've figured out a way to make it work. And, and my understanding is that that's similar to the way that you've approached your art is you've figured out what you needed to know in order to be an artist and you've taught yourself really the craft. 

 

Allen Bunker: 

And yes that's true. And, you know, experience is a big thing too, because I know now what I don't want to do. I don't always know how to do what I want to do, but I know what I want to do. And I know what I don't want to do. So that's a big part right there, because I think as you're developing as an artist, I don't know if it's – if you're seeing other work I tend to stay away from that. I tend to not try to emulate other artists. I feel like it's all inside of me and  I need to find out what that is rather than seeing something and trying to say, oh, I want to do that. I know, I feel like I'm kind of off track here, but I dunno if that answers your question. 

 

Dr. Lisa Belisle: 

Well, I think you raise a really important point when you talk about finding something inside of yourself and it's also an incredibly difficult thing to do. I mean, arguably it's easier to listen to what other people are telling you or to see what other people are showing you and model the work that you're doing after theirs. Which certainly has a place, but understanding your own self and understanding where you're coming from and figuring things out, kind of the idea of finding your voice, I think that that's something that many people struggle with. So it, you know, either way you're going to be challenged either to, you're challenging yourself to create exact copies of someone else's pieces or you're challenging yourself to kind of dig deep. Wouldn't you say? 

 

Allen Bunker:

Yes. Yes. Except for, you know I don't like it when artists just copy. Whether it's the landscape that's in front of them or I don't know about portraits, because you're trying to actually make it a likeness of the person. But landscapes, for example,if it's just – I used to paint plein air in Boothbay Harbor with the plein air painters of vein. And  we used to have this joke where people would say like spectators would come by, that'd drive by and comment, stuff like that. And we used to have this joke that if you, if you wanted it to look exactly like what you're seeing, just take a picture, you know, that you don't need a painting for that. Just take a picture, take a photograph. It's gonna be better than anything you can do anyway. So, there's a point where it becomes art. It's not just a copy. And I think that artists need to get to that point. They need to discover what it is gonna make this art and not just a copy, no matter what it is, even if it's a fruit bowl, it shouldn't just be a copy. It should be art. There should be more to it that makes it art, not just a photograph. That's just my opinion. I do feel obviously kind of strong about that though. 

 

Dr. Lisa Belisle:

I mean, that makes sense. If everybody's just copying something that somebody else has done, then really it's ongoing, you know, perpetual iterations of the same. So then there's, it really doesn't show a lot of creativity. I think I was just more referring to the idea of maybe the early learning process where you use you know, models as a way to, to kind of cement technique or you know, kind of think about things like perspective as a kind of a, a launching point, which I think that, that's what I hear often when people are talking to me about this. 

 

Allen Bunker: 

Yes. That's true. Yes. Yes. There's definitely a learning curve. That's definitely you know, techniques and tool rules and things like that. But I'm more philosophically speaking, like philosophically as an artist or a developed artist, this is what you need to get to, in my opinion, it is worth whatever. 

 

Dr. Lisa Belisle: 

Well, I think I agree with you and I've seen this be true really, even in my field. You know, when I first started learning medicine, I was learning the language of medicine and then I kind of began learning the craft of medicine and then, you know, it's successive layers, so that it's kind of the art of communication. It's the art of translating the information back to the patient. It's the art of working with the team. So I mean, I think there are parallels probably across the board and people who really want to get proficient in things that they're doing in their lives. 

 

Allen Bunker: 

Right. Do you think that more successful people are more focused on one particular thing? Like a surgeon would want to be really good at cutting, operating on people better than communicating, like you think of what was that guy House? You know, that show that he was the doctor? He was like a horrible person, but he was a great doctor. So I don't know. Is that better or worse? I don't know. I hear what you're saying though. This is a lot involved with it. I kind of feel like as an artist, I wish that it was just art. I wish that people would just look at my art instead of me and you know, the things that I'm, that I'm not good at or whatever, but it doesn't seem to be the way. And it's probably true about anything in life. 

 

Dr. Lisa Belisle: 

Yes. There's, kind of the thing. And then there's all the stuff around the thing, you know, so yes there's the art itself, but then there's actually connecting with people who want to buy your art. There's, you know, going to gallery and doing things like this with me, which probably are a little bit outside your comfort zone. 

 

Allen Bunker:

Right, right. yes. 

 

Dr. Lisa Belisle: 

So talking about what's in your comfort zone. Tell me about this piece. That's actually behind me in the studio right now. 

 

Allen Bunker: 

Yes. The name of the piece is “Gone to Heaven”. That's what Kevin told me earlier cause he looked at the back because I have a lot of pieces. I can't always remember. I know the name “Gone to Heaven.” I can tell you how I got the name gone to heaven too. I was telling a friend of mine, Carol, that she asked, how do you come up with your names for your paintings? And I said, well, I listen to music all the time when I'm painting, I have to have music on. It's almost like it makes my hand work. And that the name of that painting is from the Pixies. And the name of the song was this Monkey's Gone to Heaven. Do you remember that song? 

