Mike Riley in his sunny Ellsworth studio with some small works in progress. NAN LINCOLN PHOTO

The art and life of Riley: Artist Mike Riley’s portraits and landscapes on view at library

ELLSWORTH — Mike Riley says he went to something like 11 grade schools in 10 years when he was growing up as an “army brat.” He also says he spent some pivotal early years in foster care and institutional settings when his mom was hospitalized for several years.

But this energetic, enthusiastic, and unusually fit 60-something year old man — really, from a distance he could be mistaken for a teenager— does not complain about the hardship of his peripatetic early years; constantly having to say good-by to friends and trying to form new ones or adjusting to new rules and personalities in unfamiliar settings. No, he has a bigger bone to pick with providence.

Having hiked on Grand col Ferret in Europe’s Alps, Mike Riley later captured the Alpine pass where the Swiss, French and Italian Alps converge. IMAGE COURTESY OF MIKE RILEY

“They didn’t have any art classes!” He exclaims, his greenish eyes widening with the horror of it all. “Not one art class, can you believe it?”

As someone who found her school’s art classes a necessary refuge from all forms of math, I share the disbelief. Especially as we are standing in Mike’s sunny little studio on Hancock Street, literally surrounded by his own works of art.

Clearly as an adult, Mike made up for lost time when it came to art education, both as an autodidact, reading about and studying artists he admires and as an art student at University of Maine at Orono for four years, back in the 80s.

Nowadays art figures strongly in his career as the photo editor for the Ellsworth American. He’s the guy who crops out the obscuring sunbursts, sharpens the image and deepens the color contrast from that great photo of your kid sinking a basket or singing her heart out on the Ellsworth High School stage. In his afterwork life, he is a portrait and landscape artist.

Through September, Mike is showing a collection of his works at the Ellsworth Public Library — mostly small oil-on-linen portraits of local folks he likes and or admires or finds artistically interesting and several small landscapes.

There’s a portrait of his former Ellsworth American boss, Alan Baker, on the cusp of breaking into laughter, for instance, or a bemused Kelly Bellis, in brown overalls and cap with the art deco façade of a brick building in the background.

Kelly Bellis in the ‘hood,” oil on linen. IMAGE COURTESY OF MIKE RILEY

“I asked if I could take a photo of Kelly that day ‘cuz I really liked the color palette of what he was wearing, the brick building, the whole composition” Mike recalls. “So, a few weeks later I invited him over for a studio visit and I’ll never forget the expression on his face when he turned the corner and saw his own face looking back at him!”

Mike works primarily from photos — ones he takes or sees in print or that folks bring to him.

In another painting a little girl in a lavender fairy princess costume casts an enchanting spell of adorableness over the room.  Mike shows me the photo the doting granddad asked him to paint from. It’s a rather blurry snapshot with the costumed child off to the side and an odd structure— a radiator perhaps—taking up much of the photograph.

“I told the granddad I really didn’t have to talent to do her justice, but he insisted,” Mike says.

So, he essentially did a photo editing job on the snapshot, but with oil paint instead of photoshop.

His fairy princess stands front and center in the painting, every detail of her costume from the silk roses at her waist, to the gauzy, shimmery wings, to the satin bow of the fascinator perched on her chestnut hair is rendered in vivid detail. The radiator thing is gone, replaced by a pale peachy background that does not distract from the subject who is clearly about to go to work granting wishes and such.

Both in this exhibit and at Mike’s studio there are other portraits of people I recognize from the area such as local artist Svitri Bess and Pete Miller from the Grand; others I recognize because they are famous — Nobel Prize winner Elie Wiesel is one; and some are very familiar in a different context. A portrait of a young man with curly brown hair, full lips and rather startled black eyes, is a copy of a larger portrait by Spanish master Diego Velasquez of his assistant Juan de Pareja, painted some 500 years ago. Another is of pretty girl in a wide-brimmed feathery red hat turns to face the artist, who in this case was, originally, Vermeer.

The fidelity with which Mike renders these classic images, suggests that had his life taken a different turn, he might have made a fortune as an art forger.

Mike says he does have a reverence for the old masters, and enjoys the challenge of recreating famous works, which also improves his own skills.

Finding his own unique voice as an artist is still a work in progress but he intends to emulate another admired painter, Grandma Moses, and continue improving and growing creatively for decades to come.

Asked if he looks forward to a time when he can retire from his newspaper job and paint full time, he surprisingly shakes his head.

“Nah, I have too many other things I love doing,” he says. Top among these is biking, hiking and climbing, which explains that teenage physique. He has already hiked the Appalachian Trail, traveled to Europe and climbed in the Alps, and now he has his sights set on cycling trip from Vienna to the Black Sea.

Listening to Mike talk about all the places he wants to go, things to see, mountains to climb, paths to ride, faces and scenes he looks forward to painting, it is more like talking to a kid just graduating from high school, with his whole life and endless possibilities ahead of him, rather than a fellow baby boomer. Even his hand gestures are boyish.

And it occurs to me that having been denied art classes for so much of his early years, Mike Riley simply turned his life into a unique work of art and learned how to paint along the way.

Nan Lincoln

Nan Lincoln

The former arts editor at the Bar Harbor Times writes reviews and feature stories for The Ellsworth American and Mount Desert Islander.

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