interviews by NANCY GORDON

Joshua Adam and Susan Parish Adam at their Adam Gallery in Castine.

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Shapes, color and a legacy of fun

Artist Susan Parish Adam in her studio.
Deep Cove
36 x 48 inches
Oil on canvas
Harbor View Spruce
30 x 30 inches
Oil on canvas
Main Street Castine
36 x 36 inches
Oil on canvas
Painting Josh Painting
20 x 24 inches
Oil on canvas
Portrait Series, 2020
16 x 16 inches
Oil on board
Portrait of John Gardner
20 x 30 inches
Oil on canvas
Towards Resolution Island
16 x 20 inches
Oil on canvas
View from Isle au Haut
36 x 36 inches
Oil on canvas
Lone Boat
20 x 24 inches
Oil on canvas
The Orquevaux, France, studio.
Penobscot Bay
30 x 30 inches
Oil on canvas
Pond Island
36 x 36 inches
Oil on canvas
Sunset Over Islesboro
30 x 30 inches
Oil on canvas

When we spoke, you mentioned the parallels between you and your grandmother, Judith, who was well ahead of her time in her accomplishments and approach to life. What are the parallels?

She was an entrepreneur. As a stay-at-home mother of four children, she found ways to earn extra money from the home. She had several ventures as a young mother in the 1940s and ’50s, including a candle making business in her basement and a small recording studio in my mother’s closet. She sold homemade mayonnaise and spaghetti sauce. These are just a few examples. Later, after I was born, she became a painter, mostly oils.

Most importantly, she had fun doing it, and I loved her stories of mishaps and adventures. She was curious and fearless in her creative pursuits. I wanted all of these qualities.

When did you begin to paint and why?

I began to paint in college. Studio art was the only art major besides art history at the time. Up to that point I was more into homemade crafts. I was into all kinds of fiber arts, building things, painting furniture; I was also into graphic design, which I probably would have pursued had it been offered. My grandmother was experimenting a lot with her style at the time. She was into Fauvism at that point. She also longed to be an abstract painter. I think my competitive streak crept in, because abstraction is where I began. I had not done any drawing before, and abstraction incorporated my love for graphic elements and a strong desire to express myself. I had a strong sense of color and composition already through my interest in design. It came naturally and I had great fun doing it, which was key.

Shapes and color … two hallmarks of your landscapes. How do they relate to each other in your work?

Shapes and color interact with each other in various ways to create different reactions. I respond differently to bright colors than I do to pastel colors. Hard lines and sharp corners convey something different as well. I’ve always had strong inner emotional responses to my environment. My early abstract paintings were an attempt to get in touch with these feelings, or my reactions to the shapes and colors I created.

Later, after college, life suddenly got serious. I was in a bit of emotional turmoil about what to do next and the abstraction turned to mud. Expressing my emotional response to my environment at the time was not a pretty picture, so I clung to some advice to “paint what you love.” Painting from life was not something I had done before, or really cared to do; however, I had to start somewhere, which began my long journey of finding the connection between my environment, my shapes and my inner life.

What attracts you first to a scene: colors or shapes?

I think it has to be color. I gasp when I see a field of red. Shapes can be found. I also believe there is a best composition when capturing any scene, just sometimes it takes a little longer to find it. I don’t ever create color that I don’t see; I may exaggerate shapes and colors, but I respond to what is there.

Do you consider yourself a minimalist?

I think I’m somewhere between a minimalist and an abstract expressionist. If I was truly going to incorporate all of these aspects successfully, I felt I had to be original. I’m constantly trying to simplify things, whether in my painting, my actions, or in my understanding of this life journey I am on.

What is your approach to landscapes?

I paint from photographs. My approaches to landscapes come from the gut. I have a physical and emotional response to a scene usually because of a strong graphic element. As light plays more of a role in my work, late afternoon presents more drama and reaction from me. If I’m on a sailboat in the middle of the day, calm as can be, that’s a different feeling to express.

What does your work require from you, personally?

It requires control over my emotions. It requires me to be honest with myself and slay the dragon of self-doubt. I prefer to tackle any personal issues before I start a painting, whether it’s taming my inner dialogue or taking care of that email or conversation. I need a quiet space to create—physically, emotionally and spiritually.

How do you challenge yourself in your work?

I have never been afraid to challenge myself in my work. How to incorporate the shapes and color into a reaction has been a challenge all along. Only in the last few years have I felt the strong connection with my painting that I have been searching for. It’s like I’ve cracked the code. Now the challenge is finding more hours in the day and not over-committing to other things.

