Radio Maine Episode 4

Jane Dahmen: Art, Birches and Alzheimer's

Host, Dr. Lisa Belisle, connects with artist Jane Dahmen in her Newcastle, Maine home for Episode 4 of Radio Maine. Jane has created a well-established art practice over the course of 50+ years. She was first introduced to Maine as a student at Colby College in Waterville and, after vacationing here for several years, moved to Newcastle full time with her husband, Joe, in 2005. Jane talks about overcoming challenges, including Joe's diagnosis and eventual death due to Alzheimer's disease, by looking inward to find answers. Jane also speaks about her passion for interviewing artists and curators at her popular "Talking Art in Maine" series in Damariscotta, Maine. She's led conversations with artists Alex Katz, Lois Dodd, Katherine Bradford, Eric Hopkins, Michel Droge, and many others, as well as museum luminaries such as Sharon Corwin, Suzette McAvoy and Mark Bessire.

Dr. Lisa Belisle: 

Hello, this is Dr. Lisa Belisle and you are listening to the fourth episode of Radio Maine recording from my home on Littlejohn Island and also from artist Jane Dahmen's home in Newcastle, Maine. Jane, it’s really great to be able to have this virtual conversation with you.

Jane Dahmen: 

I'm really glad to be here

Dr. Lisa Belisle: 

Now, Jane, you're usually the one who is hosting because you've had for many years, a hosting gig, which is somewhat separate from your artist gig, but related, just up the road from where you live. Tell me a little bit about that.

Jane Dahmen: 

Well, every year, except for this past year, for which we've been closed down, but we invite four curators or artists from Maine who've contributed a substantial amount to the arts in Maine and they come to the Lincoln Theater in Damariscotta and we have a conversation on the stage. We've met some very interesting artists in front of a live audience.

Dr. Lisa Belisle: 

Well, that sounds like a lot of fun. Who are some of your favorites from that group so far?

Jane Dahmen: 

Well, they're all really interesting people. I don't really have favorites, but people you might recognize are Alex Katz, Kane, Henry Isaacs, and Dan Kany came Katherine Bradford, Eric Hopkins, Lois Dodd, Michael Droge, Barbara Sullivan. I could go on and on, William Wegman, who came with his dogs, sculptor, John Bisbee, came and we had curators like Mark Bessire of the Portland Art Museum, Sharon Corwin, who was at the Colby Art Museum. She's gone now, and the Bowdoin Art Museum curator plus Suzette McAvoy from the CMCA.

Dr. Lisa Belisle: 

That's really an all-star group of individuals that you've had the chance to interview.

Jane Dahmen: 

Right? And it was so funny because when I first called people, they all answered their own phones. It was like a small town and they were all very agreeable to come.

Dr. Lisa Belisle: 

Now, this is a different approach to sharing art than what most artists are used to, because it seems to be somewhat of a solitary pursuit. Usually getting up in front of a group of people may be something that's beyond some individual's comfort level. Is that a fair statement?

Jane Dahmen: 

It's a fair statement. Do you mean that the guests that I have, or are you talking about me?

Dr. Lisa Belisle: 

Well, either one really cause you fall in the same category, you're an artist and you also are getting up in front of a group of people.

Jane Dahmen: 

Well, when I first moved to Maine in 2004, I tried to have artists lectures cause I was on the board of the art association in Damariscotta and we invited people to come, but you know, a lot of artists don't like to give a lecture. They much rather have a conversation. And I love reading about other artists I've I majored in art history in college and I'm just fascinated by other people who paint or who are curators. So it works for both of us.

Dr. Lisa Belisle: 

Oh, and what is it about reading about other artists? That's so interesting. Is it their biographies or is it their methods? What is it that keeps you coming back for those stories?

Jane Dahmen: 

Well, all those things, I learned from reading about other artists and some of the pitfalls they've overcome some of the challenges. Most artists who really make a name for themselves have been through some pretty serious criticisms or problems and they've overcome them and it's the resilience and the fact that they never give up. It's so encouraging to everybody. Plus I like to learn about their methods, their process, the kinds of paint they use, where they get their ideas and all that.

Dr. Lisa Belisle: 

And you're no stranger to having to overcome challenges yourself and also be resilient. You've had quite a lot going on in the last few years.

Jane Dahmen: 

Well, my husband died in 2018, which was a shock to my system for sure. And I didn't paint for a year. The lockdown actually happened about eight months after he died. And it was the first time I've ever been alone, alone in my home. And it was a good time to grieve. Really. I was able to really go inward and come out the other side. Even though I couldn't paint for about a year, I'd go into my studio and I would walk around and think, okay, I'm not going to be able to paint today. And I finally started painting by looking out at what I was looking at as I sat in the morning and drank my coffee. So I paint my mug of coffee and looking out at the kitchen or having a drink at night by myself, I'd show my feet and my living room and my glass of wine or in front of the news TV with my slippers on that sort of thing.

