“The Dream of Flight,” oil on linen, 50 inches by 63 inches. Collection of the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum. Photo by Eastern Art Services and courtesy of Ben Lincoln.

As a child, Ben Lincoln spent all his time in the Mount Desert Island workshop where his father built wooden boats. As an adult, he still does.

Lincoln is a visual artist, not a boat builder. But when he moved back to the island, he contacted the workshop’s owner and asked if he could rent the space himself. Now, the work he makes there explores the relationship between shape and movement – the way an airplane cuts through clouds, for example, or a boat through waves.

“Initially, I was kind of nervous about it, going into this place that had so much of my father’s creative energy,” Lincoln, 53, said. “How would that work for me? It’s turned out to be a wellspring of creative energy there for me as well.”

Lately, Lincoln has taken to the skies instead of the sea. He is working on a series that explores innovation in flight, and this fall, he sent three oil paintings to the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum in Washington, D.C. This acquisition is a rare honor and puts his work in the company of acclaimed artists such as Robert McCall, Robert Rauschenberg and Norman Rockwell. (It is not clear how many artists from Maine have works in the collection, but it does include a 1964 painting by Jamie Wyeth titled “Gemini Launch Pad” that was produced for the NASA Art Program.)

Carolyn Russo, an art curator at the museum, said she was drawn to Lincoln’s paintings because they represented a style she felt was missing from the museum’s 7,000-plus works of fine art. “Aviation art” is often realist and related to specific events, while “space art” is often more abstract and surreal. Russo said the paintings blended those two distinct styles and also fit with the museum’s broader goals.

“All three of his works speak to the past, the present and the future of flight,” she said.



Those days of tinkering in his father’s workshop informed Lincoln’s decision to study art at the School of the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston.

“That’s where I trace my love of making things with my hands,” he said.

He lived in Vermont for years and returned to Mount Desert Island in 2011. A few years later, he met Jane and Kelly Littlefield, the owners of the seasonal Littlefield Gallery in Winter Harbor. They visited his studio and decided they had to have his work in the gallery. Over the years, Jane Littlefield says his pieces have become focal points in the homes of his buyers. She described Lincoln as cerebral but also humble.

“The discerning collectors are immediately attracted to his work,” she said. “Each piece begs conversation. It takes your eye for a ride.”

Ben Lincoln in his studio on Mount Desert Island. Photo by Ben Lincoln.

The series that now has a place in the Smithsonian collection takes influence in part from an airplane museum in South Dakota, an Austrian-trained economist and the artist’s own feelings during the COVID-19 pandemic.


Lincoln and his wife visited the museum more than 10 years ago on a cross-country road trip. The rusting hulks on the remote airstrip brought on strong and possibly conflicting feelings.

“I was filled with this aesthetic interest and inspiration,” he said. “But on the other hand, I started thinking about the people who flew in these planes and the horrors they were going to see overseas. And it was just one of those moments when you become aware of having two things that seem to maybe not coexist or shouldn’t coexist together in the mind at the same time.”

A decade later, he again felt overwhelmed by emotion at the onset of the pandemic. He returned to that experience on the South Dakota airstrip and decided to capture the crush of feeling in paint.

“I started the project with the idea that if I could find a way of identifying the specific feelings I was having and find a way to make visual metaphors for those feelings and hopefully others hold those feelings in the mind a little more gently, a little more lightly, without feeling so overwhelmed by them.”


The title of the series is “Creation and Destruction,” a phrase drawn from the work of Joseph Schumpeter. The 20th-century economist and sociologist coined the term “creative destruction” to describe how new innovations take the place of old ones. This idea was on Lincoln’s mind as he made the first three paintings, which in sequence tell a story about flight.


The first is “The Dream of Flight,” which depicts the German aviation pioneer Otto Lilienthal, who built and flew gliders in the late 1800s that would inform the work of the Wright brothers years later. Lincoln thought about the feeling of being a young art student at the beginning of a creative career.

“The painting relates to me that feeling of openness and infinite possibilities and ‘Oh my god, wouldn’t it be amazing to fly with the birds?’ ” he said.

