2016-09-15 / Front Page

A not so still life

Artist will celebrate as usual
By Wm. Duke Harrington
Staff Writer

Former Biddeford Pool artist Frank Handlen, age 99 and turning 100 Sept. 26, sits outside his Ocean Avenue home Sept. 8 with a work completed in just the past week, while in the background, Salt Wind (green hull). Salt Wind is a topsail schooner he built by hand and launched in 1975. A retrospective of Handlen’s life and work will be shown Sept. 24 at the Mast Cove Gallery. (Duke Harrington photo) Former Biddeford Pool artist Frank Handlen, age 99 and turning 100 Sept. 26, sits outside his Ocean Avenue home Sept. 8 with a work completed in just the past week, while in the background, Salt Wind (green hull). Salt Wind is a topsail schooner he built by hand and launched in 1975. A retrospective of Handlen’s life and work will be shown Sept. 24 at the Mast Cove Gallery. (Duke Harrington photo) KENNEBUNKPORT — On Sept. 26, Kennebunkport artist Frank Handlen will celebrate his 100th birthday. A humble man and a gentle soul, he’d prefer to keep it a low-key affair.

“I plan to sneak though it as quietly as I can,” he said. But the truth is, he’s been a resident in town since 1969 and worked at a shipyard here as early as 1940, and others are only too happy to make note of the coming milestone on his behalf.

The day before his official birthday (he has an unofficial one, too, as he’ll note below), the Mast Cove Gallery will stage a retrospective of his life and work, with more than 40 of his works accompanied by photographs from throughout his long life.

Handlen has been a fixture in Kennebunkport since 1940, when he first arrived in Maine, having been urged to travel here by his mentor, marine artist Frederick Judd Waugh.

Finding work at Bernie Warner’s shipyard on the Kennebunk River, Handlen would hold a host of odd jobs and fallback careers as he struggled to establish himself as an artist, with galleries first in Biddeford Pool, then eventually in Kennebunkport, where he’d settled full-time by 1969. Locally, he’s known as much for the Salt Wind — a 40- foot, 16-ton topsail schooner he built by hand and launched into the river in 1976, which remains moored just a few hundred yards from the back door of his Ocean Avenue home — and for the heroic bronze statute, “Our Forebearers of the Coast” — which, erected in 1995, remains on display at the Kennebunkport River Green — as he is for his seascapes, done in oil and pastels.

On Sept. 8, Handlen took a break from painting, which he continiues to do “every day, if I can help it,” to talk to the Courier about his long, extraordinary life.

Q: Where and when were you born?

A: I was born Sept. 26 or 27, 1916, Brooklyn, New York, believe it or not. But when I was a year old my parents brought us back to my mother’s home state of New Jersey, and I lived there until I left in 1940. I went back for one visit but never went back after that. Maine has everything I ever wanted.

Q: What initially brought you to Maine?

A: I was an artist and the subject matter I wanted to paint, ocean and rocks and all that, was up here. So, I quit the job that I had at the time. I hated to do that to the fella, because he was a decent guy, but, ultimately, he forgave me.

Q: And why do you say you were born on the 26th or 27th?

A: Well, my mother always maintained I was born on the 27th, and for years that’s what I said. But years later I found my birth certificate says the 26th. I now say the 26th, but it’s just to go along with the documentation. Ultimately, I trust my mother. But talk about coming into the world blessed, the name of doctor who delivered me was named Dr. Love. [laughs]

Q: Where did you live in New Jersey and what was that area like in the 1920s when you were young?

A: Caldwell, New Jersey (about 16 miles from New York City). It was quite interesting, because we still had a lot of woodland there then. We lived next to acres and acres of open land that used to be a dairy farm next to the Curtis-Wright air field and my brother and I just went all over the place and had all kinds of interesting episodes, which I won’t get into. There was no television to keep us occupied back then, of course. In fact, radio consisted of nothing but a crystal set and earphones. We were the last people on the block to get electricity. I can remember lighting the gas for the lamps at night. And, all ice and coal was delivered by horse, on a wagon in the summer and by sleigh in the winter. The wagon would come by on a hot day and we kids would run and jump on the back and grab a piece of ice before we were shooed off. It was a different world.

Q: What were the Depression years like in New Jersey?

A: It wasn’t easy. I remember seeing the men in New York lined up for food. But the strange thing was, my father was a general contractor and he had a neighbor who was head of a Building & Loan, and they had taken over a lot of buildings and they had to keep them up. He said to my father, Bill, if you can learn to paint and wallpaper, I can keep you employed. So, we never lost a day all through the Depression. Not that we made much. I worked with him some when I was about 18, or 19. He’d hang the wallpaper and I’d paste. I remember there’d be weeks of nothing but paste, paste, paste.