Dr. Lisa Belisle: 

Now this is a little bit of a departure from the types of work that you have painted before. You're very well known for your birches of various colors and your landscapes and seascapes. We have a seascape behind me is Maine oriented, correct?

Jane Dahmen: 

Correct. I'm still doing those, but I somehow I got back into painting by painting what I was living through.

Dr. Lisa Belisle: 

So also behind me in really bright, beautiful, pinks is part of your series called sequestered. And it's not a landscape, it's not a seascape. It's a woman on a chair. Tell me about the sequestered series and this particular painting that's behind me.

Jane Dahmen: 

Well after I painted the paintings of myself from my looking out, I decided to paint some figures. I had never done that. So I went and had my daughter pose for me, but she's working all the time. So she couldn't do it forever. So I then hired a young model who came over and I would set her up and I painted a few paintings of her. But now I'm back to painting landscapes.

Dr. Lisa Belisle: 

You tend to be inspired by things that you actually see. So this landscape that's behind me, which is very much a well-known kind of Jane Dahmen set of colors with the blues and the greens. Where is this one behind me from?

Jane Dahmen: 

Oh, that's not a specific place. I rarely ever paint one place that you would recognize, but it's an amalgamation of my feelings about Maine and where I've been. And we sailed up here for years. And now that we're not sailing, I'm walking all around the conservation lands and I get these images in my head.

Dr. Lisa Belisle: 

So you originally are from Massachusetts, correct? 

Jane Dahmen: 

Correct. 

Dr. Lisa Belisle: 

How did you find your way up to Maine?

Jane Dahmen: 

Well, I went to Colby College and I used to sketch from my dorm room window. And when we went on Colby Outdoor Orientation Trips and canoe trips and so forth, I just was fascinated by the landscape. And while I was at Colby, it was a very small museum. Then now it's the biggest one in the state. But at that time they had some wonderful Marsden Hartley paintings, which were raw and strong and, oh just gorgeous. I got hooked on that, looking at those and also paintings by John Marin, both of whom took their own vision of Maine. And, I just thought, boy, I would love to paint Maine.

Dr. Lisa Belisle: 

Maine's really been inspiring artists for actually centuries probably before, even longer than that, but at least artists that we are familiar with. What is it specifically about Maine that you think draws out that creative spirit?

Jane Dahmen: 

Well, I've thought a lot about that. I think it's, first of all, the air is crystal clear and I'm not sure it's whether it's because there's not a lot of big cities in Maine, so there's not a lot of pollution, but the air is very clean. And when I look out at night, I can see the stars much better than any other place I've been. And then of course, when we were sailing, I used to sketch from the boat because the, the blue blue water and the white sails and the green, those evergreens and the rocks, oh my gosh, it's just to die for it. So beautiful. And I think that the coastline and the clean air and is probably what has drawn people, plus the lifestyle. It's very different from any place I've lived in or traveled. It's it's like a small town, the whole state. And I love that.

Dr. Lisa Belisle: 

I'm looking behind you and seeing some of these birches that you're very well known for. They're gorgeous. They are also from what I understand, talking to other artists, and I have to admit, as I've admitted to you previously, I am not myself an artist, but I've been told that trees are very difficult to paint. And here you are painting trees, which I find fascinating. What is it about the birches that has appealed to you so much?

Jane Dahmen: 

Oh gosh. Ever since I was, maybe before I went to college, I was in love with birches. Just the fact that they are so white and they're such a contrast from the green around them. I like their resiliency. They bend over in a storm and they snap right back. They're beautiful. Beautiful. The color, that beautiful green, yellow, green chartreuse in the spring, those little leaves. And it's just one beautiful tree and I've always loved the black markings on it too, because it's such a contrast from any other tree. It's a very spiritual tree. I've read quite a bit about them and they thought of as a spiritual tree and a lot of cultures of renewal rebirth, that kind of thing.

Dr. Lisa Belisle: 

I know in traditional Chinese medicine and acupuncture, the wood is one of the elements and trees are a symbol of strength, but also flexibility. So it's interesting that you talk about that because when people will have an imbalance of the liver, that's a wood element in traditional Chinese medicine. And so we need to keep the liver strong, but also flexible, able to kind of process everything. So it's exactly what you're describing. It's what's going on within the human body reflected outside in nature. Do you feel like you do to have that resiliency in your own life?