How does grit play into this?

Grit is everything. I think if you Googled grit, there might be a picture of my mother. She can do anything she puts her mind to. I inherited (or was taught) this quality. I heard early on that I could do or be anything I wanted. I was encouraged to have a career. I knew it would take strength and determination and I was not afraid of hard work. I also needed a plan and it had to be fun.

Has there been a “game changer” for you in your work?

As I’ve been at this for close to 40 years, there have been many game changers. When Josh and I decided to open up our own gallery, that was a significant decision: to run a business together and the commitment to try and fill a seasonal gallery every summer with our own new and hopefully exciting work. It has created a rhythm and focus that I thrive on. The advances in technology have been helpful—starting with the ease and convenience of having a camera with me at all times. Also, I love my iPad. The ability to use an Apple pen and draw my shapes over the photos before I paint allows me to fine-tune the design before I start. I don’t get caught up in the details of the photograph by using my digital drawing as a reference instead.

Why portraits?

Commissioned portraits are about making money, primarily. Early on the advice to “paint what you love” included my friends and family. I read somewhere that portraits were the most challenging to paint. Because I did not think I had very accomplished drawing skills I thought I could work on my technical skills and make money at the same time. I’m the second of four children and my parents had our pastel portraits done when we were young. I was not a fan, or a fan of traditional portraiture particularly. I was curious to know if I could create something I liked.

Do you approach the portraits in the same way you do a landscape?

The same in the sense that I prefer to have a reaction to the subject. It can be through the composition, the expression or the story. And of course an interesting palette is essential. Practically all my portraits are commissions, which require a personal relationship with the client. My emotions get a little more involved in that I need to feel trust and confidence from the client in order to get the best outcome. I need to know that we are on the same page as far as expectations, which is why I don’t like to make many (if any changes) to the photo. Early on, someone sent me three photos of their granddaughter and asked me to take elements form all three photos “this pose, this face, this light … blah blah blah.” I told her, “I don’t do that.” She responded, “Someday, when you get better, you will be able to do that.” I thought to myself, “Nope, not going to happen.” Part of knowing what your right path is, is knowing what is not your path. And not feeling rejected.

Recently, you painted a series in a much smaller size—6 x 6 inches—with an interesting twist. Did something inspire this?

I live in an incredibly picturesque town for its tiny size. I’ve painted the same scenes many times. I also prefer to paint large-scale. My practical business sense forced me to try and paint smaller, without getting frustrated. As someone who loves a challenge, I began a plan to conquer this frustration when an observant nephew asked, “How many backshore paintings can you do?” I thought to myself, “Not sure—a lot, I think.” So I set out to do 16 small square paintings of the same scene, in hopes that I would find the joy in it. I did!

Do you plan to continue the 6- x 6-inch series?

I’m working on a new series, a bit larger at 10 x 10 inches. I love square format!

What do you hope to give people with your landscapes?

I want to create a response, mostly a very pleasant one. I want the viewer to be drawn in and both see and not see everything at once. And I want to spark imagination and interest in the natural world.

Let’s talk about you and Josh … Where did you meet?

We met at Colorado College.

Where you competitors in any way?

We were friendly competitors. We mostly encouraged each other. There were only six studio art majors at the time. Because our styles were so different, it was hard to compete directly. Our professor was a realist painter, so Josh was the favorite and it was obvious.

How would you describe your personalities?

I’m someone who grew up in an environment where you were encouraged to discuss your emotions. Josh did not. I always joke that I’m an open book and Josh prefers to remain a man of mystery. Josh takes care of a lot of the day-to-day details (that don’t involve technology) and I plan and incorporate big life decisions. Our personalities complement and clash in all these areas. Josh is really clever and funny and I love to laugh.

You’ve chosen a difficult path—100% artwork supported. Do you like the challenge? What do you bring to it?

I’m very proud of what we have accomplished. And there have been a lot of challenges. Mostly around income. Neither one of us needs much. I think I push us forward. I think I bring the overall picture of how this life together can succeed and how to get there. And the determination.

Do you think your work has had an effect on Josh’s work?

I’m sure it has. I think his colors are brighter, and his style is a bit looser. Hard to know if that would have happened anyway. The truth is, Josh isn’t easily influenced. I take more pictures and he paints from some of my photos.

If Josh were to paint your portrait, what would be the most important feature to capture?

