THOMASTON — Tom Crotty keeps working his way up the coast.

The long-standing painter and gallery owner spends much of his time these days on the St. George peninsula. Crotty has operated Frost Gully Gallery for 45 years. He opened his first gallery in Freeport in 1966, then spent 27 years at three locations in Portland before high-tailing it back to Freeport in 2000.

Last fall, he opened a second Frost Gully location on Main Street in Thomaston. Now he is hitting his stride at the Thomaston gallery with a blockbuster exhibition of oils and watercolors by longtime and much beloved Maine painter Laurence Sisson.

It seems the further he moves up the coast, the better the business.

“The last couple of years, I could go weeks without seeing a soul,” Crotty said of the Freeport gallery on Route 1, north of downtown. He plans to keep the Freeport gallery open “for the time being,” but seems content to focus his energy on the Thomaston enterprise.

“I don’t know,” he said in an interview last week, “something is changing in the Greater Portland area. It could very well be that when you run a gallery for 45 years, the clientele you are used to are getting long in the tooth, downsizing or just not collecting anymore. It seems I am just not connecting with the younger generation.”

Regardless, Crotty has always wanted to live and work up this way. He’s fond of nearby Rockland, and appreciates the kind of exhibitions that the Farnsworth Art Museum organizes.

These last few years, he’s been impressed with the quality of galleries that have opened up this way, including the Haynes Gallery in Thomaston and Dowling Walsh in Rockland. They complement established galleries like Caldbeck Gallery in Rockland very well, he said.

When retail space opened up last fall on Main Street, between the Thomaston Cafe and the Personal Book Shop, Crotty moved quickly at the opportunity. He shares an interior door with the bookstore.

So far, so good.

“I think you have a better chance to bring exceptional work to the attention of people up here. Portland is just a maze,” he said. “There are probably too many galleries, too many people trying to act like artists and too many people trying to act like dealers. More and more and more is not necessarily better — and most likely, it’s less.”

He may be right. It may just be that the Portland area is saturated with artists and galleries. Or it may simply be a matter of taste.

Either way, Crotty senses that he’s found a comfortable new home.

“Thomaston is a coming place. It’s close enough to Rockland and the Farnsworth to be a part of that scene,” he said. “In Freeport, I used to listen to my best customers talk about their trip up the coast to the galleries.”

Now he’s part of that community while keeping his toe in the water in the Portland area.

The Sisson show is drawing attention from folks up and down the coast. It includes almost two dozen finely crafted paintings, all from Maine and most completed in the last decade or so.

Sisson lived in Maine from 1950 to 1972, and now makes him home in New Mexico. He is in his mid-80s and not in the best of health, but he’s still painting — and still painting Maine scenes.

Many of these paintings are from Sisson’s former home in the Boothbay area. He spent more than two decades observing the same tide pools, the same set of rocks, mud flats and distant island. This work is focused on his tiny world here in Maine, during all tides, lights and seasons.

It’s a unique and committed vision of a minute part of the Maine coast. Interestingly, Crotty observed, Sisson’s paintings of this scene have become more intense after he moved away and began painting from memory and imagination.

“He always moved between more transparent and often semi-abstract things to mostly fully realized and representation subjects,” Crotty said.

Sisson’s commitment to his subject is not unlike Monet’s obsession over haystacks and water lilies. “They’re a celebration of this little part of Maine. It’s a consistent view, but unique and each one different,” Crotty said.

Former Maine College of Art president Roger Gilmore stopped in at Frost Gully in Thomaston last week to take a look. He’s a long-time friend of Sisson, and was happy to see this new work.

Gilmore is no art critic, nor does he pretend to be. But he offered this evaluation: “He’s a meticulous craftsman, a craftsman of the canvas. I don’t know that he is an artist who evokes a lot of profound philosophical reflection, but your jaw drops in awe looking at the craftsmanship of his work and the way he can render our Maine coast.”

In a recent conversation, Sisson told Gilmore that the only difference between painting Maine and painting New Mexico “is that the water dried up (in New Mexico) a long, long time ago,” Gilmore recalled with a laugh.

Sisson will forever occupy a happy place in Gilmore’s heart. Back in the 1950s, when the Portland Society of Art was seriously considering closing the Portland School of Art, Sisson urged the board to reconsider that idea.

“Lonny was teaching part time, and he made a passionate plea to keep the school open,” Gilmore said. “The story is that the trustees said, ‘If you agree to run it, we’ll give it another try.’ “

Sisson served as director of the Portland School of Art for a couple of years, and in effect saved the school. It grew over the years, eventually becoming what we know today as Maine College of Art. In time, Gilmore became president of MECA and orchestrated its move into the Porteous building in downtown Portland.

In that sense, Gilmore and Sisson share a lineage.

“He’s a lovely guy and a handsome fellow,” Gilmore said. “He’s a good jazz pianist and a good raconteur — intelligent and hard-working. When it comes to the discipline, he reminds me of Dahlov Ipcar. Every day he is at the easel, and it shows.”

“I find his work inspiring. I enjoy his work immensely, and wish I could afford to own one,” he said with another laugh. 

Staff Writer Bob Keyes can be contacted at 791-6457 or: [email protected]

Twitter: pphbkeyes