The kingfisher was stunned. Incapacitated and unable to fly, the bird lay prone on the side of the road.

Rebecca Goodale felt helpless. She wished she knew animal CPR, but could do little more than offer concern.

“But then I realized, I am an artist. I am an image maker. I can help in other ways,” she said.

Motivated by worry for the vulnerable but beautiful kingfisher, the Freeport artist did a little research and learned that the state listed 37 animals and 190 species of plants as endangered or threatened.

“That led to all of this,” she said, standing in the center of the Art Gallery at the University of New England in Portland. Through June 16, UNE is exhibiting 86 of Goodale’s elegant and finely constructed artist’s books, drawings, paintings and prints.

The exhibition, aptly titled “Lullaby for Maine,” features Goodale’s handmade renderings of threatened and endangered insects, plants and animals. The exhibition is layered and detailed, and beautiful in brilliant ways. Despite the somber message imparted by the artist — these natural things are vanishing at an alarming pace — Goodale’s artist’s books pop with color and emote comfort.

The exhibition feels warm and vibrant. With her understanding of botany and interest in ecology, Goodale creates a sense of the outdoors inside the glass cube gallery. Each book is a love song to the delicacy of nature, oddly ephemeral and lasting at the same time.

Viewers see lemmings, swamp darters, butterflies, whales, lynx, rabbits, irises, clematis and many other things that inspire wonder.

“This is an exhibition that make me ponder big thoughts,” said gallery director Anne Zill. “Like, what is the purpose of art? Art at its best delights us, educates us and maybe even transforms us. That’s what this exhibition does for me.”

Most of the material is displayed in three-dimensional book form, although Goodale also uses wall hangings of prints, drawings and paintings. While there sometimes is great debate whether artist’s books fall into the category of art or craft, her work answers that question emphatically. They are unquestionably works of fine art, Zill said.

“Rebecca makes ‘art books’ that frequently stretch our ideas of the books art genre,” Zill writes. “She is in the top tier of artists in her field, producing works that are deceptively simple to comprehend; at the same time, they are exuberantly complex, layered with meaning, color, texture, form and pattern.”

Artists’ books are fully realized works of art in book form, with bound pages and covers, and limited only by the artist’s imagination.

Goodale’s books take a range of forms. She makes fold-outs, concertinas and loose pages. Some books climb up the walls like vines; others slink across the flat surface like a worm.

They are displayed in a variety of ways at UNE — many on shelves and pedestals built specifically for each book by gallery preparator Kevin Callahan.

“Lullaby for Maine” represents 12 years of work. Goodale’s project began with her kingfisher encounter on a Portland street in 1999. The book she made from that moment of inspiration depicts the kingfisher recovering from its injuries and flying away. She took some liberties with the story.

As events actually transpired that day, a woman with expertise arrived on the scene, tended to the injured bird and arranged for it to receive care at a proper facility. Goodale’s book assumes that the bird recovered and flew away to a lifetime of happily-ever-afters.

The earliest roots for this exhibition go back to fourth grade and Goodale’s first reading “Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland.” One of the illustrations in her edition of the book showed a dodo bird. It captured her young imagination.

“It made me think about the power of an image. An image can make people want to know,” said Goodale.

Goodale made her first book soon after, and has been on an artist’s path ever since.

The only non-Maine species in this exhibition is a dodo bird, which is Goodale’s homage to her earliest forays into art and the spark that set her on her way.

Making books satisfies Goodale’s interest in art and engineering. From those early days, she’s always been drawn to paper and textiles, and has enjoyed making things with her hands.

She has an aptitude for math and science, and excels in book arts because of her ability to engineer the folds of her pages so that they work in a functional way and also delight the viewer with their ingenuity. Many of her books are riddles unto themselves.

Goodale studied at the Portland School of Art in the early 1970s. While there, she showed a visitor her three-dimensional cutouts of paper animals. The visitor liked her work, and encouraged her to keep working.

The man was Bernard Langlais, himself an accomplished Maine artist whose expertise was three-dimensional painted sculptures of animals.

Book arts have proven a perfect fit for Goodale.

“My love for textiles and my love for three-dimensional forms can happen in a book,” she said.

The centerpiece of this show, and the first thing that gallery visitors see, is a folding book of softly colored, life-sized, slender blue flag irises. She made them as block prints with cutouts, and set them in a clamshell box. She displays them across a table, covering several feet in length.

The irises are particularly appropriate for the UNE exhibition. Back in the late 1970s, one of Van Gogh’s iris paintings hung in this space.

The Van Gogh was sold, and proceeds from that sale helped established the Maine Womens Writers Collection, an endowed special collection of published and unpublished literary, cultural and social history sources by and about Maine women.

The collection is operated by UNE and includes rare and contemporary volumes, manuscript material, memorabilia, artifacts and artwork documenting Maine women’s engagement with regional and national concerns, according to its website.

Beginning in 2001, the collection began purchasing Goodale’s work, and now owns the second largest body of her work in the nation.

“They changed my life,” she said. 

Staff Writer Bob Keyes can be contacted at 791-6457 or:

bkeyes@pressherald.com

Twitter: pphbkeyes