“Painting is an obsession. I developed a language I could use to express my feelings about the ocean, my feelings about Maine,” said Laurence “Lonnie” Sisson during the filming of a documentary by Mark Gordon in 2011. And that language, conveyed in watercolor and oil, has spoken to art lovers around the country for decades — including those in Boothbay Harbor.
“People would come to a dead stop,” said Marty Gleason of Gleason Fine Art of the reactions to Sisson's work by visitors to Gleason Fine Art Gallery. In years past, Marty and Dennis Gleason, gallery owners of 33 years, have had the occasional painting or two by Sisson cross their path through private collectors and at auctions.
“He developed a unique style that is very realistic but with a mystical, magical element to it,” Marty said. “They are just beautiful, beautiful, ethereal pieces.”
And as of this month, there will be more than a couple Sisson paintings at Gleason Fine Art: Judy Sisson has chosen the Gleasons to represent her husband's work here in the east. For 10 to 15 years, Sisson was represented by the Frost Gully Gallery in Freeport. The gallery was owned by artist and friend Tom Crotty who died the same year as Sisson, 2015. Recently the family decided to close the Freeport gallery and a new eastern rep had to be found. In the west, the rep is Michael Wigley Galleries, LTD in Santa Fe, New Mexico, and has been since 1993, according to Judy.
Sisson, a native Bostonian, grew up in Boothbay Harbor. Sisson and the Gleasons first met when Gleason Fine Art was located in the Brick House on Oak Street. Well, actually Dennis and Lonnie met for the first time then. Marty met him when, in her teens, she was the babysitter for the artist's four kids.
Dennis said he made his pitch for Gleason Fine Art to be the new rep in the east when Judy contacted them for some ideas on what to do with the paintings in Freeport — after making other suggestions first, of course.
“I'm very happy with my decision. I decided to go with someone who actually knew Lonnie,” Judy said. “ I've been in the gallery and it's an impressive setting. Having Lonnie's paintings there is more like leaving them with extended family.”
Local photographer and friend of the Sissons, Bob Mitchell, photographed all of the artist's paintings — in Freeport and in Albuquerque (around 2012). Judy estimates there were 30 in the Freeport gallery from which the Gleasons have selected a small group, the largest being 40” x 50,” on exhibit in the gallery now. The others, including paintings from a few private collections, are in storage.
Sisson is best known for his pebble technique, large landscapes and seascapes depicting the southwest (the Sissons moved to New Mexico in the late 1970s) and the coast of Maine. The work exhibited at Gleason Fine Art includes a 36 x 48 painting “Seiners” and is a fine example of his distinctive clouds — as Judy says, “No one did clouds like Lonnie.”
Sisson was fascinated by the movement of the ocean and in the 18 x 24 “Rose Hip Trail,” the viewer can see, feel, and hear the ocean waves as they begin to break on the rocks. A painting of the footbridge with fog getting ready to roll in is one of his earlier paintings. It's a mildly abstract painting in muted tones that create an aura of mystery. Is the setting a real place, or is it another “Brigadoon?”
Lonnie moved to Boothbay in the 1950s and had a cottage on Southport Island where Rachel Carson was one of his neighbors.
Sisson loved being involved in the community, particularly the Windjammer Days Festival. Sisson was good friends with Captains David and Marion Dash, founders of Windjammer Days, and helped them with the festival in its early years. “He did a chart or a map, I can't remember which, for the captains of the schooners,” Judy said.
Sisson was a regular golfer during the Windjammer Open for Maine Special Olympics that used to precede the festival. The golf course (now part of the Boothbay Harbor Country Club) is where he met Ted Hendricks of Oakland Raiders fame. Judy says Hendricks became a close friend. “I would always have lobsters flown in when he came to visit us (in Albuquerque) and Lonnie would give Ted art lessons.”
He also helped with fireworks fundraising by donating prints of a painting he did, appropriately of fireworks over the harbor; he was also part of the small group that helped to get the YMCA going from the ground up. Outside the Boothbay region, Sisson helped to found the Portland School of Art, now the Maine College of Art.
Judy is in the process of moving to Scottsdale, Arizona, and has been finding stashed paintings in places she never expected to find them — like under a rug in the workshop! Eventually she plans to donate some of the paintings to museums across the U.S. so his work can be seen, and enjoyed by the public. And the Gleasons are planning a Sisson retrospective in June 2017 — fittingly during Windjammer Days.
“So the circle is complete,” said Marty. “Lonnie really began his career here and, thanks to Judy, is ending his career here.”
Gleason Fine Art is located at 31 Townsend Avenue, Boothbay Harbor. The phone number is 207-633-6849.