February 26, 2010

Stephen Sunenblick TEES IT UP

BOB KEYES

— By

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Photo by John Ewing/Staff Photographer... Thursday, December 10, 2009....Local artist Steve Sunenblick paints abstract golf scenes which are displayed at a gallery at 71 Federal Street in Portland.

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Staff Writer

ORTLAND — The idea probably first occurred to Stephen Sunenblick back in the late 1990s. He was bound for a month-long residency at the Vermont Studio Center to immerse himself in his painting, with no distractions.

But before he went to Vermont, he got together with a bunch of his buddies for a golf vacation in Rangeley.

As Sunenblick remembers it, they hit balls long and straight for several days and reveled in the camaraderie of men at play without a care in the world aside from their golf scores.

As his buddies returned to their workaday lives, Sunenblick -- then a practicing Portland lawyer -- sauntered over to Vermont for his art residency. Almost certainly, during those long and satisfying weeks in the studio, his mind wandered back to the lush fairways and forgiving greens.

Fast-forward to the present.

Inspired by his game and endowed with time to experiment in his art after retiring from law, Sunenblick lately has been making abstract paintings that feature golf as a central subject matter.

Sunenblick is showing his golf series at a gallery he helps operate at 71 Federal St. in Portland, on the east side of Franklin Arterial. The gallery is without a formal name, and is known simply as 71 Federal Street. It is marked by a large banner out front, proclaiming ''Art Gallery.''

On the inside, viewers will find large abstract paintings, mostly oils, that affirm Sunenblick's passion for golf and his talent with paint.

These are not the golf paintings that one typically associates with sports art. If one wanders onto the Web and searches for golf art, one will find very little that is interesting or unusual -- lots of pretty pictures of beautiful links and greens, and guys blasting out of sand traps.

Sunenblick's work is nothing like that. He leaves thick strokes of oil on his canvas, and creates highly abstract and expressionistic narratives that are rich in texture and complete with the formal concerns of great art -- space, shape, line and color.

His canvases explode in reds, yellows, blues and greens. And his work is full of humor and congeniality.

''Round's End,'' for example, features men shaking hands on the 18th green after completing a round -- only, we never really see the men. Instead, we see their arms and hands all twisted together, with an oversized ''18'' hanging above them.

In ''Smelling the Roses,'' we get two men with their backs facing out, a hedge of simple roses beyond them. The arms of four men -- two that we see, and two whose bodies are out of the frame -- are clasped around each other's shoulders.

''Range Man'' is a loosely conceived outline of a golfer, his head down, club cocked, preparing to drive a ball.

'TAKE SOME CHANCES'

While this body of work is new, its roots go back to the lessons Sunenblick learned in Vermont, studying with the likes of Neil Welliver, Katherine Porter and Wolf Kahn.

''You go up there with this notion that you're halfway decent. And then what happens is, they give you a studio and you paint away,'' Sunenblick said. ''You do it all day long. But after about two weeks, you wake up and say, 'I want to try something else.' It forces you take some chances and change the way you approach your work.''

Sunenblick is an unlikely artist. He grew up in Eliot in the 1950s, and graduated from Tulane University in 1965. He served in the Peace Corps, then attended the University of Maine School of Law, graduating in 1971. Two years later, he opened a law office.

The art bug bit him in 1978. He was grabbing lunch at the Old Port Sandwich Shop when he noticed an advertisement for the Portland School of Art, which is now Maine College of Art.

That summer, he enrolled in a sculpture class, and he knew right away that art was his thing. ''I was greeted at the sculpture class door by a young woman with a helium balloon tied to back of her ponytail hair-do. I was hooked,'' he says.

Sunenblick took summer classes for two years before finally enrolling full-time, though he maintained his legal work all the while. He graduated with a bachelor's degree in painting in 1984.

His law practice and family always took priority, and Sunenblick had little choice but to keep his painting strictly on the side. For many years, his art was the best-kept secret in the Portland legal community.

But as he inched closer to retirement, he brought his art more to the fore. Three residences at the Vermont Studio Center, in 1998, 1999 and 2000, set him down his current path. Retirement in 2005 cleared the way for him to paint all the time.

IN THE FAIRWAY

Sunenblick had success right away. His work was accepted in the 2006 biennial of the Center for Maine Contemporary Art in Rockport, and a Falmouth gallery began showing his work.

A friend and golf partner, Al Martin of Cape Elizabeth, encouraged him to pursue the golf theme. It was about 18 months ago when Martin stopped by Sunenblick's studio to look at some work. Hanging on a wall was a black-and-white image of what would become ''The Foursome.''

Martin loved the piece.

''I told him he needed to keep doing them,'' Martin said. ''He was doing something I hadn't seen before, and it was very unique. His paintings, because they are so abstract, allow you to use your imagination. You can look at the paintings and think about what's going on. But they are not so literal that they tell the whole story for you.''

As a painter, Sunenblick sees his job as that of a storyteller, and he's narrating his own tale. Golf is a perfect subject for him, because he knows it well. He's a very good golfer, with a 9 handicap.

At their core, Sunenblick's paintings are about the friendships he has formed over the years with Martin and other members of his golfing group.

He mentions a long line of painters who have tackled the challenge of sports -- Thomas Eakins portrayed scullers, Marcel Duchamp portrayed chess players and Edgar Degas pursued horse racing and polo.

''In that sense, golf as an art subject just follows a historical evolution of sport in art, though certainly a more plebeian activity, but an activity that has captured the imagination of a wide segment of the world's population,'' he said.

''More important, I use golfers as a symbol of camaraderie and friendship. You become very close friends with the guys you meet through golf. You see guys at their best and at their worst. But you see them in a way that's not associated with an office. You see them as they are in life.''

Martin is pleased with his friend's success -- and hardly surprised.

''He is so very disciplined. When he gets involved with something, he sticks with it,'' he said. ''We all used to be 20-handicap golfers. He's a 9 now. He spends a lot of time on the range. He's the best of us, and has risen to the top.

''That's typical of pretty much anything he attempts.''

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

bkeyes@pressherald.com

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