SUMNER — There are worse ways to spend a pandemic.
During the past year, Joel Babb painted most every day in an art-filled studio with a steady light pouring in from high on its northern wall.
All around him are his breathtaking and acclaimed paintings of Maine’s varied landscape, Boston’s urban triumphs and, reaching farther afield, the always enchanting ruins of Rome.
His studio is a square with high white walls, 32 feet along each side. It is, in Babb’s estimation, perfect.
“I feel so fortunate to be able to work here. Unbelievable,” he said recently.
It’s a far cry from what the 73-year-old Babb experienced when he first saw the property half a century ago.
“I came up here just by chance,” the painter recalled, visiting the farm and woodland of a co-worker in Boston, his first time in Maine. The next time he came, Babb took a bus to East Peru and walked seven miles to reach the land.
“I didn’t even have a tent. I had a sheet of plastic” from which he jury-rigged a place to sleep safely in a field for a week, Babb said.
Something about Maine called to him.
His friend gave him an acre of his own in Sumner and Babb began in 1975 to erect a small house and studio on the spot where he once had camped. It slowly expanded over the years — once by adding the remnants of a wooden shack the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston had erected for a samurai sword manufacturer, and a makeshift garage kit from a lumber store.
When he and wife Frannie moved there permanently in 1988, Babb worked in a crowded, cold and gray studio.
But a streak of sales after Vose Gallery in Boston began showcasing his work 15 years ago brought in money sufficient to add the new studio to the home. Babb hired Auburn architect Dan Mareno to get it right.
Mareno said the chance to work with Babb on the project was life-changing.
Putting their minds together, Mareno said, they transformed a “very, very small studio” that “kind of looked like a very tall telephone booth” with a shed roof and elongated sides into something that offered “a sense of awe.”
He said he figured out how to add the large studio without overwhelming the small house, taking advantage of the site’s topography, and to ensure that people who came to see Babb’s work would get the feeling of “angels singing on clouds.”
“The space is very much about the art,” Mareno said.
Over in one corner, within easy sight of the easel where he’s working on a new painting of a Mount Desert Island scene, is one of his earliest efforts, depicting an imaginary Rome he completed in 1975.
On the opposite wall, along with an array of other paintings, is one of Alder Brook on his friend Bernd Heinrich’s 650-acres in Weld that captures woods and water, rocks and sky, and turns a fleeting scene into something enduring.
In a brief essay in a 2012 University Press of New England book focused on Babb’s art, Heinrich recalled seeing the painter sitting in a chair in the middle of the familiar stream “with a brush dipped in paints” to capture the place on canvas.
“He brought it home for all to enjoy – those who had never been there and who would likely never be able to venture to that sprite of water in the woods of western Maine,” Heinrich wrote.
The painting goes well beyond what a photograph could offer, evoking not just the moment but also the appeal, the sparkle in the water, the scattering of light that speaks to something profound in an extraordinary spot that is almost commonplace in the almost endless woods of the Pine Tree State.
That Babb, who can paint the Maine wilderness so well, is perhaps best known for his almost photorealistic paintings of scenes in Boston says a lot about the range of his skills, long recognized by collectors, dealers and art lovers who have snatched up many of his works.
Babb said he always keeps busy —and the pandemic hasn’t made too big a difference.
“You know, it hasn’t been that huge a change,” he said. “The psychology of it has been totally different. But, really, I’ve still been able to work.”
Babb said he’s cut back on the hours — averaging about four a day now — partly because of the need to do more chores and partly because he doesn’t feel the same “driving necessity of earlier times.”
He said that he and his wife have had their moments of loneliness and cabin fever, cut off from friends and looking forward to the chance to see people more often as vaccinations begin to reduce the dangers posed by COVID-19.
Given how many have suffered through “a terrible time,” he said he is “extremely grateful” to have avoided the hardships.
“I’m still making forward progress,” Babb said.
BABB’S EARLY YEARS
Though Babb didn’t set foot in Maine until his 20s, his family’s roots reach back to the 17th century, when Phillip Babb lived on Hog Island, six miles off the coast of Kittery, working as a constable, butcher, innkeeper and, clearly, whatever else it took to survive in the Isles of Shoals.
While some Babbs stayed on in Maine, others ventured further afield, with one branch landing in South Carolina, which is where the painter’s father was born a century ago.