Q: Do you remember your first car?

A: It was after I came to Maine. I drove a Model A around Biddeford Pool for seven years. Not because I liked it, because I had no choice. Gosh, the mechanical brakes, you could never keep ahead of them. My Uncle Gus, he was 10 years older then me, he had gotten a good job at Bell Telephone and he was the first one in the family to buy a new car. It was a roadster. Canary yellow. Well, he’d been to the auto parts store and he found this stuff that was supposed to make your brakes really grab. My father and my grandfather were standing around the garage one day, and we kids were there, and Gus said, “Watch this, fellas.” So, he backed up about 50 feet, let the clutch out, took off, slammed on the brakes — and no brakes. Bang! Right through the garage doors. Well, we kids made ourselves sick, we laughed so hard.

Q: As a kid, what sparked your interest in art?

A: I just had that tendency when I was very young. And when you have that in you, it doesn’t leave you and eventually you have to do something about it, and then you find you just have to keep at it.

Q: Did you have any artistic mentors?

A: Yes. In 1937 a double-page spread came out in LIFE magazine of the work of Frederick Waugh, Of course, I knew who he was. He was one of our country’s preeminent maritime artists. I had seen his stuff and it just blew me away. The article had a picture of him and he was an elderly man, which surprised me. I had thought he was a young man from the vigor of his work. So, I wrote to him. Two weeks later his answer came back to me and he’d invited me up to his studio in Provincetown, on the weekend of my choosing. I never forgot that.

Q: What did you learn during that visit?

A: Well, he didn’t teach, but I just soaked it all up. We communicated after that and then he died two years after my first visit. But, oh, that was an experience, because I was a nobody, you know, and he goes and invites me to his studio. He wasn’t boastful at all. He was kind of shy, almost. But, oh, man, could he paint. He was the one who urged me to come to Maine if I really wanted to learn how to paint the ocean.

Q: When did you sell your first painting?

A: When I was still in Caldwell. I was still in school. In fact, when I was in high school I took the art course, of course, and I painted this tall ship. Well, the teacher was so blown away with it that they put a piece in the paper with a picture of me that said, “Caldwell boy’s painting is so good it’s to be hung as a mural.” Well, it never did hang as a mural in the library, at least not while I was there and, when I left school, I never did know what happened to it.

Q: So, the school may or may not still have your first painting?

A: Well, here a couple of years ago, a woman contacted me though my website and said, “I bought a picture signed ‘F. Handlen’ at an auction and I wonder it it’s you.” I said, “Send me a little photograph of it and I’ll take a look.” Well, it was that one I’d done in high school 70-some years ago. [laughs] She asked me why I had painted it on plywood and I said, “Because I didn’t know what I was doing!” [laughs] I was only 17, you know. But it was after I saw Waugh’s work, I knew the ocean itself was the subject I wanted to pursue, just the ocean and coastal scenes. Forget the ship paintings.

Q: Where did you first settle in Maine?

A: Waugh had told me Cape Elizabeth would be a good area, but I didn’t find any place there to stay and somehow I ended up in Biddeford Pool, so that’s where I elected to stay while I reconnoitered the area — my first wife Fritzie and our children stayed in New Jersey — and looked for work. When I saw Bernie Warner’s shipyard in Kennebunkport I knew, whoa, I didn’t need to go any further. It was the first one I had ever seen and I was absolutely fascinated with it. They were building a big 86-foot dragger. So, I went and talked to the guy who owned the yard. He had a small 30- foot motorboat that was unfinished so he put me on that. I had never done this kind of work before, but I had handled tools at a job I held after working for my father, when I had my own family going. So, you know, I could work with my hands.

Q: What job was that?

A: I was working for Essex Bronze Guild in Essex Falls, New York, while still living in Caldwell. One of the last jobs I had there was to do this giant tablet of the Oath of Hippocrates of raised letters I designed myself and cast in white metal. It was paragraph after paragraph, line after line. I was weeks working on that thing. It’s still in the College of Physicians and Surgeons in New York City. I remember we didn’t bother with any union men at all. We just snuck in and got the thing hung.

Q: How big was your family at the time?

A: I had two children then. Fritzie was from New Jersey, too. We were married for 28 years until she died. We’d eventually have four kids, but one died — what we called a “blue baby” at the time. I have one son and one daughter still left.

Q: What kind of experience did you have before you came to Kennebunkport?

