The Festival of Art, held every May at the University of Maine’s Hutchinson Center in Belfast, showcases the creative output of Maine’s 55-and-older artists. This year’s festival also turns the spotlight on the late Robert Hamilton of Port Clyde, a prodigious painter of genius who, in a 34-year career at Rhode Island School of Design, trained many of the current generation of painters.

The non-juried festival will open Thursday, May 12 with a meet-the-artists reception from 6 to 8 p.m. The show will continue Friday, May 13 from 9 a.m. to 9 p.m.; Saturday, May 14 from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m.; and Sunday, May 15 from noon to 3 p.m. Admission is free.

In addition to the exhibition of work by 169 artists, as well as by the K-12 students of Regional School Unit 20, the festival will offer a watercolor demo by Anne Spencer of Stockton Springs from noon to 2 p.m. Friday; a How to Market and Promote Your Artwork panel discussion with Thierry Bonneville of Bonneville Communications, Karin Wilkes of Ellsworth’s The Courthouse Gallery and this writer from VillageSoup from 3 to 5 p.m. Friday; a concert by Kings Jazz from 7 to 9 p.m. Friday; and the Art of Robert Hamilton presentation from 1 to 3 p.m. Saturday featuring guest presenter Nancy Hamilton, moderator David Estey and panelists Suzette McAvoy, Richard Kane, Eric Hopkins, William Irvine and George Lloyd.

The Senior College event is curated by the Festival of Arts Committee, whose member Estey of Belfast has been key to this year’s keynote presentation. Estey was a RISD student of Hamilton’s and spent time with both the artist and wife, Nancy, during a year in Italy. After relocating from Philadelphia to his hometown of Belfast, Estey reconnected with his former instructor, who had retired to the couple’s longtime summer place on the water in 1981.

Hamilton may have retired from teaching, but he never retired from painting. A RISD grad himself, he returned to the prestigious school to teach after taking a few years to fly some 100 missions and earn a Distinguished Flying Cross in World War II as a captain and bomber pilot.

“Outside of a stint fighting the Nazis in a P47 fighter bomber … I have painted virtually every day till now, including Christmas, Easter and the Fourth of July,” he wrote in a catalog for the couple’s Horse Point Museum, a cedar-shingled gallery a short walk from their home that exhibited fresh work every summer.

Those paintings reflect a life-embracing nature, a surrealist love of play and a devotion to eye-popping, soul-shivering hues — “… gorgeous theatres of color and form and invention and, always, surprise, delightful surprise,” wrote the late Richard Merkin, former student, RISD teacher and self-described “Disciple of RGH” in another catalog.

The catalogs and in-the-meadow summer shows were as much self-promotion as Hamilton could muster; he was too busy painting or playing tennis over to Tenants Harbor. His work, though esteemed, is not widely known. A movement is afoot to change that and the Festival of Art presentation is the first of several local events this spring and summer that will bring Hamilton more attention.

Estey, who owns two Hamilton paintings, has been working with Nancy and Bonneville to create both bound and online collections of Hamilton’s paintings. The print book is being produced by Rockland’s Custom Museum Publishing and should be available to peruse at the presentation. The website, due to go live any day now, will be roberthamiltonpainter.com. It will attempt to present an overview of Hamilton’s prolific output by arranging it into categories, not chronological but thematic — they include Large Paintings, Heads, Drawings and Foamcore.

The latter work is just that, paintings on a cheap hardware store material Hamilton experimented with for awhile after his Port Clyde gallery burned to the ground in 1996. He lost lots of work in that fire and yet, when he died in June of 2004, he left some 600 paintings behind in Port Clyde. In spring of that year, when the couple’s lawyer, good friend (and art critic) Philip Isaacson discovered that the artist never signed a painting until it was sold, he was adamant.

“He said, oh my God, he has got to sign every one of those! So on a cold, sunny day, we set up a table and chair [on the gallery deck, near the storage vault] and got a heavy black pen and did it,” said Nancy.

Hamilton, who had lost sight in one eye, was nearly blind in the other, hence the big pen, and was exhausted by the end of the day, but happy too.

“It took hours and hours … but he loved it; he got to see them all again, one last time,” she said.

