The 15th annual Festival of Art runs Thursday through Sunday, June 1 through 4, at the University of Maine's Hutchinson Center, 80 Belmont Ave./Route 3. This year, the Senior College of Belfast event is changing its schedule, moving the featured artist talk to the fest’s final day to make it easier for the 100-plus participating artists to attend, along with the public.

The 2017 featured artist, painter and gallery owner Marsha Donahue, knows more than a little something about change. She will share her many-turns journey in Sunday’s presentation.

“It’s really quite a privilege. I’m really honored to do it,” she said a couple of weeks before the fest, speaking from her North Light Gallery in Millinocket.

Donahue’s presentation will draw from a PechaKucha-style slide talk she did last fall at the Maine International Conference on the Arts. She credited Linda Nelson, assistant director of the Maine Arts Commission, with helping her tackle the challenging format.

“It really gave me a chance to go way back to the beginning,” she said. “I think what they were interested in was seeing how somebody changes and that’s a really fascinating subject to me, too … And there have been some kind of radical changes in my career!”

Indeed there have, some deliberate and some imposed by fate. Born in Waterville, Donahue grew up in Pittsfield, West Paris and Auburn. She studied art at Portland School of Fine and Applied Art (now Maine College of Art) and American University in Washington, D.C., where she stayed to paint and work in galleries. She was an oil painter on the city street, working on pictures of flowering bushes and the Dupont Circle … but seeing Bethlehem Steel at Baltimore’s Sparrows Point led into a phase of documenting steel mills, including Pittsburgh’s famous Steel City factories, before they were torn down.

“I was looking for subjects that weren’t sentimentally beautiful, which has always been important to me — to strive for the essence of something pictorially and in terms of design and color, without necessarily trying for the emotional thrust,” she said.

The industrial subjects — and oil paints — got a break during one summer, when Donahue vacationed in the Adirondacks, painting plein air watercolors. On her way back, she looked at Bethlehem Steel with a color-freshened eye and decided to take a different approach to her studio work.

“I began to say, why don’t I go back this year and paint with transparent oil washes like I was using watercolor, and then gradually add the opaque on top of that? And it really kind of started to change things,” she said. “The watercolor began to more directly inform the oil.”

Moving from the nation’s capitol back to Maine was another sea change; and a studio fire forced another, more radical turn.

“I didn’t have the facilities or the supplies to just dive right back in — and, I think, more than I wanted to admit, it was a shock and kind of stopped me in my tracks,” she said. “I closed the door to my studio for a year and just painted en plein air and with watercolor.”

Drawn while still painting oils to such subjects as “dumps and landfills and things like that,” Donahue’s Maine watercolors at first were of expected vistas. In the 1990s, she said, “everybody seemed to want pictures of Portland Head Light,” so she produced them.

“And of course nothing sold; they weren’t what I wanted to do,” she said. “It was one of those good lessons in an artist’s career, when you realize you have to do what you love and people will like it if you’re genuine.”

In the early 2000s, Donahue was genuinely on the verge of change again. She had spent a number of years working in Portland galleries. She’d been a single mom for about 13 years, when her son graduated from Cape Elizabeth High School and was off to college.

“I was working away at Greenhut and had a really nice 4-1/2-acre spread … I was all set to start a new life and then I met my current husband, met him online, and he happened to have a house up here,” she said.

He called it a camp, but Donahue said it’s really “a very nice little home” just inside the edge of the wilderness.

“He said, 'Let me show you my camp,' and that was it,” she said.

The change of location wasn’t quite so instantaneous, but it only took a couple of trips to make the decision — and it was mutual.

“We were on the way home and my husband said, we should live up here and just visit Portland. And I said, I just had the same idea! So then it was done, we didn’t event think twice,” she said.

In fact, when they got back to the city, her husband, a retired master plumber, began looking through real estate sites and came up with a former department store built a year after Millinocket’s 1901 founding.

“The famous last word is that he said, ‘Hey, Marsh, come look at this!’ … Four stories, 9,000 square feet, it’s huge. And they really wanted very little for it, including all of the contents,” she said.

The building is some six blocks away from their home. The couple offered what they could, and their offer was accepted overnight.

“I walked in the door and said, my god, this space is something any New York Gallery owner would love to have,” she said.

North Light Gallery shares the first floor with another retail space, a “better-than-a-secondhand-place” business called Pickers Paradise. There’s also a 20-by-40-foot rental space, until recently occupied by VISTA workers, meant for artists who want to come up and paint in Maine’s famed north woods.

“It has a full bathroom and little kitchen area and lots of beds,” Donahue said, adding that the recession got in the way of finishing the rest of the building but the plumbing’s all roughed in.

“It’s a nice life, being able to just walk to your business. And I have no computer at home, so when I leave, I leave,” she said.

Several years ago, Donahue left the 20th century behind in order to summit Mount Katahdin in a most unusual way. She, Holly Hamilton, who runs the Katahdin Lake Wilderness Camps, and several other female friends climbed from Chimney Pond to the top and back wearing Victorian-era costumes.