A: None. But I had been on The Marsala, a huge five-masted barkentine that was allegedly a school ship. The American Nautical Academy advertised up and down the East Coast offering lessons on compass reading weather and simple things. At the end of the program was to be a twoweek cruise but when I got there, there were no sails. They stayed anchored in the river just below the George Washington Bridge. And I also had built model ships and from that, because, you know how it is, you get immersed in a subject, I picked up some of the terminology. So, I sort of talked myself into the job because I kind of sounded like I knew what I was talking about I guess.

Q: What was Kennebunkport like at that time?

A: It wasn’t the thriving business community it is now. There certainly weren’t any gift shops when I first came here. It was a different world. Across the street from me where the bank is, there was nothing there. It was just an empty field that went up to the Captain Dudley house. The river wasn’t as active. There were three shipyards working still when I came here, although the only yard actually building boats was Bernie Warner’s and he only had two employees at the time. There was Bob Reid across the river, but he was mostly storage. He built one large party boat. Then there was Baum’s boat yard. He had built several vessels up above the bridge, and the bridge still opened in those days to let the boats go through. But that’s all gone now. Also, back then there was not one private boat moored in the river. Today there’s God knows how many. Must be 100. There’s no space left. So, it was quite diferent.

Q: How long did you work at the shipyard?

A: Oh, not very long. The guy who ran the yard always had a strong alcoholic breath on payday. He always said he’d pay me $15 a week but then he’d only give me $12. I couldn’t hack going back and forth to Biddeford Pool on $12 a week. Even then that was not a lot of money, so I went up to South Portland.

Q: What did you do there?

A: First I tried to get work at the shipyards. This was just before the war, although the war was going on in Europe at that time. They had already started building the iron vessels up to the big yard for the British. I had gone up to look for some work. There were 60 of us in line and when I finally get inside, a man gave me a paper and said, “Here, go home and fill this out.” He could have gone down the line and handed us the papers instead of having us wait in line for hours. So, I never worked there. Instead I found work for a smaller yard owned by Boyd-Donaldson. We built 10 wooden draggers of the O’Hara fishing fleet. I worked there in 1941 from March on through September, I guess. I did some pretty interesting work there bowing timbers. Unfortunately, I went back a year later just to visit the place and all the frames had been assembled and they stacked them out in the yard. Come spring it thawed and they all warped. I don’t think they could ever use them.

Q: By that time America was in the war. Do you remember Pearl Harbor?

A: By then I was back in Jersey for a bit. I came home one night and my father-in-law said, “They bombed Pearl Harbor.” I was like, “Oh, we’re in it now.” And we were.

Q: What did you do during the war?

A: Because I had a family at the time, I wasn’t drafted. I worked for the Walter Kidde company in Bellville, New Jersey. They were making valves for rafts, with 3,000 people working double shifts. And they had what they called a gun charger, which was a mechanical device such that if the 50-caliber machine gun misfired, you could kick in the firing pin until it fired five times, and then it would stop. It was a CO2 system. Well, they had 3,000 of these they had to have repaired for the Navy. They put me into a bonded room, which meant nobody was allowed in but me and the two women who worked with me. Other guys said, “You’re sure lucky to be working in there with those two women all day.” I said, “Are you crazy, these two women hate each other.” One would go out to the ladies room and the other immediately would start in to badmouthing her. Anyway we got them all repaired. Soon after I got out of there I was called up (drafted), but by then it was too late as the war was about over.

Q: What did you do when you returned to Maine with your family?

A: I got a job house painting. You did anything you could in those days. I was happy to be working. Eventually I got back in to where they were building boats. I worked at the Marblehead boatyard in Biddeford Pool until they closed. Then I got a job as a draftsman at Saco Lowell. We used to take blueprints and draw an object from that for the catalogs. I did all their major trade shows. I did that for eight and a half years. Gawd. Then I worked at an advertising shop in Biddeford. Mostly I worked painting banners, but then I’d have a guy come in and say, “I need a drawing for this ad by 10 o’clock.” So, I’d sit down to do the ad having no idea what it was I was supposed to be drawing. I did that for five years and that was the last job I had before I decided in 1966, once I turned 50, to take the plunge and take my chances with my artwork as a full-time commercial venture. I almost didn’t make it, but I did eventually. It’s not an easy living, you know. You’re up one year and down the next. .

Q: How was your art progressing up until that time?

A: I was selling art on the sidelines in those days while I did things like shipyard work. I was the only person doing art in Biddeford Pool, so I had access to East Point. It’s Audubon land now but back at that time it was private. I was the only one there, summer and winter. I really learned to paint there. Eventually, I set up a little gallery and, being the only artist there, I did quite well.

