Maine artist Stephen Pace, who always found time in his life to make a painting, has died at age 91, three years after he and his wife, Pam, left their home Down East for his childhood home of Indiana.

Pace spent more than 40 years in Maine, living mostly in a sprawling yellow house in Stonington that overlooked the ocean. He made friends throughout the community, and featured the working people of Maine in his gestural and colorful landscapes.

He died Thursday afternoon in New Harmony, Ind., the town where he had his first exhibition in 1939. He died of heart failure, said Richard Kane, a Maine filmmaker who has known the Paces for 40 years.

Fittingly, Kane said, Pace was at work at the easel the day he died.

“He lived a full and vibrant life,” said Kane, who made a movie about Pace that is part of the Maine Masters film series. “What he painted on the last day of his life was what he loved most — his wife. He went peacefully. He was a great man.”

Pace was a key member of the abstract expressionist movement in New York in the 1950s and 1960s, and turned to representational painting when he moved to Maine, said Karin Wilkes, owner of Courthouse Gallery Fine Art in Ellsworth.

He was born in 1918 in Missouri, and grew up on farms there and in Indiana. He took art classes as a teenager and served in England in the Army during World War II.

He was wounded in the war and was hospitalized in Paris. There, he met the writer Gertrude Stein, who introduced him to Pablo Picasso.

After studying art on the GI Bill, Pace made his way to New York and eventually to Maine.

“Nature was in his blood, and he fell in love with Maine. His work started to become either scenes from his childhood in Indiana or Maine scenes, mostly along the coast,” Wilkes said.

Pace first visited Maine in the 1950s, spending time with artist friends on Monhegan Island. He returned frequently and eventually settled in Stonington in the early 1970s. From that point on, he and his wife split their time between their home in Maine and an apartment in New York City.

“To me, his later work is truly American work,” Wilkes said. “He liked to paint salt-of-the-earth kind of people, whether it was people living and working on the coast in Deer Isle or out in Indiana. In his mind, they shared the same hard-working, honest qualities, and he was able to depict them in a fresh and significant way.”

Pace’s death was felt deeply in the Maine arts community, particularly on Deer Isle. Stephen and Pam Pace did not have children, and were looked after by an extended network of friends, Kane said.

They supported an array of arts-related endeavors, including classical music concerts, and more than a decade ago they endowed a painting scholarship at the Maine College of Art in Portland. They left their home in Stonington to the college to serve as a retreat for painters, said MECA Vice President Tim Kane, who is not related to the filmmaker.

He was most impressed by Pace’s energy for work and his inventiveness as a studio artist. Pace had a large, sprawling studio in the barn portion of the Stonington property. The artist walked with a cane and rigged a system of pulleys and lifts to make it easier for him to get around and to ferry supplies and paintings up and down over many levels.

“He was a pretty ingenious guy,” Tim Kane said.

Before he left Maine, Pace gave money and many paintings to Fryeburg Academy. In 2009, the academy opened the Palmina F. and Stephen S. Pace Galleries of Art in their honor.

John Day of Yarmouth, the galleries’ founding director, once told Pace that his gift to Fryeburg “was like a good farmer putting in his seed in the spring. Stephen would never know the harvest he planted with his gift, but I can tell you the academy has already reaped a rich harvest, which will only grow in the future.”

Richard Kane said he spoke with Pam Pace on Thursday.

“She sounded very strong,” he said. “She said that Stephen was always her blue-eyed love.”

 

Staff Writer Bob Keyes can be contacted at 791-6457 or at: bkeyes@pressherald.com