SPRUCE HEAD — When he was 2 or 3 years old, Wilder Oakes emerged from the door of the fishing shack that he shared with his family at Port Clyde, walked out onto the gravel road that ran through his coastal village and noticed a bright light beaming down from the sky.
Startled, he looked up at what he thought was a brilliant sun, but found instead the face of an angel.
“She spoke to me,” Oakes recalled more than a half-century later. “Telepathically, she said, ‘Welcome to the world.’ She told me never to forget that moment and never doubt it. I never have and never will.”
Oakes is 55 now, and hasn’t strayed far from his Port Clyde home. He lives in Spruce Head in a house he has been building and adding on to for almost 30 years. “Some day, I’ll finish it,” he said, but one gets the impression those words are boastfully optimistic.
Oakes’ directions for a visitor are perfectly Maine: “If there’s snow all over everything, my house is gray, board and batten, sits back in a field a few hundred feet,” he wrote in an email. “You’ll see a nice shaped pine tree out front, and the pointed pyramid next to the house. My place has a double green front door, and there’ll be smoke coming out the chimney.”
Ever the honest man, Oakes made certain that smoke was coming from the chimney.
Complimented on the precision of his directions, he deadpanned, “I’ve honed them.”
Oakes makes his living as an artist, and is best known for painting colorful, large-scale scenes that evoke his life and childhood. His paintings, which often include three-dimensional elements, are autobiographical narratives. They tell stories about people and places important in his life, including his fisherman father, his three ex-wives — and his angel.
The paintings are like chapters in a book, with developed characters, action and resolution.
His work involves equal parts drama and spirituality, ingredients that give his work its magic. There is nothing usual about Oakes or his paintings.
True to his word, Oakes never forgot his angel. He might have tuned her to out from time to time, mostly during the 35 years that he lost to drinking. But he was fully tuned in when she tapped him on the shoulder six years ago.
“She was just saying hello,” Oakes said. “I didn’t feel great, mentally or otherwise. It was time.”
With the friendly nudge of his personal angel, Oakes gave up the booze and began reclaiming his life. He’s been on the path of recovery since.
Among the debts he is repaying is one to his angel, in the form of art. Since 2007, Oakes has labored over a huge painting he calls “Angel Is.”
It’s a portrait of his personal angel, with her long blonde hair, blue eyes and a set of wings sure to inspire jealousy in other angels. He sets her in the Port Clyde of Oakes’ childhood, which he returns to almost every day in his memory and imagination.
There is no teasing Port Clyde out of Oakes. His father was a fisherman; his mother, a sardine packer. The village and his childhood inhabit many of his paintings.
He includes no detail by chance. If there is a buoy in the painting, it features his father’s colors. If there’s a lobster boat, it’s his dad’s. If there’s a woman, it’s probably one of his former wives. If there’s a fishing shack, it’s where he grew up.
Asymmetrick Arts in Rockland will feature Oakes’ paintings in a month-long exhibition in July, during which time the Strand Theater will premiere a new film, “Charles Wilder Oakes and the Muses of Port Clyde,” by Maine filmmaker Dale Schierholt.
Fairly or not, Oakes has been cast in the genre of outsider art. Outsider art generally refers to non-traditional art, or work created outside the boundaries of the norm. It tends to express unconventional thoughts and ideas, and often is created by people who lack formal training.
Oakes has been painting, or drawing, all his life, and prefers avoiding labels for his work.
He accepts the outsider label, but finds it limiting and inaccurate.
“When I first heard ‘outsider art,’ I just accepted it. But I didn’t accept it on any deep level, because I’m not. I’m pretty much an insider,” he said. “I’ve been inside of man’s spirit and man’s head for quite a while.”
Oakes takes pride in his sustenance as an artist. He claims to have sold his first piece when he was a young boy, and has rarely finished a painting that didn’t result in a sale.
He’s used his art for bartering too. Legend has it, he paid for his mother’s funeral by trading a painting.
He notes that his top-price sale so far was $28,5000. But he has his sights set higher.
“This one will be over one hundred grand,” he said with a glint in his eye, standing alongside a work in progress.
Staff Writer Bob Keyes can be reached at 791-6457 or: