AUGUSTA — When someone from the University of Maine at Augusta exhibits their work at the university’s Danforth Gallery, the artists almost always can be traced to the art and architecture programs, whether students or faculty members.

The paintings on display this summer, however, are about as far removed from the professional and academic life of the artist as possible.

J. Powers “Kid” McGuire is a professor of business and governmental sciences, specializing in labor relations; but his colorful paintings are full of word play, pop-culture icons and riffs on art history.

McGuire has exhibited in galleries from New Jersey to Tennessee to Mexico, but this is the first time his work has been on display at UMA. McGuire’s paintings will be there until Aug. 20.

After seeing several of his paintings in his office, Brenda McAleer, dean of the College of Professional Studies, encouraged him to ask about exhibiting at the Danforth Gallery during the summer, when nothing else was scheduled.

“Anybody that has gone in there comes out and they’re just smiling,” McAleer said. “It’s entertaining.”

McGuire, 68, said he started painting in his 20s, when he saw the floor plans that an architecture student friend had painted.

“I thought, ‘Oh, I can do that,’” McGuire said. “I couldn’t.”

With trial and error, though, he learned more about color and replicating the effect of light on surfaces. He uses acrylic paints because they’re quick to dry, allowing him to paint over anything that doesn’t come out right.

McGuire said he can’t draw, so he uses a grid system to help him keep different parts of an image in proportion when transferring it to a canvas.

A knowledge of art history is clear in some of his paintings, such as the one consisting of portraits of the oft-confused 19th-century French painters Edouard Manet and Claude Monet, or his take on a common subject of Christian art, the Madonna and Child. McGuire’s painting features the singer of “Like a Virgin” and the late chef Julia Child.

Much of his work revolves around word play, such as the diptych comprising portraits of Lady Gaga and Desmond Tutu, titled “Baby Talk”— a reference to the the sounds of their names.

McGuire said his primary goal is to make himself laugh.

“Then if someone else laughs, that’s good, too,” he said. “A little chuckle now and then would be good.”

Virginia Goodlett, a professor of art and art history at the University of Southern Maine who befriended McGuire when she taught at UMA, said his work is more sophisticated than that of most self-taught artists.

“Maybe this is what a self-taught artist in our era of celebrity does,” she said. “So much of what he plays with is these images of famous people that he turns on their head.”

Goodlett said she finds the paintings entertaining, but they haven’t gone over as well when she’s tried to use them as examples in class. Some of the references go right over students’ heads, especially for the younger ones.

McGuire said he starts with images that are in his head, often of public figures from his youth, then tries to come up with a humorous spin.

Sometimes he inserts himself. In one painting, he’s sprawled in a boxing ring at the feet of Muhammad Ali, recreating the image of Ali’s victory over Sonny Liston in the 1964 heavyweight title fight in Lewiston.

There’s no symbolism or deeper meaning to any of it, McGuire said.

“There’s nothing here but what you see,” he said. “There’s nothing below the surface, for sure.”

McGuire said he doesn’t paint consistently, only when he has a good idea, but right now he’s “flat out” of ideas.

Susan McMillan — 621-5645
smcmillan@mainetoday.com