Babb’s father wound up as an agricultural engineer for the U.S. government, a job that had him moving around quite a bit. Babb, born in Georgia in 1947, went to four different high schools and eventually graduated from one in Lincoln, Nebraska, before he headed off to Princeton University.
He wanted to study architecture at first, but his father “really dissed that idea” and tried to talk him into doing something practical, beaming at the briefly held notion that his son might study finance and economics.
Instead, Babb said, “I went back to Princeton and declared my intention to major in art history,” which he felt passionately about. His mother got it, he said, even if his father “didn’t understand me at all.”
Perhaps his father’s disapproval helped spur his success.
“I absolutely knew that I had to succeed. It would just be too damn embarrassing if I didn’t,” Babb said.
His mother’s influence must have mattered. One of his sisters became a professional cellist. Another studied to be an opera singer, but ultimately wound up as a vice president at Citibank. A third sister proved a success in advertising.
Babb said that when he thinks about it, “it’s a wonderful feeling” to have done well as a painter, “kind of a vindication” of brushing off his father’s criticism and of “my mother’s support.”
FINDING HIS OWN STYLE
As a young painter, Babb absorbed everything he saw, admiring modernists, impressed by old masters, seeking to find his place in the vast sweeping history of art.
After Princeton, he headed to Boston to learn more and get started.
Babb remembered returning to the city after a Christmas break with $60 to his name and the necessity of finding a job to get by.
He lucked into a position as a guard at the Museum of Fine Arts, he said, which turned out to be “the perfect job for a young artist because you’re going around the museum with a sketchbook at night and you’re getting paid.”
Before long, he began teaching courses at the museum and eventually secured commissions to paint cityscapes of Boston that became increasingly sought-after.
“It’s almost like I almost had a plan,” Babb said.
Like so many before him, Babb headed off to Rome to further his study, “washing dishes for some German nuns for food” while he soaked up the classical tradition that surrounded him in a city chock full of beauty and history.
“I found myself kind of like a Renaissance artist trying to learn to paint like the Greek and Romans,” he said. “I had this tremendous desire to learn, to learn what the arts of the past can do, and then apply it in some modern way.”
Babb said that he felt at times like he was “basically back in grade school,” far from the sophisticated artist he ached to become. Faced with such mastery all around, he said he felt like “I didn’t know anything.”
“I don’t know why I didn’t quit,” he said, except that painting had become both his vocation and his calling. He had to persevere, following the advice of Leonardo da Vinci to polish his craft, and studying one great artist after another.
As he gravitated more and more to realism in his work, Babb came to think of himself as “a reformed modernist,” concerned that art schools “have stressed innovation and the avant-garde” and almost obliterated the classical tradition.
Babb came to relish the detail that marks realistic painting.
“One of things that’s out of fashion with contemporary art is the beauty that was always at the heart of the more classical or the traditional,” he said.
But, he noted, that is changing.
“Right now, the whole contemporary art world is in such a jumble, so mixed up and strange and interesting,” Babb said. “I no longer feel like the art of painting is under threat. Things evolved. They always take an unpredictable direction.”
There’s no telling what might come next, he said.
EYEING HIS LEGACY
One of the things Babb did during the pandemic was to organize his own work.
He said he’s done “maybe four or five hundred” paintings over the course of his career, along with an array of sketches and drafts and such.
In some ways, Babb said, “it’s not that many,” but “a lot of them are very complicated and take months to do.”
“Looking back, it is a lot of work,” he said.
Babb doesn’t have much in the way of records about his earliest works, but for four decades, he’s kept transparencies of finished paintings, essentially slides that show each one in detail.
He spent time during this year of isolation scanning them and putting them into a database on his computer.
“I have a very good record now,” Babb said.
He said he figures he better get the job done because “when I die, nobody’s going to do it.”
Babb said he doesn’t know, though, what will happen ultimately to the database or the many paintings in his possession. He’s in good health and there’s time to figure that out later.
Still, a painter who specializes in capturing moments in a city or along a mountain brook also knows well that “boy, your life goes by so fast.”
As he looked around at the paintings hanging throughout the studio, Babb mentioned that at the end of his father’s long career with the U.S Department of Agriculture, “He didn’t have anything to show for what he did.”
Babb, most assuredly, does.