PORT CLYDE, Maine — It should have been a summer of normalcy and rest, if not self-congratulations, for Barbara Ernst Prey. She made her usual trek from her main home on Long Island to the peninsula here where over the last three decades she has developed her skills as a watercolorist specializing in bright, uncluttered paintings of the sort of elemental objects -- fishing boats, wildflowers, robust Maine houses -- that have long attracted artists to these parts. Indeed, the popularity of her work has enabled Prey to buy -- for use as a gallery -- the onetime village inn where the late N.C. Wyeth used to come for lunch. Wyeth's son, Andrew, at 87, still sometimes eats at the dockside restaurant just up Main Street. That's also where one of Prey's idols, Edward Hopper, would head off to paint on nearby islands. So here she was in the footsteps of such legends, making a living she could not have dreamed of when she began coming to Maine, joined by her husband, a Presbyterian minister, and their two kids, who relished playing in the sea breezes. Yet hanging in their Blue Water Fine Arts gallery was her painting of a row of blood-red Adirondack chairs in which she sees herself as the chair on the end
As Prey tells it, what left her unsettled, at 47, was success -- a series of high-profile government commissions to be exact. Two were for NASA, which asked her first to paint the International Space Station, then to memorialize the doomed space shuttle Columbia. That watercolor was unveiled last February, not long after 1.5 million households received her other government commission: President and Laura Bush's 2003 White House Christmas card. For that, she depicted in miniature the White House Diplomatic Reception Room, where Gilbert Stuart's portrait of George Washington hangs over a fireplace and landscape murals adorn the wall.
In the waning days of her show in Port Clyde, Prey sat on the deck of her gallery, overlooking the waterfront of the fishing village, and spoke of how those jobs had affected her and her work.
Question: You've said that it was hard to come back and paint geraniums again after doing the White House Christmas card. Why is that? I thought artists could capture the universe in a haystack or a lily.
Answer: I tied that in also with doing the International Space Station. I spent half a year doing all the research. I'm not just going to paint it. I want to know how it looks, how it feels, how it tastes. I read Sky & Telescope magazine. You can see we have a big telescope here. I started to look at the stars. So I'm coming from here and, well, doing the two space paintings, my world has really expanded. Without sounding trite, when you realize how vast the universe is it challenges the small worldview of all of us. It is so vast and utterly awesome that in some ways there is comfort coming back to the familiar. But because of the experience, the familiar is viewed in a different way.
Q: Painting everyday objects -- like the Adirondack chairs or quilts on a clothesline -- seemed less significant?
A: Some of it. Once you've done something you want to move on, you want to test yourself. You know, I love the chairs. They're such a symbol of Maine and summer. But some of the things don't seem so important. The same thing happened after 9/11. What am I doing? I have X number of years in my life. Am I making a difference?
Q: But couldn't you make the case that the White House, as a symbol of society's pomp, may be less significant than a fisherman's boat?
A: I guess I was looking at it more from a painting standpoint. When you're commissioned by the White House there's a huge amount of pressure, and I was doing something I'm not comfortable doing. If you look at my paintings they have huge blue skies and this was an interior. It could be anyone's house or room. It's like you're a portrait painter and then all of a sudden you're doing landscapes. In this instance I became a portrait painter, a landscape painter with the mural and an interior painter with the room. And I had to pull it off.
Q: And you're seeing your surroundings differently as a result?
A: I see out here all these ideas, but they're really busy. If you can see that first shack [she pointed toward the waterfront] there's all this stuff. I don't know the person, but he's got these buoys hanging, this dog dish, he has these tomatoes. To me it's really a portrait. Who is this person? It's the outside portrait of who he is.
Q: Speaking of people's lives, things seem to have broken well for you with the high-profile commissions, a supportive husband and all. Yet you have that end chair on the painting you call "Family Portrait" on the verge of toppling. Is that really you?