 

Allen Bunker:

No, it's a great song. And I always thought it had to do with medical experiments, like a monkey, you know, was a test monkey, which is horrible, but that's what I always, so anyways. I catch on that little bit of the name, gone to heaven. That's a cool name for a painting. So that's how I named that painting.  As far as the painting itself, that painting is right there in the experimental mode, what am I experimenting with technique and I can't see the whole painting. I don't know if your audience can or not, but this dripping in the clouds and things like that. And you know, that a lot of my work is trying different ideas and different ways of applying the paint.  I was telling somebody at the opening last night, they were, there was Cooper Dragonette.

 

Allen Bunker: 

Who was saying, ``Do you use  a knife or a brush?” And I get that a lot. Because the thing is I use both and I've said to him sometimes I'll take a piece of cellophane or plastic wrap from the gallery, from the canvas when I open it and I'll just crinkle it up and use that as a brush. So whatever, the tools are, are not that important. I've felt that way in construction too, a tool is just something that will get the job done. Some people are very particular about their tools like, this is the right tool for the right job. I've never been like that. Whatever works, that's just my opinion about it. But, so, I use whatever is at hand to actually create the paintings as long as I can get enough interesting, you know, variation and texture and things like that. 

 

Dr. Lisa Belisle: 

Do you have a sense into the people who like your art and who buy your art? And I know that you've been really very successful at having developed a following. Do you have a sense for what it is that people find attractive about your art? What is it that's, that's drawing them to the work that you do? 

 

Allen Bunker:

I used to, I don't do it so much anymore. I used to think it was the simplicity. I mean, well, when I had my own gallery, I would interact with the artists much more. I mean the buyers much more than I do now. So I used to, you know, I could kind of tell what they were buying, but that's another, that's a mystery to me because the paintings that I feel are the best paintings I ever did. How can this even last a day in the gallery, those are the ones, you know, they don't always sell and I get 'em back and the, and then some will sell that I don't understand, you know, I didn't think it was that good of a painting. But it was too different, which is what I'm kind of going for. So I guess I don't really know what exactly people see in my work except for maybe what I see in it. And you know, that there is that, I feel like if someone buys my painting, they're getting me, they understand what I was trying to do and they appreciate it and they connect with it and that's all good. So 

 

Allen Bunker: 

I don't know if that answers your question. 

 

Dr. Lisa Belisle:

Well, I think it does and I, it's interesting because I will talk to some artists and they will have a sense of what sells and they'll paint to what sells. And then I talk to someone like you who says, well, I'm not really sure. So if you're not really sure, then it means you don't have to paint to what sells you, you paint. And then that gives other people the opportunity to respond. And it does.  I mean it's a little bit of a leap of faith. I would imagine that you're engaging in as you're creating the work that you're doing. 

 

Allen Bunker:

Yes. Yes, it is, but I'm not trying well, I shouldn't say that because there's always the pressure to sell. There's always the pressure to please somebody else, let's say, but I’m better. I'm more true to myself and better if I'm not thinking that way at all. And I'm just trying to create the best piece that I can. And that's more true. I do that more, obviously more than trying to paint to the crowd or to the buyer. But yes, it's so much experimenting with me because I get bored. I don't know how to describe it, but I have to, I paint very quickly, and I have to get the idea or the feeling that I'm trying to get. It has to come quickly. It has to be there or it's never gonna be there. You know? So I don't know. 

 

Dr. Lisa Belisle: 

Well, it's, it's interesting because you're, you've had the opportunity to understand what you need to do in order to be a good business person. I mean, you’ve been self-employed your whole life. So you know that you need to kind of keep the lights on and pay the bills and you know, you have to keep those things in consideration, but then you're also aware as an artist of that, that counterbalance, that doing the work that you do, it seems to contribute to more of a balance for you. It seems like doing too much on the one side caused a lot of stress for you. So doing it this way has brought you back into a sense of well, as I said, balance, 

 

Allen Bunker: 

Yes I think, I think that's true. I have a friend, an artist friend of mine years ago said when we owned the gallery and they had to get their own gallery and I was struggling with something, whether I should do this particular thing or not, I forget what it was now, but she said just do it because every everyone else is doing the same thing. Like everyone, people come into the gallery and they've already seen a lot of stuff. So do something different. And it's the same with paint – the same with painting. If it's, if it's different, it's probably gonna be good because no one else has seen it. You know? Which is actually one of the things I really like about painting is that each piece is unique. There's no two pieces that are the same. And to me, that's, I get a kick out of that. It's not just that. I mean, and actually, that's kind of funny to say that because a lot of my paintings look to me, they look exactly the same, but I know that they are not 

 

Dr. Lisa Belisle: 

Alan, did you know when you were growing up that you had an interest in art? 

