Most days when she came to work, art curator Karen Sherry settled herself in a small, sunny room at the Brooklyn Museum.

She pulled out box after box of drawings, took a seat at a large study table and delicately examined each and every drawing, one by one.

The purpose of her effort was to assemble an exhibition of exceptional drawings by the finest artists in the history of American art. Though she did not stay at the Brooklyn Museum long enough to see the result of her labor, her work resulted in the exhibition “Fine Lines: American Drawings from the Brooklyn Museum.”

It opens this week at the Portland Museum of Art, where Sherry now works as curator of American art.

Over two years, Sherry looked at about 3,000 drawings, and eventually settled on 110 for this exhibition.

In those moments at the study table, when it was just Sherry and these drawings, she was as close to the work as anyone could possibly be since the day the artist put pencil, pen or charcoal stick to paper. It was almost as if she were right there alongside Edward Hopper, Marsden Hartley and Thomas Eakins when they made these works.

Unframed and unimaginably delicate, these works presented themselves to Sherry like a gift from God. “Curators like nothing more than looking at a lot of art, and I looked at a lot of art,” she said.

Drawings are our most immediate works of art. There is no mediation between the artist’s hand and their mark on the paper.

This was Sherry’s swan song, as she departed Brooklyn before the exhibition opened. She felt badly about leaving under those circumstances, almost like a mother who abandons an infant child.

She worked hard on this show for two years, then left before it opened. This show in Portland, which is nearly identical in content, is her redemption.

She has been reunited with her orphaned child.

This exhibition, on view through April 27, includes more than 100 drawings from the 18th through the 20th centuries. They encompass a variety of media, style and techniques, and include graphite, ink, crayon, charcoal and pastel. Our instinct is to assume this is a black and white show – and that instinct is generally accurate – but there is a fair amount of color in the show and a great range of tonality.

The idea of a quickly drawn line presents itself as a gallery motif. The museum hired local artist Carrie Green to draw a loose charcoal line across the top of the gallery walls, almost like a chair rail. It’s an effective design element, because it signals to visitors that they are looking at a different kind of show.

The art is framed and under glass, and has room to breathe on the walls. Visitors can mingle at a distance or get up close and really look at the details.

And it is in the details that this show excels. Sherry calls attention to a finely finished profile, done in charcoal, of a female face by the artist Minerva Josephine Chapman. The artist captures her subject from behind, looking off to the side. Her pose is unusual and unexpected. We’re used to seeing portraits straight on, or at least looking forward. Here, we see the subject’s shoulders, neck, the side of her face and hair done up in bun.

Just her pose raises the question: Why is she looking away? Why did the artist choose to portray her from behind? Look closely, and you see how the artist removed charcoal, or left her paper blank, to suggest the folds in a scarf, and how she handled the wrinkles in the neck and loose strands of hair.

In contrast to that finished and detailed drawing is a quick sketch by Gaston Lachaise, also depicting a woman from behind. Whereas the Chapman portrait is detailed and precise, this one is loose and exuberant, and equally effective. It is of a nude woman, rendered with a handful of sinuous lines that convey sensuality and emotion.

We also see a quick sketch by William Zorach of a girl seated on a sofa reading a book. The subject is familiar: Zorach’s daughter Dahlov Ipcar, herself a famous artist living in Georgetown. Zorach made this drawing around 1930. He shows his daughter seated on a sofa, one leg crossed over the other, book in lap. She props her head with one hand, and holds the book with the other. Her long hair, suggested by a few flowing lines, hangs down her chest.

Sherry has arranged the exhibition in six themes: portraiture; the human figure, including many nudes; costume drawings; narratives; landscapes; and urban, or architectural, drawings. She hopes visitors pay attention to how different artists handle similar subjects, and how one artist’s interpretation can differ from another.

When making her selections for drawings to include, Sherry considered aesthetic appeal, the historic importance of the work itself and the artists, as well as the range of work in the Brooklyn collection.

Drawings have long posed a challenge for museums and curators. The Brooklyn Museum has more than 3,000 drawings in its collection, and began collecting them in the early 1900s. In some ways, they have been treated as second-class citizens to paintings and sculpture, for several reasons.

One, they are fragile and light-sensitive, which means they cannot be displayed often. Indeed, the Portland show represents a rare opportunity for the public to see so many outstanding drawings at one time, Sherry said.

Two, art historians consider them ancillary to other media. Artists often use them in preparation for larger, finished works, or in their training.

That has changed over time. Drawings are still sensitive, but the archival quality of the paper is better today than in the 19th century, and we are more sophisticated in our storage and display techniques. Further, many artists now treat the drawing as a finished, fully conceived work with the intent that it will be displayed and treated as a serious work of art.

With “Fine Lines,” Sherry makes the case that these drawings deserve our full attention.

“They have become to be appreciated in their own right,” she said. 

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

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Twitter: pphbkeyes