McAvoy, who was Adjunct Curator of Contemporary Art at Rockland’s Farnsworth Art Museum when Hamilton had a show there in 1999, became director of Rockport’s Center for Maine Contemporary Art last fall. Some of this season’s shows were already set, but she found the center’s downstairs galleries open. That intimate space would be a tough fit for the large paintings Hamilton is known for, but McAvoy and Estey paid a visit to Port Clyde.

“And Nancy pulls out a whole batch of little, stacked-up paintings on Masonite, not framed. Susan was struck by how youthful and colorful they are,” Estey said.

A selection of those works will be shown at CMCA beginning Memorial Day weekend in a show titled “The Last Paintings: 2001-2004.”

“It’s going to be a real gem of a show,” said Estey.

That gem will be polished by an invitational gathering of RISD alumni in June, and Festival of Art attendees will get a slideshow preview as well as the opportunity to see a couple of Hamilton’s paintings on easels. Nancy will share back stories and the other panelists — “They all love his work,” said Estey — will offer their own takes on Hamilton’s art. Filmmaker Kane, for example, lensed the “Maine Masters” short documentary about Hamilton that periodically shows up on MPBN and at the Farnsworth and may be previewed (and ordered) online at mainemasters.com.

Nancy has some wonderful tales to tell, indeed. As she took in the large “train paintings” in the Octagon, a few strides away from the gallery, in late April, she recalled how the curious structure came about.

“We were in Italy and went to Anzio to see the museum there. He said, I can make something like this and I thought, oh my God … you know, he said the same thing after seeing the [replica] Kyoto Gardens in Brooklyn,” she said.

Hamilton’s method was improvisational yet consistent. Nancy said he would start by covering his panels with all kinds of colorful drips and splotches, paint over with black and then start “searching.”

“One day, everything would look like Jackson Pollock and the next, they’d be black. He’d say he had to find somebody,” she said, recalling a day when he came in and said, “you’ll never guess who I found — Daffy Duck!”

“And I went in the studio the next day and I didn’t see Daffy Duck anywhere and he said, oh, Daffy died yesterday. The painting was black again,” she said.

Daffy Duck might not be spotted in Hamilton’s oeuvre but anyone who studied under him would not be surprised to find Krazy Kat, a longtime inspiration. Another was jazz music, which Hamilton listened to while he painted and which sometimes provided a subject.

“He’s got one called ‘Bessie 1925’ and it doesn’t look like Bessie Smith, but a real fan would know it’s her because of the fancy hat,” said Estey.

Trying to discern “the meaning” of a Hamilton painting is akin to trying to define jazz, the love of which was handed on to son Scott Hamilton, a professional sax player. When Estey bought the first of the two paintings he owns, he went to see Hamilton because he wanted to know what it was about. Hamilton was succinct: “Estey, you and I know it’s all about design but hell, you got to give ’em something!”

A short way farther down the road from the Hamiltons’ home is N.C. Wyeth’s homestead, so Andrew Wyeth was a visitor to the gallery. One time Estey visited, he saw that Wyeth had been there before him and written in the guestbook: “Robert — the reason I like your work is that it’s so different from mine.”

The two painters became pretty good friends, said Estey, and Wyeth was instrumental in getting Hamilton his show at the Farnsworth. But being neighbors with Wyeth had its downside, as Nancy recalled a tree that, while clearly no longer living, was quite beloved of its owner.

“Andy, I said, that tree is dead! He said, I love that tree … well, it came down on its own and took out power to whole road,” she said.

The team of Nancy, Estey, Bonneville and McAvoy are hoping to create a surge of interest in Hamilton’s powerful work with their endeavors. Nancy in particular would love to see the larger paintings exhibited, but the CMCA show is a good beginning.

“I believe, and Suzette believes, that someday he’s going to be known as a major American painter,” said Estey.

Visitors to the Festival of Art who attend the 1 p.m. Saturday presentation can be part of the movement forward … and the show’s exhibitors will find Hamilton’s approach to making art an inspiration.

“I asked him once what kept him going,” said Estey. “He said, ‘I’ll tell you, Estey — surprise. If I don’t have a surprise every day, I’d go crazy.”

VillageSoup Art/Entertainment Editor Dagney Ernest can be reached at 207-594-4401 or by email to dernest@villagesoup.com.