Tom Hennessey — gifted sporting artist, meticulous writer and friend to sportsmen — epitomized the self-made man. Always an avid outdoorsman with a creative bent, who lived to fish and hunt, the Brewer native parlayed his artistic passion and skill into a successful career as a nationally known sporting artist and author.
He taught himself to paint. And, if you were an outdoorsman familiar with upland hunting dogs, salmon rivers or the ice-laden backdrops of a Maine coast sea-duck hunt, you beheld his paintings with awe and appreciation because they struck a chord that was very personal. His work resonated with an authenticity and honesty that, like the man himself, was without a trace of affectation or pretense.
Sadly, the artist and the man we identified with, and who identified with us, the sportsmen, passed away at 81 just before Christmas. Measured by his three books and prolific collection of soulful outdoor watercolors, the late Tom Hennessey really left his mark.
It is hard to believe that Tom is gone. He was my favorite outdoor writer and sporting artist, and a wonderful friend. It seems like yesterday that we fly fished for bass at his special pond or for Atlantic salmon on the Penobscot River from his old canvas-bottom double ender. Fishing, it seemed, was always secondary to solving the world’s problems or lamenting changing times. As a colleague at the News and an outdoor companion, he was the best of the best — not only as a skilled outdoor artist and honest essayist, but as simply a loyal friend of uncommon compassion and uncompromising values.
You don’t hunt and fish with someone whose company you enjoy without carving out a few memories and pleasant musings. Tom loved his gundogs, especially his blocky chocolate Lab he called “Coke.” Tom was proud of this dog, and with good reason. A well-trained retriever, Coke always brought the downed ducks back to the river blind that Tom and I shared. One morning before a duck hunt, as we polished off a pre-dawn plate of scrambled eggs at my place, I asked Tom to bring Coke in from the truck so my wife, Diane, could meet the wonder gundog. Coke came in tail just a wagging and promptly took a huge poop in the middle of Diane’s spit-shined kitchen floor. We laughed, but Tom didn’t. The poor guy was mortified. Later on, in the duck blind, I had a little good-natured fun with Tom over the canine faux pas.
Before another duck hunt from Tom’s house, I was in his art studio waiting for him to get his gear together. A trashed painting in a waste basket caught my eye. It was, from my point of view, a wonderful watercolor of a sea-duck hunt. One problem: It was cut in two pieces. “Tom,” I scolded, “why in the world did you scrap this painting?”
“It’s awful,” he said. ”Look at this water. I could never put my name on that!” You could have fooled me. I offered to take it home and tape it back together as a wall hanging. Tom, being the driven perfectionist that he was, would have no part of my art recovery plan.
It was not only Tom’s skill with color and line that made him such a successful painter; he had an eye for detail and was an uncanny observer, always mindful of his natural surroundings when hunting or fishing.
His penchant for detail, as well as his near obsession with avoiding pretense at any cost, also helped make him the skillful and polished writer that he was. He strove to paint with words just like he did with careful brush strokes. Here is a sample taken from a piece he did for the Northwoods Sporting Journal titled “The Way of Woodcock.” “All things considered, to start the birds on their southern sojourns give me a mid-October night with an old fashioned line storm of wind-driven rain that lacquers leaves to windows and shimmies the shade on the lamp post across the road.”
Hennessey, in his final Bangor Daily News column, likened himself to a dinosaur and lamented changing times, cultural challenges to our Maine outdoor heritage and disappearing traditional values in general. In the times we spent together these topics were always explored and, though we never, to my knowledge, solved a problem or redirected society, we were a couple of dinosaurs who seemed to take some mutual comfort and reassurance from our candid canoe conversations.
Although his art will live on, the Hennessey years have come to an end. There is no small irony in the fact that the passing of sportsman advocates like Tom Hennessey hastens the fading of the very traditional values that he so much valued.