It is hard not to assume that everyone is familiar with the North Haven and Rockland-based artist, Eric Hopkins. He seems so non-artiste, so accessible; walk into his gallery on the harbor and chances are good you’d bump into him. And his work is accessible. Most of it is “coastal motifs” of Penobscot Bay—the sky, the sea and the islands with their rocks and trees. The iconography may be archetypal, but none of that in-talk really matters in experiencing the work. Author Carl Little, a resident of Mount Desert Island who has written other books on New England artists, links Hopkins with American modernist painters, including Marsden Hartley, John Marin and Arthur Dove. He writes of Hopkins’ bold, spare style, “Hopkins distills the landscape to energized lines and forms.” In revved-up colors on large canvasses, the view is almost always from above, a bird’s eye perspective. And Hopkins himself goes airborne for that vision, a licensed pilot who loves to fly. Ironically, for a man who spends a lot of time in the air, and whose work so creatively documents that element, you can also find Hopkins’ art on bags of organic compost. You don’t get much earthier than that!
The way Eric Hopkins zooms out in describing a place—capturing many broad details—seems to me to be what Carl Little is also doing with the new book he has authored, Eric Hopkins: Above and Beyond. With that approach, we get some details sketched out for us, and some omitted or left vague, but we are shown the most important, essential things in understanding the artist and his art.
The book is a beauty, its oversize, 131 pages containing many full color reproductions of Hopkins’ work over the years 1979-2011. Hopkins is not only a painter, but also works with glass and wood. Interestingly, the illustrations are not arranged in chronological order. Loosened from an organizational schema, the effect is like immersion, a viewing experience more sensory than intellectual.
In recounting Hopkins’ biography, Little touches briefly on a seminal, life-changing event: the death by accidental drowning in 1961 of Hopkins’ younger brother Stephen when Eric was five and his family was living on the island of North Haven. Elsewhere, Hopkins has described the comfort he obtained from islanders telling him his brother had gone to live up in heaven. Little doesn’t explore a possible connection between that and Hopkins’ subsequent interest in flight. But it seems that a powerful convergence of influences occurred for Hopkins as a boy, combining that image with his interest in Anne and Charles Lindbergh, legendary aviators with a home on North Haven, and the then-burgeoning American space program, aimed at putting humans in outer space.
The explorer persona is one that has always resonated with Hopkins. As a child, he felt a connection with those who bravely ventured into the unknown, like Amerigo Vespucci and Erik the Red, and later, the astronauts. Perhaps because of that orientation, the world he paints is one seen as if just discovered—elemental, primordial. His pictures suggest a place pre-civilization. In a few pictures, a road or clearing implies human activity. We never see more—no dwellings, no boats and no inhabitants. But even un-peopled, it never feels post-apocalyptic. Rather, it is life-affirming, the mood optimistic and positive, both soothing and stimulating. This is a place you would want to live. Little recognizes the artist’s joie de vivre. In one example, he quotes Hopkins enthusiastically describing an afternoon’s work, his Merchant Row drawings conveying “a sense of motion and space and of just plain being alive out in the boat on a gorgeous fall day.”
Little’s book adds some gravity to Hopkins’ oeuvre with a comprehensive look at an artist deserving of critical attention. But just as important, for those of us who feel—maybe in our right-brain mode—enlivened and energized by his work, the book provides a kind of celebration we can share, a party we’re invited to. Hopkins’ work is uplifting in every sense of the word. q