Feelings on canvas
Belfast — As part of its annual affordable art exhibit, Waterfall Arts is showing and selling paintings and drawings by late Belfast artist Sandy Balmforth. The show will open Friday, Dec. 6, with a reception from 5 to 8 p.m.
Harry “Sandy” Balmforth, a 1971 graduate of Belfast Area High School, drowned in the Penobscot River 22 years ago. Largely self-taught, Balmforth briefly attended the School of the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston. He was an artist from childhood who created moody seascapes, landscapes, animal portraits, academic exercises and paintings with religious overtones that some describe as disturbing or “outsider art.”
The paintings, mostly oils on a variety of surfaces of wide-ranging sizes, were tucked in closets in the Balmforth family’s home on Route 1 in Belfast. This spring, the Belfast Lions Club was given the contents of the home, including more than 100 pieces of art.
“The Lions donated the paintings to Waterfall Arts and we’re happy to have found an appropriate home for them,” said Steve Curtis of the Lions Club.
For more than a month, the paintings were tipped against the walls of a third floor studio at Waterfall Arts and lying on the floor in a colorful mosaic. The varied subject matter of the paintings and the changing styles and media make it clear that Balmforth was searching for artistic and, perhaps, personal identity in his work.
In an essay, Balmforth wrote, “I myself don’t want to paint what it looks like. I want to paint what it is and what it is to me. Since most of what I paint is from my imagination, what I don’t paint is as important as what I do paint.”
Later he wrote, “You don’t paint what you see but instead what you feel. But feelings must be part of a rational man for feelings that are thrown into unrecognizable reality are passions without reins and are insanity without a root for a basis of being.”
Several of Balmforth’s larger works are seascapes featuring rolling waves crashing on wild beaches. A friend recalled that Harry Balmforth Sr. loved to take his sons to the shore during storms and that the younger Balmforth loved the turmoil of the sea. Another large painting is a colorful scene from hell with scattered skulls and vivid flames that tell a story that is hard to pin down.
Balmforth’s letters indicate a strong interest in religion and a deep search for meaning in the world. One painting depicts a man with his head down sitting on a window ledge outside a tall building; another has a science fiction feel with hands emerging from the earth in a wild landscape.
Much of Balmforth’s official life was collected in a cardboard box that came to Waterfall Arts with the paintings. The trove of information includes medical records, letters, school grades, newspaper clippings and legal papers. The documents show Balmforth was born on Feb. 12, 1953, and developed juvenile-onset diabetes at age 5. He was of average height, on the thin side, and had wavy sandy-red hair that led to his nickname. Joanne Willis of Belfast, who works in the records department at Waldo County General Hospital, dated Balmforth during the 1970s and remained a family friend.
“He was a very strong, independent soul,” she said, “very complex. He always had 16 things going at once.”
Balmforth grew up in a social and talkative family, she said, and he often had trouble coordinating the introverted and extroverted sides of his personality. Willis said he turned to alcohol as a young man, which did not mix well with his diabetes. He was treated for alcoholism and went years without drinking, including near the end of his life.
She said Balmforth created many paintings, in all styles, showed them widely and gave away many to family members and friends. A drawing and painting in the Waterfall Arts show were gifts to Willis years ago. Classmates remember Balmforth as artistic and “different.” Juliane Dow recalls sitting near Balmforth in fourth grade at the Peirce School. When his blood sugar acted up, she said the teacher would give him a cookie and tell him to eat it in a closet.
Several classmates remember Balmforth as an artistic youth who had health problems. Dow, who recently moved back to Belfast, said Balmforth “was compelled to be drawing,” along with another local boy, Jeff Jennings. She said Balmforth was an artist from early childhood.
Mary Weaver Dutch, who was president of the BAHS Class of 1971, said her mother had one of Balmforth’s paintings on the wall of her room at Penobscot Shores. She said he was very quiet and kept to himself and that his paintings were “very dark.” Bob Stover, another classmate who became a musician and magazine publisher, remembered Balmforth carrying a drum set up Main Street and playing music, loudly, in his backyard. Stover said he has a couple of Balmforth sketches and found some of his work disturbing in some ways.
After Balmforth graduated from BAHS, he attended the University of Maine at Bangor. He was actively showing his work around the state at the time, first at the Belfast Free Library in 1971 and then at the Bangor Sidewalk Art Show, the Farnsworth Museum, the Belfast Sidewalk Art Festival and other shows. One of his paintings won a prize at the popular Bangor show.
In 1974, Balmforth received an Associate Degree in Art with distinction from UMaine, where Dean of Instruction Constance Carlson cited him for his fine artistic work. Balmforth began his studies at the School of the Boston Museum of Fine Arts but did not stay long. Willis said he began drinking heavily during his stay in Boston because of the stress of living in the city.
He was reportedly well known locally as a frequent walker along rural roads where he picked up bottles. He had a few scrapes with the law, including a charge of acquiring drugs by deception, but he was never jailed. According to several news stories that appeared in the Bangor Daily News and The Republican Journal, Balmforth was living in Winterport in a house by the river when he disappeared in October of 1991. The banks of the river were searched several times for signs of him. Several weeks later, his body was found by a couple walking along the river.
The exhibit of Balmforth’s work and the “Rusty Bits” metal show and sale will run through Dec. 22. Gallery hours are Tuesdays through Saturdays from 10 a.m. to 7 p.m.; Sundays from 1 to 4 pm.; and by appointment. Balmforth’s work is priced low, as Waterfall Arts’ goal is to give the community a chance to see and buy work by this local artist. For more information about Balmforth’s work, the "Rusty Bits" show and sale, classes, rentals and events, visit waterfallarts.org or call 338-2222.
Courier Publications’ A&E Editor Dagney C. Ernest can be reached at (207) 594-4401, ext. 115; or email@example.com.