Q: Do you remember the moment you felt like you had finally arrived as an artist?

A: Around 1948, or so, the hotel that was next to where I lived in the Pool was having some kind of big event. Anyway, I put one little painting of mine in it, kind of snuck it in I guess you could say. Well, these two sisters who were there, Dupee was their name, they liked it and so made a point of finding out where it came from, and came over to see me. They wanted to know what else I had and so I rummaged around the garage a bit and found some things. We had a double car garage and I later converted that into a studio and gallery. But that was in 1952. At this point it was still a garage. Well, these sisters liked what I had done, were big fans, so I cleaned it out and we had some people come over. I guess you could call that my first show. Anyway, I had these pastels I had done but I didn’t have any frames or anything, so I just kind of taped them to the wall. Well, people were standing there looking at them when all of a sudden one comes fluttering down. And pretty soon another one flutters down. But I did sell a few. I think I made $35 that whole day. Not long after, one of the sisters, unbeknownst to me, took one of my paintings, had it framed, and entered it in a show down to Boston, where it won a gold medal as the most popular painting in the show. So, that gave me a pretty good feeling. Eventually I opened a little gallery. I sold some work, not enough to live on, but I did all right, enough to give me confidence and keep me going. That was an encouragement, because it told you there was a public for it.

Q: Did you ever give art lessons?

A: I did teach some older ladies in the Pool for a while, And I taught one session up in Portland at the school of fine arts. I had a life class with the nude models. I was to make absolutely certain there was never anyone in that room but the model, the teacher, and the pupils. It never occurred to me until later there was also always this one janitor, always fixing this one light bulb. It never occurred to me what this guy was doing.

Q: What other works have you done besides seascapes?

A: I painted portraits for about five years, but it got so I was doing too many children. You can’t expect them to sit still for three seconds, let along an entire session. The last little girl I had, she said, “I’m going to pout!” And she did. And that ended my career as a portrait artist. I also did a number of murals. Most of them are gone now. There’s one over to the Lucky Logger in Saco that I’m not particularly proud of. I was never happy with what I did and never went back to look at it for years and years afterward until the present owner called me up one day and said the restaurant was going to be moved and could I help save the mural. I went to help move it and knew instantly why I had never gone back to look at it.

Q: Where did you open a gallery in Kennebunkport?

A: It was the mid-1960s, over in Lower Village, in Kennebunk, actually. George Augusta, a portrait artist, he sublet me the bottom floor of a house, which had been a stable. I had to clean everything out and put in lights. I sold a total of $300 of work that whole first season. Talk about learning things the hard way. Eventually, I got a corner building that proved to be very, very good, and then I sold that and built the house next door to where I am now.

Q: When did you move to Kennebunkport to live?

A: When my wife died, I still had my little studio in Biddeford Pool and a gallery in Kennebunkport by that time. Traveling between my studio and the gallery trying to run it was tough. So, eventually I just moved over here. Then I met Mary after a while and we got married. She died five or six years ago. She was 98. Anyway, where I live now was all water up to the road when I bought the two pieces of property. I was going to build on pilings like the other buildings. But this fella came along and said, “You ought to fill it.” I said, “Yeah, I know, but I can’t afford it.” He said, “It’d make a hell of a piece of property.” I said, “I can’t afford it.” He said, “I’ll tell you what I’ll do, I’ll put in 80 feet of riprap and fill it, and I’ll give you three years to pay for it without any interest.” Talk about the right man at he right time, because I don’t know what I would have done for parking, building on piers.

Q: After building the house next to the one you live in now, you’re next project was a boat, which you built by hand. What was that like?

A: It was soon after Mary and I got married, I said, you know, I’ve got just a little bit of money, I’ve got the backyard, I’m going to build the boat I’ve always wanted. She said, “Why, sweetheart, if that’s what you want to do, you should do it.” Little did she know. It took four-and-a-half years. Gawd! Just before launching it in 1975 I was afraid I’d made a mathematical mistake somewhere, that she wouldn’t trim right, and I’d be the laughing stock of York County. I wanted to put it in the water in the dark of the moon. When I did launch it, there where hundreds of people here. ... It was something. I had no idea there’d be that much interest. I know a lot of people didn’t think she’d float. But she went in and sat right exactly to her water line. Eventually, we sailed her as far as the Bahamas. Had some hairy experiences going down, too, but we made it. I was going to have her put out to pasture a few years ago. I went to see if they could take my mast out with a crane. A guy said, “You can’t do that, Frank, it’s a landmark.” So, he bought it and restored it and had it moored out here outside my window where I can see it.