Josh painted my portrait in our early 20s. He treated my face like a landscape, accentuating all the hills and valleys. We laughed that now we know what I’ll look like when I’m 40. I think the most important feature would be either my joy, or a sense of peace about things. To simply recognize the person looking back. Something clicks for me when a painting is right. It would have to click.


Why did you decide to open Adam Gallery?

We initially wanted to build Josh a studio, but quickly realized it would make a great gallery and would make the project more affordable. We knew we could produce the work and that our paintings complemented each other. And not splitting the money with another gallery was enticing.


Having a seasonal gallery is the best of both worlds. This town has a very seasonal tourist population. Having all that off-season time to paint helps keep the gallery new and fresh each year. Running the gallery is very distracting to painting. I’ve never been good at multitasking.

High points?

One of the unexpected high points is a party we put on each year on July 3rd. It’s an unofficial start to the summer for most of my family and childhood friends. It’s become a great community event that I look forward to every year. This community has been incredibly supportive, and I like to reward them with a little surprise every year, whether it’s a surprise painting of a beloved person, place or event. Buying a building in the commercial district and opening up a second gallery with my sister-in-law, a jeweler, has been a great high point as well.


You’ve taken some wonderful painting trips to Europe. Which ones stand out and how have they influenced your work?

Two years ago we did an artist residency at Chateau Orquevaux in northeastern France. Being around other artists really gave me some perspective around how far we’ve come and how much we’ve accomplished, and how I was absolutely on the right path. That’s how I felt, anyway. It’s there we got encouraged to open up a gallery in a more visible, accessible location. I’m sure it would have never happened had it not been for the discussions we had there. I also challenged myself to paint large and set goals for my time there. Did I mention the food was amazing?? And the accommodations?? And the people?? Life changing.

Recently, you went back to the south France. Another painting trip?

We did! For two weeks!! It’s the first time we went on a strict vacation, no painting. It was so fun and relaxing and I couldn’t wait to get back in my studio.

Lastly, if you won the lottery tomorrow, what would you do with your winnings?

Fix up my house. We bought a big house over 20 years ago that we have been dreaming of renovating. I would also spend more time living and traveling abroad, without giving up my summers in Maine. I would help save the planet and give back to my community and if I could fix the current political discord with money I would spend it on that too.

Capturing the beauty that is Maine

Artist Joshua Adam painting Deer Isle.
Above Bolinas, California
12 x 18 inches
Oil on board
Backshore Twilight
5 x 8 inches
Oil on board
Flying By
24 x 36 inches
Oil on canvas
24 x 36 inches
Oil on canvas
Wind & Fog
30 x 48 inches
Oil on canvas
Wind Damage
12 x 12 inches
Oil on board
Winter From Blue Hill
24 x 36 inches
Oil on canvas
Boathouse Sunset
30 x 40 inches
Oil on canvas
Boom Beach
36 x36 inches
Oil on canvas
Joshua Adam painting MDI.
Our House In Winter
8 x 10 inches
Oil on board

I can’t resist … let’s start with the Trailside Killer, whose acronym oddly is TSK. Tell us everything!

I started plein air painting when I was 19. Unfortunately, that coincided with the Trailside Killer’s reign of terror. TSK was active in the Point Reyes area and Mt. Tamalpais State Park, adjacent to my hometown in Northern California. He would park at trailheads and then follow his victims into the woods. So along with bugs, high winds and changing weather, as a plein air painter you also had to be concerned with the TSK. I think it forced me to be more decisive and bolder.

After so many years as a plein air painter, you’re now painting more in the studio. Why the change?

Partly it’s that the weather in Maine isn’t as conducive to outside work, compared to California. Also there is a lot of plein air work that never gets finished and framed. I know that you learn by doing, but its also nice to have a finished product to show for it.

How has painting in the studio benefited from your years as a plein air painter?

As a plein air painter, I am well-versed in the colors and values outside, and this helps me to bring that same freshness into the studio work. Having lots of firsthand experience working outside helps with what is essentially a secondhand interpretation of a scene while indoors.

“Are you in the best place for the best composition?” How do you really know?

When I see someone pulled off on the roadside, painting, I think, “What are the chances that the best composition of the mountain they are painting is from the exact spot next to their car? Not 100 feet over there? Or a quarter mile in another direction?” There’s a slim chance the best composition is on the side of the road. Walk around, visualize what the scene may be like from other viewpoints. Don’t be lazy and settle. The composition is your prey and you must stalk it like a hunter.

When did you begin to paint and why?

