At the end of July, I was standing with artist Bo Bartlett and his wife, painter Betsy Eby, on the western side of Wheaton Island, a twenty-acre lozenge of granite and spruce about twenty-two miles off the coast of Maine. We were on the shore, surrounded by sea kelp and tall loaves of rock, looking for good stones to skip. Bartlett, 65, is tan and boyish; he speaks softly, with a sort of preacherly calm, but is quite playful and energetic. In addition to painting, he runs a weekly radio show and makes full-length documentaries and feature films. On the island he likes to ramble around barefoot with a walking stick and often rushes toward things—flowers, blueberries, driftwood. He also talks to seagulls and lobsters. As we pass a little evergreen shrub, he bends down to rub the needles between his fingers and looks up with total wonder. “Smell this! Smell this! Can you believe it?”
Bartlett grew up in Columbus, Georgia, in the 1960s, and encountered art almost exclusively through Time and Look magazines and the cover of the Saturday Evening Post, where he first saw the work of Norman Rockwell and Andrew Wyeth. They were his introduction to a broadly realist tradition of American art that’s shaped his work for some fifty years. Bartlett paints large, visually enticing, and narratively complex scenes—from life, dreams, history, religion—that are sentimental and symbolic, and always more earnest than ironic. (“Earnestness is one of the last taboos,” Bartlett says.) His paintings are precisely the kind of which New York critics like to make minced meat.