Q: How many paintings do you think you have produced over the years?

A: For a while I worked right on the boat, all day. I did small paintings, maybe two or three a day. I did that for several years. But on average I’d do 60 or so a year, anyway. So, I guess I’ve done a few over my time. But I never know where my paintings end up. I did five six-footers for O’Hera’s Casino. Well, one day a guy called me up and said he owned five of my paintings and could I repair them. Turns out he’d rescued them from a dumpster out back of the casino when they redesigned. I don’t know why they’d do that. Some people just aren’t all that into art, I guess.

Q: But some people certainly appreciate your work. What’s the most you ever got for a painting?

A: The most I ever got was $10,000 for one painting, certainly a lot more than I started out getting in the Pool. For about five years, I sold up in Lincolnville. The president of MBNA credit card corporation was into buying artwork, millions of dollars worth of it. I was doing big pieces at the time, 40-by-60s, and he’d buy them two at a time. I never had it so good. I never made so much money painting in my life. But those days are gone.

Q: Do you still paint today?

A: Oh, yes. When you have an affliction like that, you don’t give up. I paint every day. That’s what it’s all about for me. I’m still fascinated by how water looks under different lighting conditions, and why waves break the way they do. It’s a subject I’m imbued with. I can’t get enough, can’t get it out of my system. Painting water is very tricky. I was never one to be satisfied with what I did. I always had to do better. In fact, I’m still that way. That’s why I have to do two or three paintings at the same time.

Q: What work are you proudest of in your life?

A: Well, building the boat for one thing. And the statue. I enjoyed doing that. That was quite a trip to enlarge it from my 3-foot model to 9 feet. I made my own special enlarging system I invented. But I can’t think of anything else offhand.

Q: How has your world changed the most over the past century?

A: I’ll tell you what’s changed, it’s this cell phone business. When I worked at the ad agency, we were still mimeographing stuff. Computers were enormous things. Now, one little cell phone has more capacity then a dozen of those things. And they take good pictures, too. Amazing quality. And then this GPS, that can instantly tell you where you are and how to get to where you want to go. We never imagined such a thing. We didn’t even have paved roads when I was a kid. We still had steam trains! It boggles the mind.

Q: How is your health at 100?

A: I feel good. Two years ago in December I rowed out to the boat in my dingy, because no boat should be in the water that late and I was losing sleep over it. I had put a tarp over the cockpit to keep the snow and ice out and I decided it needed to be re-tarped. I got out there and there was a 50-pound ingot of lead in the bottom (of the dinghy) and I was lifting it to throw over (onto the deck of the Salt Wind) when I went right over the side. I managed to get back in the dingy and on the boat and was working on the tarp when a couple of guys came up in a motorboat and said, “You fell in the water.” I said, “How the hell did you know?” They said, “We saw you from the restaurant.” I thought, “Oh, great, now the whole town knows it.” And they did, they sent an ambulance and police and everything, although I didn’t need it. Not that time. Then last year I was out trying to repair the bow sprit. I had a block and tackle and boom, you know, and I couldn’t quite get the damn thing to enter the heel and suddenly the whole thing let go and knocked me into the water a second time. But I landed partly on the dock and broke my leg a little bit this time. Since then, I’ve been a little wobbly.

Q: What do you think has been the secret of your longevity?

A: I don’t know. My cardiologist says, “Frank, I’d like to have what you have.” I said, “If I knew what it was, I’d patent it!” Because I’ve had all sorts of things — gall bladder removal, open heart surgery, heart attack, stroke, congestive heart failure, and now a defibrillator. What the hell am I doing here? I don’t know what it is. I can’t honestly say. It’s just I don’t have any stresses in life that work me up. I live a very tranquil life. The only time I really swear is when I’m in the car. I still drive, but other people, oh, the way they drive.

Q: And finally, based on your long life, do you have any advice for artists?

A: I always say, if you decide on art as a career, first get a trade or something, because it’s a vey erratic life. You may not sell for a year, and you’ve got to have something to fall back on, which is what I did for years. Decades, really.

Meet the Artist

A retrospective of the life and work of Kennebunkport artist Frank Handlen will be held at the Mast Cove Gallery, located at 2 Mast Cove Lane in Kennebunkport, from 4-7 p.m. on Saturday, Sept. 24, the day before his 100th birthday. Gallery owner Jean Briggs says she expects to have more than 40 of Handlen’s paintings on display, all for sale, while Sharon Lichter Cummins will present photographs of the artist from across his first 100 years.

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