by Tori Rasche
No, not Bernie Sanders. I recently got to ‘hang out’ with another Bernie, the artist Bernard Karfiol (1886-1952), through a collection of his drawings and ephemera from his life that was generously given to OMAA last year by the Karfiol family.
As a gallery attendant, I normally work at the museum when it’s open to the public and warm outside, and when the museum is full of happy visitors enjoying the exhibitions and the beautiful gardens. So having the chance this winter to help with things behind the scenes was a nice opportunity for me, especially as an artist. Over 1,300 individual pieces of the Karfiol gift needed to be looked at, measured, and logged in and I was happy to dive into the musty piles and sift through this slice of art history laid out on long rows of tables in the OMAA’s galleries.
It felt pretty impersonal, at first. Leafing through the magazine articles, exhibit catalogues, and newspaper clippings, I learned of Karfiol’s professional story and of his successes in the American art scene of the early 1900s. But as I worked my way through the bins and boxes, it didn’t take long before I sensed a more personal connection to the artist through his connection to Ogunquit. One of the hidden treasures I found tucked into the pages of a worn magazine was a group photo from the Ogunquit School of Painting and Sculpture. The school, established by Hamilton Easter Field in Perkins Cove, was at the center of one of America’s earliest art colonies. In the photo, Karfiol stands with fellow instructors Robert Laurent and William von Schlegell at the top of a staircase filled with that summer’s students. Karfiol had also saved several brochures from the art school, providing an intimate look at some of Ogunquit’s art history.
Going through his drawings and sketches is where the artist really came to life for me. His subjects in these works, which spanned the course of his lifetime, were mostly nudes and coastal scenes. I felt like I was witnessing the evolution of a great artist as I looked at his drawings of the human figure, first from his time as a student, beautifully drafted and modeled, with only a hint of what would become his mature, clearly identifiable style in later drawings. I could see it in the eyes of the figures. And when looking into the eyes of his figures, I felt like I also had a glimpse into the eyes of Karfiol.
The artist’s coastal scenes made clear his love for Ogunquit and his connection to the Maine coastline. The water and rocks around Perkins Cove and the museum grounds provided the backdrop for many of his sketches of bathers and fishermen enjoying their summers here. I loved finding the simple sketches of boys on the rocks, swimming and diving and just being boys, and then being able to look out the windows of the OMAA to see those very same rocks, empty now in the cold of winter. What a neat sense of place and the history of this place, this ‘beautiful place by the sea.’
I can’t wait to see how our director, Ron Crusan uses some of these anecdotal gems in this summer’s Bernard Karfiol: Ogunquit Master exhibition. I’m sure those of you who visit the OMAA to see it will feel like you got to hang out with Bernie too.