Don Demers | Time Travel by the Sea

Don Demers reaches into maritime history and his own past to infuse his paintings with feeling and life

By Gussie Fauntleroy

Don Demers, Working Through a Fog, East River, NYC, oil, 20 x 24.

Don Demers, Working Through a Fog, East River, NYC, oil, 20 x 24.

This story was featured in the November 2017 issue of Southwest Art magazine. Get the Southwest Art November 2017 print issue or digital download now–then subscribe to Southwest Art and never miss another story.

Almost every summer as a boy, from his grandparents’ cottage on the Maine coast, Don Demers looked out at the rocky shore and the ocean beyond. He wandered among the docks, soaked up the smell of salt air, built wooden boat models in his grandfather’s workshop, and occasionally was treated to a boat ride in the harbor near East Boothbay. He gazed wistfully at sailing vessels from a distance and read about them in maritime history books. He drew ships constantly. But he was essentially a landlocked kid, since no one in his family owned a boat. In his early 20s Demers finally learned to sail, and since then, his life has been rich with maritime adventures—both on the water and on canvas.

The middle son of a bricklayer and an office nurse, Demers grew up with four brothers in Lunenburg, MA. The small town was inland, but every summer the family visited his mother’s parents in Maine, and each summer young Don would convince his parents to let him stay on a few more weeks after the rest of the family returned home to Massachusetts. Don’s grandmother, good at drawing, recognized Don’s passion for art and gave him tips. His grandfather’s best friend loaned the boy books on sailing ships. He drew every chance he got.

Looking back now, Demers is amazed to realize how absolutely certain he was, from boyhood on, that painting would be his life’s path. “I don’t know why—maybe it was just my disposition, or
naivety—but it never once occurred to me that I wouldn’t be an artist,” the 61-year-old painter says, sitting in the cabin in East Boothbay that is his home for half of each year. “It was never if, just how.” In high school, an art teacher named Nelde Drumm provided his first glimpse of how. Drumm not only mentored and encouraged her student in drawing and painting, but she also drove him to interviews to apply for art school. “I will always sing her praises. She was a magnificent person,” Demers says. He enrolled in the School of the Worcester Art Museum in Worcester, MA, but he soon realized the instructors’ conceptual, laissez-faire approach would not provide him with the serious painting instruction he sought. So he transferred to the Massachusetts College of Art in Boston, triple majoring in painting, illustration, and graphic design.

Almost as soon as Demers arrived in Boston, he joined a sailing club. He learned quickly, all his years of reading about sailing ships and watching them from afar having laid the groundwork for hands-on experience. Then one day at a harborside café with a buddy, he noticed a majestic two-masted sailing ship tied up at the dock. He signed up for a weeklong sailing excursion on the Unicorn and afterward became a deckhand, helping sail the 140-foot square-rigged vessel south to the Florida Keys for the winter. For the next two years Demers worked as a crewmember on several tall sailing ships in the Atlantic and Caribbean. “It was fantastic. I was young with a knife on my belt, living like a sailor,” he says. “It was also really hard work—dirty, uncomfortable, wet, seasick, cold—but I loved every bit of it.”

In every port, Demers would pull out his watercolors and paint, and between sailing trips he painted in his studio. He created a portfolio and sent it out in search of illustration work, and he found success. “I had one foot in sailing and one foot in the art world,” he says. He moved to Kittery, ME, in 1984, where he had a studio for painting and another one for illustration. In 1988 and again in ’89, the Society of Illustrators honored Demers by accepting his paintings into its annual show in New York City, propelling him into the national illustration market. For a number of years he produced illustrations for such magazines as Reader’s Digest, National Geographic, SAIL, Yankee, and Field & Stream. Then, just as computers were beginning to elbow their way into the illustration world and jobs for artists were thinning out, fine-art collectors began taking note of Demers’ work. A curator for the annual International Marine Art Exhibition at the Mystic Seaport Museum in Connecticut offered him a solo show in 1988. It sold out within a week. At subsequent Mystic shows over the past 25 years, he has earned dozens of awards.

