PEAKS ISLAND — Scott Kelley walks slowly down Island Avenue, lamenting the culture of fear that has lately directed the course of American life. These days, a lot of people spend a lot of time and energy consumed with fear, worrying about protecting their borders and their homes and combating the omniscient bogeyman.

Kelley isn’t buying it. He’s not naive about the dangers and threats of modern society, but he refuses to raise his kid in a culture of fear.

“It’s just an unnatural way to live,” he says.

They’re not isolated from fear living on Peaks, but out here, Kelley and his wife, Gail, can raise their boy to appreciate the boundless and boundary-less nature of a safe island life. The whole island is 5-year-old Abbott’s playground, pretty much, or will be when he’s a little older, Kelley said. Abbott may not live in a world without fear, but fear won’t be foremost on his mind when he’s a kid, Kelley said.

It was from that mindset that Kelley, a fine-art painter best known for his engrossingly detailed watercolors of flamingos and herons, wrote and illustrated his first children’s book, “I Am Birch.” Yarmouth-based Islandport Press releases the book this week, and Kelley celebrates with a launch party at 4:30 p.m. Friday at Maine Historical Society in Portland.

Kelley wrote it with Abbott in mind, as a way to remind him and others – kids and their parents who read to them – that our fears often are little more than a chilling wind blowing through the woods. “I Am Birch” tells the story of a birch tree that’s been reduced to a stump by a beaver who spreads rumors of cold and darkness overtaking the woods.

“Cold and darkness,” the beaver mumbles as he gnaws, wearing a plaid shirt, suspenders and a tomato-colored hat. “Cold and darkness.”

Panic spreads among the animals, who leave their forest homes as they forage and stockpile and plan for the inevitable arrival of cold and darkness. The birch refuses to give into the fear, remains kind, wise and strong and eventually grows new branches, flourishes and brings harmony back to the woods.

The birch tree’s reliable constancy puts the animals’ fears to rest.

“I Am Birch” is a parable for our times and a reminder that just because someone says something is true, it doesn’t make it so.

The book is filled with dream-like watercolors of forest animals wearing the garb of humans – decorative and beautifully detailed vests and ascots, hats and feathered headdresses. The paintings are compelling and stately, full of color and imagination and well within Kelley’s oeuvre.

He’s distinguished himself as an artist of birds with special affection for blue herons, pink flamingos and other remarkable water birds, which he paints with attention to anatomical detail and an understated delicacy that gives his paper the feeling of age. He paints majestic right whales, honorable warriors and lumbering, lurking icebergs – and now, a noble porcupine, its quills coiffed, a bold blue necktie set against a patterned long-sleeve shirt. He wears four feathers on his head and, the irony, a quill necklace.

In these paintings, Kelley exhibits the same attention to detail that he gives to his flamingos and a similar energetic curiosity that propelled his whaling logbooks and “Moby-Dick”-inspired paintings of whales and the men who hunted them.

Kelley showed most of these paintings last summer at his Maine gallery, Dowling Walsh in Rockland, in a show titled “Birch.”

The inspiration for the paintings goes back to Kelley’s youth. He spent his summers at a camp in the Adirondack mountains of New York. It was there that he first encountered the art of Winold Reiss, who dedicated considerable time to painting Native Americans. Reproductions of those paintings hung in the camp and made an impression on Kelley. “I went to bed at night with a tribesman staring at me, and when I woke up, he was still looking,” Kelley said.

MAKER OF LEGENDS

For his storyline, Kelley drew from Gluskap, a heroic figure of the Wabanaki people and maker of legends. One Gluskap legend involves how rabbits got long ears, a favorite of Kelley’s growing up. That fable launched Kelley’s exploration.

He had been working on a series of paintings of Wabanaki tribal elders and another series of Maine woods animals. He brought both together in these paintings, giving the bear a top hat with feathers; the moose a balanced, white-feathered headdress; and the squirrel some beads, a medallion and decorative sash.

As a companion piece to the exhibition last year at Dowling Walsh, Kelley used grant money to publish a book of the paintings, working with Portland designer Sean Wilkinson.

Once the paintings came down at the gallery, he did not expect the project to continue. “It had a beginning, middle and end, and I did not think it would be something I would continue to do,” Kelley said. He finished the show and starting painting flamingos again.

Kelley dresses his richly detailed forest-animal characters in human garb influenced by mid-19th-century photographs of Native American elders. Photos courtesy of Islandport Press

But the “Birch” paintings had a bigger life. The animals he created needed a world to inhabit and they needed a narrative. Jamie Hogan, an illustrator and fellow Peaks Islander, introduced Kelley to Melissa Kim, editorial director at Islandport Press.

“My first thought was, these paintings are extraordinary,” Kim said. “He’s in his own class. There’s nothing like him.”

The challenge of the children’s book involved turning the paintings into a story. “When Scott came to us, the paintings were done, and they weren’t done as illustrations for a story. There were no characters communicating with each other or the reader. The challenge was taking those and turning them into a story that was engaging for children,” she said.

Kelley was easy to work with, Kim said. He was open to ideas about rewrites and additions. Kim talked him into making two more paintings for the book, to help tie the story together. “He was unbelievably amenable to suggestions,” she said. “I was nervous about that, because some artists have a vision and that’s the way it should be. That was not the case with Scott.”

Kelley keeps binders of photos, magazines, books and other source material that he uses for reference in his paintings. He won’t paint from the screen of an electronic device, searching out tangible source material instead. The regalia in these paintings was based on black and white photos from 1850 to 1875 or thereabouts. He looked at portraits of tribal elders, like those painted by Winold Reiss, and let the animals stand in for the people.

“It was a great deal of fun, and way more fun than I imagined it would be,” he said. Very likely, he said, he will do another children’s book. “I enjoyed the project a lot more than I thought I would,” he said.

Kelley, 55, has lived in Maine since 2003, moving here from Montauk, New York. He and Gail went directly to Peaks, renting first and then buying a home, selling it and buying another. Kelley has made his living as a painter since coming here. “Moving to Maine was a catalyst,” he said. “I haven’t had a real job since I got here.”

NEXT: ANTARCTIC EXPERIENCE

Lately, he’s been painting icebergs. On May 4, Dowling Walsh opens “Scott Kelley: The Slipping of the Hydrogen Bonds.” These paintings and drawings stem from the 34 days in 2003 that Kelley spent at Palmer Station on a National Science Foundation Antarctic artist residency. He called it “a life-altering experience. I’d go back tomorrow if they called.”

He’s been sitting on this work since he got back, giving it attention off and on. The exhibition at Dowling Walsh will include about 45 paintings and a smaller number of drawings. “I have few regrets in my life. One of them was not doing something with this trip. Now it’s happening, and it feels like an accomplishment for me,” he said.

In July, Kelley will take his family to the camp in the Adirondacks where he went as a kid. He recently reconnected with the family that owns the camp and is going back for the first time since he was 18.

He dedicated “I Am Birch” to the camp’s patriarch, Bob Maxon, “my first spirit guide,” and to his wife and son, “who guide me still.”

He’s looking forward to reclaiming some childhood memories, from a time before fear.

“I remember the bears at the dump. That was Friday night entertainment. I remember getting lost in the woods and being an over-imaginative child who saw things in those woods,” he said.

Abbott can’t wait.

“He’s excited,” Kelley said. “Mostly about the bears.”

 

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