 

Allen Bunker: 

Well, I've been drawing every day in my life. I draw, you know, I always have graph paper. It's always graph paper type stuff though. It's not like landscapes and things like that. Isn't that funny. But all day, every day I'm drawing, you know, every time I sit in my chair or whatever I'm drawing and I've done that since I was a kid too. And art is in my family, my two aunts were wonderful artists, Dotty May and Laurel Bunker were fabulous artists. And they're both gone now, but they were big inspirations to me and other things too, other artists too, that I saw. And I'm like, wow, if I could do that. And, I kind of forgot your questions. 

 

Dr. Lisa Belisle: 

Well, I think you've answered it. You talked about even when you were younger, just always having, I guess, a graph paper in front of you and, and be working on drawings and yes. I'm assuming that this lent itself well to the work that you do in construction, then 

 

Allen Bunker: 

Yes. yes. That's, that's true. I'm always designing and people say, well, how is construction and art related? How are they, how are they related? And to me, they're exactly related because when I'm even designing a kitchen or a layout for a floor plan or bookcases or anything that has to be designed, there are a lot of decisions to make. And with a painting, it's the same way. There's decisions upon decisions. They have to be done quickly, you know, but there's, they're all decisions like: do I do this? What do I do here? What here? And that's the same thing with construction, I think anyway even if I don't do the design work, I still have to build the thing that someone else has designed. And it's all decisions. It's all small little decisions. And sometimes you know, the same with the painting, they have to be made quickly and they have to be sometimes made in advance. And then sometimes same with painting and in construction. A lot of times the decisions are made as it's happening. And that's not always a bad thing, but sometimes it is a bad thing and they should be made beforehand. So it's, it's this balance between planning and spontaneity that make them both work, whether it's construction or painting. 

 

Dr. Lisa Belisle: 

And in your family, were your parents business people? I mean, you know, you have this very specific approach to having lived your life professionally and personally, did this come from somewhere so that you felt like, oh, I can do this. I can be the one who makes the decisions. 

 

Allen Bunker: 

Yes. I have four uncles and three on my mother's side and three of them are masons and two of them were self-employed masons. And I looked at, when I was a teenager, I looked at their lives and I said, Hmm, the ones that are self-employed, they seem to have bigger houses and newer trucks and things like that. So that kind of made it easy for me to say, oh, that's what I want to do. You know, I want to have the bigger truck in the newer house. So that was easy. No, my parents were not business minded per se. And actually my father worked for me for 15 years when he basically got laid off. He had a factory job his whole life and he got laid off and he worked for me for many years. So, which was great because I worked with my dad every day for probably the last, you know, 15 years of his life. And that was, you know, I didn't realize it at the time, but that was really special. And I've worked with my brothers. Two of my brothers worked for me for many years and one of 'em still does. And you wouldn't get that. You don't get that. Right. But that's been great. And I really do appreciate that. 

 

Dr. Lisa Belisle: 

And so it sounds like one of the things you really value about the life that you've created for yourself is that, that you have created it, that you've made a series of very conscious decisions, whether it's related to your business or where you're living with Priscilla, or, you know, employing or family, or taking on art. And, and this is self-directed, this is something that you have done for you. 

 

Allen Bunker:

Well, yes, that's probably true. Yes. You make decisions. I feel like you know, man makes his plans, but the Lord directs his paths. That's my kind of philosophy. I make decisions. Yes. But you don't have any real control over that. That's not really your job. It's not your job to be perfectly safe and secure and everything like that. I just don't think that is your job, to go and do, and make decisions and, you know, not agonize over it just, you know, that's another thing that is a pet peeve of my own. People kind of ask: should I have done this? Should I have done that? Just do it. Someone said how do I know that it was God's will that I married my wife and the guy said, well, she said yes. You know, so I don't know. 

 

Dr. Lisa Belisle:

Well, I really appreciated the opportunity to talk with you today. And I think you know, my father is also in medicine. We haven't really worked together closely, but, you know, I did some of my initial training with him in family medicine. And I absolutely agree with you. There's really nothing more special than that. And I've always also valued that time with him. So there are things that I can relate to. And what you're saying, even though what you do and what I do on the face are very different. So I appreciate your time.

 

Allen Bunker:

I appreciate the opportunity Dr. Lisa, I really do. And I hope that I wasn't too boring for you. 

 

Dr. Lisa Belisle:

I enjoyed our conversation and I do wanna point out for anybody who is a regular listener that this is not an easy thing for people to do. I mean, I suspect you have not done that many recordings and probably most of them before the art gallery. So for you, this is really something that you have only done at request, and we really appreciate it because I think getting the chance to know you this way is special. So, thank you for your willingness to do things that are a little bit uncomfortable with us today. 

 

Allen Bunker:

Well, thank you. And thank Kevin for persisting. 

 

Dr. Lisa Belisle: 

I'm Dr. Lisa Belisle, and you have been listening to or watching Radio Maine, and my conversation with artist Allen bunker, who is at the Portland Art Gallery. I encourage you to go to the Portland Art Gallery and see some of his work. It is just stunning in person.  It's equally wonderful to look at on the website, and there are many examples of his work there. Allen, thank you for being with me today. 

 

Allen Bunker: 

Thank you, Dr. Lisa. I appreciate it.