He was in the right place at the right time. Interest in marine art was exploding in New England, and for several years every Demers painting of a historic sailing vessel had multiple collectors
waiting in line. By the late 1990s, however, he was ready for a change. “I was withering on the vine because my work was becoming too familiar to me. I needed new inspiration,” he says. So he accepted an invitation from two artist friends to join them on a painting excursion. The adventure gave him an opportunity to return to painting outdoors after many years in the studio. “I started going outside to paint, to reinvent and reinvigorate myself,” he says. He was especially drawn to the approach of the 19th-century Hudson River School and the American Impressionists, working outside and using close observation to witness the world around him and visually express his experience. “I was dedicated to going back to that pure process,” he says.

It’s still the way he works today.

Demers’ East Boothbay cabin is a stone’s throw from the waterfront family cottage his grandparents owned and a short bicycle ride from the studio he rents each summer. The studio—which he admired for years when it was used by the late artist for whom it was built—is a quiet, comfortable space with excellent north light, a one-minute walk down a dirt road to the bay. “Anytime I’m outside, the ocean is omnipresent,” he says. When cold weather arrives he heads south a couple of hours to his winter home, also near the water, in South Berwick, ME.

Since he’s been painting outdoors,Demers’ works are as much about daily life along the coast as they are about ships at sea. When he happened upon the scene that became LIGHT THROUGH THE BOATHOUSE [see page 60], he couldn’t pass up the challenge of painting it. Illuminated by both direct and reflected light, the structure with boats being repaired inside was “absolutely riveting,” he says. “It had everything a visual agenda could offer and was enormously demanding in terms of draftsmanship.” Once he decides to complete a piece on location, Demers commits himself to it fully. At other times in the field he may begin a painting in oils and sense that the scene would make a good subject for a large studio piece. In such cases he stops using oils on location and instead relies on abbreviated pencil-and-watercolor sketches as reference material for the studio piece. By forgoing oils until he’s back in the studio, the painting that results is an entirely fresh experience, he says. “I’m not taking a small painting and rendering it bigger. It’s a creation, not a recreation. As soon as you mimic yourself and feel like you have to match a mark you previously made, the purity and
truth of the process is diminished.”

One such work, painted in the studio entirely from pencil-and-watercolor sketches and memory, is BREAKING ON POINT BUCHON, inspired by the view from a bluff along the central California coast. Demers took no reference photos for the piece. “If you know there won’t be photos, you’ll bring all your senses and your full attention to bear. If you stare at something for three or four hours a day for two or three days, it’s going to stay in [your mind]—you’ll remember what’s important, and that’s what your voice is,” he says. As he painted, the artist held something else in his memory as well. Having recently seen an exhibition by early 20th-century New England figurative painter Frank Benson, Demers was “dumbstruck by the way Benson handled white, especially in the summer dresses of his daughters,” he says. From such masterful use of white came the inspiration that infused the foam of breaking Pacific waves.

Demers continues to portray historic sailing vessels, drawing on years of experience and research—ships’ plans, historical records, maritime novels, nautical charts, photos of harbors—to assemble imagined narratives of actual historic ships. With this and all his work these days, his aim is to convey something deeper than surface beauty. “I want to get to a meaning that is under the paint. I’m painting a subject as much about how it feels as how it looks,” he says. For someone with New England seawater in his veins, that experience contains the warmth of summer sun, the angle of light reflected off water, the smell of docks at low tide, a slower pace of life, and all the boyhood associations that continue to reside in the places he loves. “There are components of time travel when you paint because you draw up recollections and notions, things that are clear or misty. It transcends the moment you’re in. It’s like music, like literature: When it just moves you so deeply, that’s as good as it gets. You present it to others in hopes that you can be some kind of emotional troubadour.”

Vose Galleries, Boston, MA; Helena Fox Fine Art, Charleston, SC; Gallery at Somes Sound, Mount Desert Island, ME; Haynes Galleries, Nashville, TN, and Thomaston, ME; J. Russell Jinishian Gallery, Fairfield, CT;

This story was featured in the November 2017 issue of Southwest Art magazine. Get the Southwest Art November 2017 print issue or digital download now–then subscribe to Southwest Art and never miss another story.

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