Jane Dahmen: 

I certainly strive to, and I remain pretty happy, so I think it's probably due in large part because I have a studio in my home I can paint. And when we had this lockdown, unlike some artists who couldn't get to their studios cause they were locked down, I was able to paint. I feel very lucky and fortunate and I've been fortunate to have a wonderful family who've been supportive. So that all helps with resiliency I think.

Dr. Lisa Belisle: 

I did notice that when we visited you and your husband before he passed away that you were very good about working with him kind of wherever he was coming from. And I know that his was not an easy illness to have happened for you and for your family, but you kind of rolled with it. You were flexible with him. You were always very loving to my observations and that's not always easy. It's not always easy to be a caregiver, who's able to kind of take the person who is being challenged by health issues, and understand where they're coming from.

Jane Dahmen: 

Well, he was always very supportive of my art and he helped me a lot with many things. So I felt that it was my turn to help him really and he was so good natured even throughout. He had Alzheimer's and he just was pretty agreeable throughout the whole time. So I can't complain because I know many other different situations. And so, yeah, it wasn't, it wasn't as bad as it could have been.

Dr. Lisa Belisle: 

Do you think, and I guess I'm asking you to kind of climb inside his mind, but from what you told me, he was just a brilliant individual. He was so sharp and towards the end, obviously with Alzheimer's, that's not as much the case. Do you think that he ever felt the loss of that sharpness? Or did you ever notice this in him?

Jane Dahmen: 

Well, sure. In the very beginning he kept saying things like there's something wrong with my memory. So I said, let's go and have it tested. And I thought it would be devastating to him, but you know, he accepted it like everything else in life. It just seemed to be something, there was nothing he could do about it. And I think his whole life, he felt that way about things. He had no control over. Oh, he could be very difficult if he wanted to have some control over some things. I mean, he was very smart and very creative, very unusual person, but he could be difficult. I'll admit it. He would be the first to admit it, but he totally was accepting of anything that he couldn't change. So that was something I learned from him, don't try and fight things. You don't have a chance, you know, if it's health or weather or age or anything like that, don't fight it. You can't, it's whole, you know, it's folly, just go with it and fight the things that you have a chance of winning.

Dr. Lisa Belisle: 

That's a great point. And yes, something that I think is hard for, especially people who don't have as much life experience behind them struggled to do. Sometimes I think all of us feel like we should be able to change things. And it's hard to have that kind of acceptance, that's a very different sort of strength that's required to do that.

Jane Dahmen: 

Right? I think so. I think I learned it from him. He had it suppose because he lived all over the world when he was growing up. So he had to have some kind of self sufficient ability to get along on his own.

Dr. Lisa Belisle: 

I'm going to show you this painting. I'm going to see if I can hold this up, not too awkwardly. The reason I love it, and I'm going to describe it a little bit for people who are listening and not watching is that this is a painting that our family has lived with for more than a decade. Now this is one of your paintings. This is one that our family owns and it's been on my meditation room wall. It's been on our hallway and it's really one that we've come to live with and kind of have as part of our family. And that's really what I think one of the beauties of art is a living thing that becomes part of our internal family landscape. Do you have art like that in your own home art that you've lived with over decades that has inspired you and nurtured you?

Jane Dahmen: 

Well I have a lot of paintings that I have not sold of my own on my walls, but I get used to them. I have paintings from other artists that are friends who I like to look at and inspire me. I'm glad to see that painting again. I haven't seen it for years. That was Borestone Mountain, yes?

Dr. Lisa Belisle: 

Yes, Borestone Mountain. And it's a little different than some of the ones that I've seen of yours. I mean, there's a beautiful mountain peak, but there's also a really creative looking pond and clouds with reflections in the pond itself. But again, all the gorgeous blues and greens, but a little bit more subtle than the blues ingredients that I see in the in the landscape or seascape that's that is behind me in the studio. Do you find that you've experimented with color over time? Is that something that you've done different things with as years have gone on?

Jane Dahmen: 

Sure. I think so. I don't know that it's been, I guess the way to put it is I always go into my studio and trying to make the best painting I can. So I'm not sure I've actually focused on changing color, but I do love color.

Dr. Lisa Belisle: 

Well I've been impressed. There was one set of birches that I really loved. And you have a small painting of birches behind you, but you're known for your very large paintings of birches. And the one that I particularly enjoyed at the Portland Art Gallery was bright pink. It wasn't the blues, it wasn't the greens, it was pink and it was white and it was vivid and it was colorful. And I thought, Oh my gosh, I need a big wall to put that on because it really just appealed to me. You know, it just made my heart so happy. But it took someone like you to be able to step outside of what a landscape or a seascape normally looks like to say, oh, these can be pink.

