February 13, 2011

Author Q &A: He cast a wide net

Preacher, painter, prolific writer: Jonathan Fisher was all this and more as a man uniquely of 18th and early 19th century Maine.

By Bob Keyes bkeyes@pressherald.com
Staff Writer

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He certainly wasn't the only person who moved in all those directions and dabbled in a whole range of those kinds of things. But he represents that moment of great fluidity.

His legacy is having helped to shape the way Blue Hill is developed, and the way some institutions that we still have came to be, the Bangor Theological Seminary being one. He made these objects that are rare, like a view of a rural Maine town before 1830. The Blue Hill painting is among the largest and most ambitious of those paintings that still exists. He has left us a picture of that town in the process of its becoming a significant place. 

Q: What moved him to paint?

A: He had been exposed to some degree when he was at Harvard to aesthetic theory. In the 18th century, it would have presented painting as one of the most distinguished aspects of art making. I think he would have seen making a big easel painting, as he did of Blue Hill, as the most ambitious work that an artist could do. He had been encouraged at an early age to think of himself as someone who had artistic talent. It was a fulfillment of that sense, that he was a talented person. 

Q: You characterize his enterprise as heroic. How so?

A: I think to make something out of nothing is heroic. It's a double-edged sword. It's heroic, but also a little arrogant to think that you should make yourself into the local authority on a variety of matters. He had no doubt about his authority to be a kind of moral judge of people who were living around him. That came from the fact that he was probably one of a handful of the best-educated people in Blue Hill at that moment, if not the best educated. And to try to bring about the creation of a community in your own image, not as a portrait of you, but following what you have in mind as a model for an ideal community, I think that is a heroic undertaking. 

Q: Was he unique in his pursuit of so many things?

A: In the book, I compare him to a couple of other people who were similar figures. There were certainly a lot of itinerant painters who dabbled in other kinds of work. But he was one of the better-known because he was successful in all those things. He was a successful surveyor, a successful farmer, a successful printmaker, as I have mentioned. He did those things at a level that was actually successful. It was not uncommon, but he has such a high level of education that it made it possible for him to do those things well. 

Q: What is your association with Maine?

A: I grew up going to Maine in the summer, to southern Maine, as my mother and my grandparents had done. It's been a tradition in our family for several generations. I've always been interested in Maine culture. In college, I worked a couple of summers at Brick Store Museum in Kennebunk and later at the Maine Humanities Council. I've always maintained interest in Maine history. 

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


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