I liked to draw as a kid. Luckily, there were always a couple other kids in school who were way better, and inspiring. My step-grandmother was a professional watercolorist. She gave me lessons when I was around 10, so that helped. Then in high school in Marin County, there was a group called the “visionary artists,” whose work was very “trippy,” for lack of a better word, and that really got me going.

What first attracts you to a scene?

That’s difficult to say. Sometimes it’s purely the light of the moment, a fleeting effect; other times it’s the composition, which if really strong will look good in any light. I think it’s hard to teach composition; it’s pretty innate, in my opinion.

Any changes to your work over the years?

The colors have gotten brighter. And sometimes in my early work, the paintings had the same amount of detail through the whole of the painting, and I’ve changed that.

You had success early in your painting career with a gallery in San Francisco. How did this come about?

I had a couple of paintings accepted to a large show at the “Hall of Flowers” in San Francisco, and a prominent gallery owner saw them, liked them and bought them. He gave me a number of shows in my early 20s and 30s at his gallery. The gallery specialized in 19th-century California landscape painting, and he carried some Hudson River School artists as well. I think he felt that my work at the time had a kinship with these century paintings.

Do you challenge yourself in your work?

Not as much as I should, probably. I did finally do a few self-portraits while Susan and I were at an artist-in-residency in France. That was a concerted effort to challenge myself. I had a professor once who said, “As soon as you are proficient in a medium, it’s time to change to another one.” I’ve had a hard time taking that to heart.

Aside from the Trailside Killer, you must have had some other “interesting” plein air painting experiences. Care to share?

I started a painting at Whale Beach, Lake Tahoe, one morning. As the morning wore on it became clear that Whale Beach was a nude beach. That was interesting—nude people like to see what you’re working on just like clothed people do.

You’re originally from Marin County, California. Miss it?

I do sometimes, but my parents still live there so I can visit. It’s gotten much more crowded in the last 25 years. Tons of money has poured in, so it’s kind of an unreal place. But long-term planning has preserved a lot of open space and wildlands, so there is still lots and lots of country to paint.

What do you hope your art will give people?

Hopefully, people will momentarily stop and think about the beauty around us, which is under dire threat. I’m not a city person; I love nature and want to celebrate it and get people to slow down and look.

Let’s talk about you and Susan ... Were you competitors in any way?

Probably more now than before, as far as art goes. I had more sales early on, but in the last few years Susan has ratcheted up her art and her sales. But it all goes into the same account, so it’s a very friendly rivalry.

How would you describe your personalities?

Gosh, I don’t know. She’s more feeling and emotional and I’m more logical, I guess. We both love to stay at home and paint.

You’ve chosen a difficult path—100% artwork-supported. Do you like the challenge?

Yes. People idealize or romanticize two artists married to each other, but it’s better to have at least one person get a regular paycheck, ideally as a highly paid surgeon. So you have to be able to live without knowing when or how much you will be paid for your work. It’s not for everybody, but we’ve gotten used to it.

If Susan were to paint your portrait, what would be the most important feature to capture?

Well, she’d have to get the bags under my eyes. That’s my signature look. I think that’s what a caricaturist would seize on. And then, I don’t know, my brooding melancholy?

Do you think your work has had an effect on Susan’s?

Well, I always joke that when we first met, she was completely an abstract artist, with no discernible subject matter. I think over the years I’ve helped her move toward the light and away from that chaotic darkness.

Susan mentioned that you do all the cooking. What is it about cooking that intrigues you?

Cooking and recipes are like a big crossword puzzle: There are a lot of steps, but there is a right answer eventually.


When did you open Adam Gallery?

We opened the Adam Gallery, which is next to our house in 2003, and our second location, in “downtown” Castine in 2020.

High points?

Just seeing happy patrons who like what they bought and return for more.


You’ve taken some wonderful painting trips to Europe. Which ones stand out and how have they influenced your work?

Maybe my first trip to Greece, in 1985—the light is really different there—and our residency in France at Chateau Orquevaux in 2019.

Recently, you went back to the south of France. Did you paint?

Actually ended up not taking watercolors or anything. I think it was our first vacation sans paint. It was very relaxing. There is a lot of gear involved in plein air painting and getting your wet paintings back is a hassle, too. So, no regrets.

If you won the lottery tomorrow, what would you do with your winnings?

Travel and paint in some of those bucket-list destinations: summer in the Austrian Alps, the Faroe Islands, Marquesa islands, etc. And probably get a winter home somewhere else. I feel I’ve fully explored Maine winters and am curious about winters someplace else.

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