Jane Dahmen: 

Well, anything goes in art. There are no rules. If you hear a rule, you should break it. That's my feeling. Yeah, I think probably the paintings that I admire the most that other artists make are things that are coming from deep inside them. And they might not make sense really, but they have a certain integrity because they really show something that has come from an inner voice that artist is expressing.

Dr. Lisa Belisle: 

Now you've talked about Marsden Hartley, and I've seen some of his work actually. He's really very well known outside of Maine. You know, he's internationally known and he has work hanging in New York and other metropolises, but he's also an example of an individual who I think struggled with his own ways of expressing himself and needed to go really deep to understand himself at a time where there was a lot of prejudice,

Jane Dahmen: 

Right. Well, he was gay at a time when gay people were not accepted at all. And he didn't paint like everybody else. He had a very unique vision. He went off to Germany and he painted a lot of German paintings that were inspired by the German military, I think. And then he came back and he painted the most beautiful and intense and handsome paintings of the coast of Maine that had a lot of strength. And they are just handsome paintings, but I think he did suffer. I know he did. He was a poet as well. And most artists are pretty sensitive. I noticed when we do the talks at the Lincoln theater, the more personal the guests are and tell us about either their depression or their overcoming the death of a child, which is unthinkable or some other unspeakable things. The audience responds because the audience is full of people who are also artists, not all of them, but a lot of them, and they are very sensitive. So they've all been through these things. So yeah, that's part of being an artist.

Dr. Lisa Belisle: 

Well, I think that's great because it does speak of the human condition. And from what I've noticed with my patients is that there are people who have suffered a lot. It is part of existing on this planet. Things come up that are really hard to deal with, whether it's death or it's illness or it's internal struggles. But a lot of times people will feel alone and they will feel as if they're the only ones who are dealing with this, and maybe they're even embarrassed about whatever it is, maybe like Marsden Hartley. So do you think that by looking at the art that artists create when they're struggling and we know that they're struggling, do you think that gives people a sense of hope and strength?

Jane Dahmen: 

Well, probably hearing from them does. Yes. I don't know if they can tell by looking at it, but if you've ever looked at a Van Gogh painting, he was one of the best painters who ever walked on the planet, and yet he suffered so. Yet look what he was able to produce. I mean, it's just amazing, but it's very interesting that what you're experiencing in your work is the same as artists or anybody. The human condition is about struggle and about the fact that there are good times and bad, you know, and that is the human condition.

Dr. Lisa Belisle: 

Jane, you've worked very hard to continue to do your art through years of parenting and living in different places and caretaking. What type of advice do you have for people who might be struggling right now, who might be in the midst of this pandemic. There are, maybe, young parents who are trying to continue to do their art, who are trying to also raise their children. Maybe have other jobs in addition to their art. What are some suggestions you could make as far as just continuing to be tapped into that creative spirit?

Jane Dahmen: 

Well, the only thing I can tell you is what I've done. I don't know what works for other people, but when I get overwhelmed, or I get sad, or I'm dealing with something that's really quite awful to my way of thinking, I just try to slow down and go inward. I slow down and try to listen to what's going on inside my soul and hear what my voice is telling me, because all the answers you ever want, I swear, and I'm almost 80 years old, and I really believe this is true, that they are within you. If you can slow down and just listen to your own self, and that's not always easy, sometimes need to meditate, or you can listen to tapes or whatever it is that makes you slow down. You will find the answers within you every single time. I know because I've lived it.

Dr. Lisa Belisle: 

Jane, I've really enjoyed our conversation today. You and I have known each other awhile. We’ve seen some ups and downs in one another's lives. And I love reconnecting with you because it's like not stepping in the same river twice. There's always something new and different when you and I encounter one another. So it’s been a great conversation to have with you.

Jane Dahmen: 

Well, I always enjoy talking to you, Lisa. I learn things too, from you, and your work that you're doing. You’re doing so much to connect with people and to keep people connected to other people. It's wonderful.

Dr. Lisa Belisle: 

Well, thank you, Jane. I appreciate it. We've been speaking with artists, Jean Dahmen, from her home in Newcastle, also from our studio here on Littlejohn Island, and you've been listening to Radio Maine episode four. Please do connect with Jane through the Portland Art Gallery in Portland, Maine. The Portland Art Gallery is a sponsor of Radio Maine. We really appreciate your being part of our community and enjoying the creative spirit that we enjoy as we connect with our artists and friends.