You don’t have to have an art background, or a voluminous budget, to appreciate and acquire works by Maine artists. Public school teachers turned gallery owners Jane and Kelly Littlefield lead by example.
Twenty years ago, an acrylic seascape by Mary Bourke launched Jane and Kelly Littlefield’s sprawling contemporary Maine art collection. Their love for the small work, rendered in Bourke’s primitive style and resplendent with her gift for juxtaposing bold colors, led to more purchases: abstract paintings by Daniel Anselmi, Fred Lynch, and Lori Tremblay, stylized landscapes by James Linehan and Roy Germon, stone sculptures by Mark Herrington and Hugh Lassen, and others totaling more than 150 pieces.
Former eighth-grade teachers, the Littlefields explored galleries in their spare time and filled their cathedral-ceilinged home in Old Orchard Beach with their finds. “Friends walked around like it was a museum,” says Jane, who spent summers cleaning houses on Scarborough’s Prouts Neck for “art money.” Adds Kelly, “Even those who said they found art intimidating or too expensive would engage with it and other guests. We decided we wanted to create a life for ourselves based on the principle of art bringing people together.”
In 2008, they purchased an 1891 foursquare house in Winter Harbor, a favorite vacation spot, and opened the Littlefield Gallery on site. Patrons can have coffee at the couple’s dining room table and explore the works of more than 30 artists displayed on the first two stories of the home and in a 750-square-foot addition; stone sculptures dot the grounds. Whether you’re buying or simply browsing, “we’ll probably have a good conversation,” says Kelly, “about art, yes, but also about our artists, whom people always want to know about.” Here’s an exchange we had about building, and nurturing, a collection of works by those and other local creators.
Q: What advice do you have for people looking to start a collection?
Kelly: Explore different galleries to get a sense of what you like — abstract, representational, loosely painted, lifelike — and what they sell. Ask questions and see who’s willing to spend time with you. You can get a bit of a start online, viewing artists’ and galleries’ websites to get an idea of what’s out there, but you can’t truly experience a work on your phone. The joy and beauty of art is in being around the objects, and in the relationships that form from there — you have to have an interest in seeing things in person.
Jane: Some people begin by looking for a piece to go above the sofa or fill another spot in the house — wrong approach! You will be happier if you focus on what you love versus a certain size. When you’re passionate about something, you will always find a place for it.
Q: What about the intimidation factor some people associate with art galleries?
Kelly: In certain urban areas, there’s almost a requirement for galleries to be pretentious — they’re trying to create an atmosphere. But that has rarely been our experience in Maine. And we have gone in the opposite direction, creating an inviting place where everyone, young and more established, buying and not buying, will feel welcome. Having someone to go around with can also help quell any intimidation. While couples don’t always agree on what they like, they can have animated conversations that lead to a mutual decision. Our love for each other has made looking at art a shared experience that is truly enjoyable.
Jane: Remember also that no one expects you to purchase something just because you walked in the door. We have people apologize to us — “sorry, I’m not going to buy anything today.” Even if you come back five times and don’t spend a penny, I promise, we won’t think you’re a bad person! Art is an investment; it’s important to take your time.
Q: Cost is a legitimate concern for many people — can those without big budgets be collectors?
Jane: You’re talking to former schoolteachers! Yes, absolutely. Smaller pieces are often more affordable, as are those by emerging artists, of which there are many great ones in Maine. Paintings done in acrylic are frequently lower in price than oils, works on paper are less expensive than canvases, and unframed pieces can be more affordable than those in frames. Barbara Zucker, a wonderful landscape artist we represent, paints around the edges of her canvases so they don’t need framing. Going back to the point about developing relationships, if a gallery owner knows what you like, he or she can help you find pieces in your price range.
Also, don’t be afraid to ask if you can break up payments. This is done all the time and the worst someone can say is no. But if they say no, they probably never collected art! Collectors understand what it’s like to become emotionally attached to a work and can empathize. One more thing I can tell you: If you love a piece, you’ll never regret buying it. Years ago, we passed on a Leo Brooks we saw in Blue Hill because we couldn’t justify the expense. We got about a mile down the road before we turned the car around like the Dukes of Hazzard and purchased the painting on a payment plan. And I’m still grateful we did: It remains one of our favorites. The only pieces we regret are the ones we didn’t buy.
Q: Any tips for seasoned collectors?
Kelly: Every collector eventually runs out of wall space. In our home now, we can only display 40 to 50 works at a time in our personal space on our third floor. We keep the rest in storage and rotate things in and out. The beauty of this is that when we bring out a piece we haven’t seen in a while, we often fall in love with it all over again. We’ve also moved toward collecting more sculpture. Everyone’s eye changes over time and when that happens you can find enjoyment in giving pieces away, while making room for more of what you love. We’ve given about three-dozen paintings to our kids and a handful of sculptures to the University of Maine. People can get caught up in the object and the acquisition. Our approach is so much more about the experience. Like a beautiful piece of music, art elicits memories: where you were when you purchased it, what happened leading up to that, the first place it hung in your home. Each time you look at a work, it can resonate differently. You might find comfort in its familiarity or see something entirely new — and, really, how remarkable is that?
Art With Heart
Jane and Kelly Littlefield highlight the benefits of eight paintings by Maine contemporary artists.
Promotes Relaxation: Victor Leger, First Morning, Schoodic, 2012, oil on panel, 6″ x 13″
Starts a Conversation: Daniel Anselmi, Untitled (10-B), 2016, artist-painted paper collage on paper, 8″ x 6″
Creates a Mood: Kathleen Galligan, Glacial Abstract #1, 2017, oil on panel, 12″ x 12″
Makes a Room Feel Finished: Amy Pollien, Blackberry Branches, 2017, oil on panel, 36″ x 24″
Invites You In: Chris Huntington, “Tides a Coming” Matinicus July 1974, oil on board, 18″ x 24″
Generates a Color Palette: Joseph Haroutunian, Sky and Flats, 2016, oil on gessoed paper, 30″ x 22″
Expresses Aesthetic Interests: Ben Lincoln, Three Out Front, 2017, oil on linen, 20″ x 30″
Establishes a Focal Point: James Linehan, Big Schoodic, 2016, oil on canvas, 68″ x 72″