“That, I’m afraid, was a shameless publicity stunt! Holly and I were reacting to an article we saw in Portland magazine where they had the survivalistas and they had this woman who appeared to be a model dressed up in pink camo and fur and that kind of thing and saying ‘Women are now becoming comfortable with going into the wilderness,’ and we just kind of looked at each other and said, ‘Now? I don’t think so,’” Donahue said.

Their reaction prompted them to do some historical research, which led them to re-enact the first summit of Hannah Keep, which took place in 1849.

“We sort of fudged that a little bit and came up with things that were closer to the 1890s, the kind of Victorian look,” Donahue said, adding that the loose cotton garments kept them surprisingly cool and comfortable.

It was a picture-perfect May day, so the women posed for photos at the summit, wearing the strings of “pearls” Donahue got from a local store to commemorate the event.

“I said, what Victorian woman would have her picture taken without her pearls? So we all have ‘pearls’ on! It was fun,” she said.

Usually when Donahue treks into the wilderness, she does so with French easel and oil paints. The change back to her original medium, after almost two dozen years of watercolors, began two years ago “because I really found subjects that just cried out for that kind of vivid color and dense color approach.”

While Donahue has returned to her long-interrupted oil painting career, she said she has found she can’t completely let go of watercolors, having developed a facility she does not want to lose.

“Now I really feel that I can look at those two  media and really decide, when I look at a picture, which one cries out for which medium. There are distinct differences,” she said. “I paint with transparent watercolor, so it does tend to be brighter … it’s like working in reverse a lot of the time, whereas oil is kind of additive.”

Donahue is a practitioner of the fat-over-lean technique, which she learned “years and years ago at American University.” One starts with a turpentine wash, adding an opaque layer and then putting glazes on top, “so it really is a process and not just whipping off one layer, it’s something that’s built up.”

Some subjects lend themselves to that approach, she said.

“Whereas, with watercolor, you really have to think it out ahead of time and it has to be kind of painted back to front and light to dark and large objects to small objects, so you have to organize your mind in a different way,” she said.


Festival of Art schedule

Thursday: opening reception 6 to 8 p.m. with refreshments and music by the Belfast Bay Fiddlers

Friday and Saturday: 9 a.m. to 5 p.m.

Sunday: noon to 3 p.m.; featured artist talk by Marsha Donahue at 1 p.m.

When it came to organizing the North Light Gallery, Donahue drew on her past. When she managed Bay View Gallery in Portland, painter David Little was her assistant manager. He and a group of other Maine artists, including Chris Huntington and Abbott Meader, took a number of trips up north to paint Katahdin Lake “and he would regale me with stories of the cabins they stayed at and everything, which were kind of rustic at that time.”

After Donahue moved to Millinocket, she and Little reconnected; he gave her a list of people he’d painted with in the region, and that formed the core of North Light's stable when it opened in 2004. A couple of years later, the camps where Frederick Church, Marsden Hartley and James Fitzgerald had painted were in flux. David’s brother, writer and critic Carl Little, had approached Maine’s Department of Conservation and the Trust for Public Land about the situation.

“Pat McGowan was commissioner of conservation; I grew up with Pat in Pittsfield. So a whole bunch of us got together,” Donahue said.

There was an opportunity to purchase the historic Katahdin Lake property, and Donahue and 22 of her North Light Gallery artists got involved in a successful art fundraiser. There was a lot of work left over; Donahue spoke with Space Gallery’s Bill Low, whom she knew from her Portland years, and the Katahdin Lake art traveled south.

“Then David said, 'I have all of this stuff left over and I don’t know what to do with it.' I said, 'Why don’t you write a book,'” Donahue said.

She helped him collect photographs for the project, going to the Penobscots’ Indian Island and searching for obscure pieces via the Millinocket Arts Society and other sources. The 2013 publication of “Art of Katahdin” by Down East Books was followed by a show at the University of New England. “And now he’s on to writing other books, so an author was born!”

Donahue said the Katahdin Lake Project got her feet wet in terms of understanding art of conservationists.

“Frederick Church was really one of the first ones to do that, to kind of bring the view of the wilderness back to the wealthy New Yorkers, you know. And so when the Monument came along, I got right into that,” she said

Indeed, Donahue was one of four people sharing a Conservation Leadership Award from the Maine Natural Resources Council last year for their work of establishing the Katahdin Woods and Waters National Monument.

“It’s exciting to have it, and it’s already beginning to happen,” she said.

Katahdin will be the theme of two shows this summer at Donahue’s North Light Gallery; the second, opening Aug. 26, will mark the Monument’s first anniversary. She’s also excited about coming to Belfast the day after North Light holds its season-opening reception.

“I can’t wait,” she said.

Donahue’s talk is set for Sunday, June 4, at 1 p.m. Like the entire festival, it is free and open to the public. The non-juried exhibition features work by both amateur and professional artists age 55 and older from all around the state.