The second is “Fast Movers,” which was inspired by the artist’s conversations with Frank Blair, a former Navy pilot who lives in Northeast Harbor. Blair told Lincoln about the dangerous reconnaissance missions he flew over northern Vietnam, skimming low to capture photographs of the ground below. Lincoln was interested in that moment in history, and he also felt an emotional connection in the present.

“Something about that idea of the world rushing by at 850 miles an hour while you’re trying to hold steady to get a good quality picture just seemed to speak to me of what it feels like now, to feel like I’m trying to stand still in place while everything goes so fast around me,” he said.

“Fast Movers,” oil on linen, 40 inches by 50 inches. Collection of the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum. Photo by Eastern Art Services and courtesy of Ben Lincoln.

Blair, 80, said Lincoln captured the scene just right – the speed of the planes, the trail of passing missiles.

“You don’t get much chance to look around,” he said. “It’s marvelous to have. That’s what it looks like, but it’s very hard to go back in your memory and remember because you’re mostly focused on what’s happening in your cockpit.”


And the third is “In a World,” a futuristic scene in the sky that was born out of the artist’s own fear about climate change. Lincoln said he was inspired in part by an interview he read with a climate scientist who said the rapid adoption of electric technologies in the world gives him hope.

“I wanted to push back against the idea that it’s hopeless,” he said.


As Lincoln was brainstorming these paintings, he was also trying to figure out what to do with them. On a whim, he contacted the National Air and Space Museum. He and his wife had visited the museum’s outpost at the Steven F. Udvar-Hazy Center in Chantilly, Virginia. She suggested that his paintings might find a home there among the artifacts of flight.

Russo thought so too. When Lincoln reached her via email in the winter, he shared his initial pencil sketches. She told him to keep working on them and to send images when they were complete. A few months later, he sent three pictures of all three. He hoped that she would take at least one, and then Russo said she wanted all three.

“It doesn’t get any better than that for an artist,” Lincoln said.


“In a World,” oil on linen, 40 inches by 70 inches. Collection of the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum. Photo by Eastern Art Services and courtesy of Ben Lincoln.

The National Air and Space Museum does not have a budget to buy art, she said, but it does accept donations. Lincoln found sponsors and patrons who were willing to finance the works. He said the total value of the donation was $40,000.

Russo began the lengthy process required for any acquisition at the museum. The work was first vetted inside her department, and then she wrote a proposal for a committee that would take a vote. The directors must also sign off. Once those steps were complete, Lincoln shipped the paintings to Washington. (He had hoped to drive them down himself but opted to mail them because of a potential government shutdown.)

Blair was one of the supporters of the acquisition. He called the museum “Valhalla for pilots.” The painting also honors the feelings of pride and regret that come hand in hand when he reflects on the Vietnam War, as well as the many friends he lost during that time.

“A big part of my life and a formation of my personality and character were a function of being in the Vietnam War, and most war veterans don’t like to talk about it much,” he said. “But flying is sort of cool, and I like to talk about flying. I like to tell stories, and working with somebody like Ben helps you tell the story.”

It is not clear when the paintings will be displayed at the museum.

Russo said the art gallery is currently under renovation. The next show is scheduled for 2026, but the works have already been selected. Still, the museum will publish a companion publication for that show that will include more works that will be on display. Russo said she plans to include Lincoln’s images in that catalogue.


She noted that the paintings also represent artifacts that are already in the museum’s collection, such as one of Lilienthal’s gliders. She feels strongly that fine art such as these paintings adds to the experience at the National Air and Space Museum.

“Artists bring unique perspectives to the wonders of flight through their works, exploring everything from the beauty of birds in flight to complex machinery of airplanes and spacecraft,” she said. “Also their personal experiences and emotions related to flight are expressed through their art. It comes back to art that inspires us to explore the world of flight and discover new possibilities. It’s a new way of seeing flight and seeing the world, other than just looking at these inanimate objects in the museum. It personalizes what flight is.”

Lincoln plans to continue the “Creation and Destruction” series with additional paintings, and he hopes to someday see these three hanging in the museum.

“This idea of this project is to think more mindfully and more thoughtfully about the changes that are occurring in society, and what better place than that for a technological museum?” he said.

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