Meanwhile ... back in the studio

Checking in with John Butke

Wed, 01/13/2021 - 10:30am

When I gave Sawyer’s Island-based artist John Butke a call this week, he and his wife Jill, an accomplished weaver, were enjoying a bit of down time. Yet, even while enjoying a respite, there is much thought going on about new projects in this new year.

“Once in a while I go out and roam around taking photos of things or scenes I find really inspiring,” John said. “And I have tons of photos that I’ve put on discs.”

On one of his recent roamings, John was at Atlantic Edge in Boothbay Harbor and spied a lobsterman loading bait onto his boat at nearby Harbor Bait. That image became one of about a dozen of the 12” x 12” paintings John created for Boothbay Region Art Foundation’s annual Art in the Square show and sale.

John is known for his paintings in oil and acrylic; but when he started out back in the early to mid 60s, he was painting in watercolor. He aspired to be a teacher and earned his BFA from Massachusetts College of Art in Boston in painting and illustration, an MFA in painting and printmaking at Cranbrook Academy of Art; and then, thanks to a Ford Foundation Grant, he studied lithography in Albuquerque, as one of just four recipients, and Los Angeles. By 1967, he chose to join the Peace Corps, training in Hawaii and then serving in Samoa.

John did end up teaching lithography, wood cuts, drawing and design classes at the University of Wisconsin for three semesters, and taught at a Massachusetts high school. He and Jill spent their first summer in Maine while they were in Massachusetts and later bought the property when it was up for sale.

As John looked back on his career during our conversation, he spoke of his early, abstract and figurative work – many on large canvases. “My work now is more representational, more real.”

Last summer, he painted Pemaquid Lighthouse as part of the Pemaquid Group of Artists’ Demo Day. “I took a lot of photos and kept reworking it. There were so many different kinds of people there and I decided to put some of them in the painting.” John titled that painting “Morning at the Lighthouse.”

While he and Jill are enjoying down time right now, thinking about those new projects always gets the artist inside a bit jazzed.

“It’s always fun to start something new. You get that new idea and it looks like it all works … and later, hmmm.. not so much! Then you lie awake at night thinking ‘What’s the problem ...’”

John has been thinking about changing things up, returning to more abstract work. But his representational scenics are stunning and capture the spirit of the locations – the serenity of the Knickerbocker Pond series with water you can look down into; works capturing light reflecting on water, and the rocks. John is drawn to the rocks along our divine coastline. For some artists, it’s the water, the trees, the light …

John’s paintings are quite atmospheric, a mood is set, at least for this viewer, at first glance. In “September Morning,” the scene is peaceful, but the heron, rocks, flora all appear to be behind a thin fog or misty veil … and the sky, where a brighter light is hidden behind the clouds, there is another layer of mystery, All is not what it seems. But what is, right?

Contrast that painting with one of his “Katahdin” works … “Mount Katahdin 1” – Wow. The mountain is defined in bold, dark color with a patch of lighter, orangey color that appears as fog sweeping down the front; the murky depths of the water are haunting and hint of danger. This is my kind of painting!

It will be fascinating to see where John’s winter musings lead him on those new canvases.

John’s paintings can be seen at BRAF, River Arts, the Pemaquid Group of Artists gallery and, of course, The Butke Gallery. Check it out at