February 12, 2012

Wilder Oakes: Following his angel

By Bob Keyes bkeyes@pressherald.com
Staff Writer

SPRUCE HEAD — When he was 2 or 3 years old, Wilder Oakes emerged from the door of the fishing shack that he shared with his family at Port Clyde, walked out onto the gravel road that ran through his coastal village and noticed a bright light beaming down from the sky.

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Wilder Oaks with his painting, "Lovers Over Port Clyde."

John Ewing / Staff Photographer

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Wilder Oakes at his home in Spruce Head. His painting, "I Do", hangs in the background.

John Ewing / Staff Photographer

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Startled, he looked up at what he thought was a brilliant sun, but found instead the face of an angel.

"She spoke to me," Oakes recalled more than a half-century later. "Telepathically, she said, 'Welcome to the world.' She told me never to forget that moment and never doubt it. I never have and never will."

Oakes is 55 now, and hasn't strayed far from his Port Clyde home. He lives in Spruce Head in a house he has been building and adding on to for almost 30 years. "Some day, I'll finish it," he said, but one gets the impression those words are boastfully optimistic.

Oakes' directions for a visitor are perfectly Maine: "If there's snow all over everything, my house is gray, board and batten, sits back in a field a few hundred feet," he wrote in an email. "You'll see a nice shaped pine tree out front, and the pointed pyramid next to the house. My place has a double green front door, and there'll be smoke coming out the chimney."

Ever the honest man, Oakes made certain that smoke was coming from the chimney.

Complimented on the precision of his directions, he deadpanned, "I've honed them."

Oakes makes his living as an artist, and is best known for painting colorful, large-scale scenes that evoke his life and childhood. His paintings, which often include three-dimensional elements, are autobiographical narratives. They tell stories about people and places important in his life, including his fisherman father, his three ex-wives -- and his angel.

The paintings are like chapters in a book, with developed characters, action and resolution.

His work involves equal parts drama and spirituality, ingredients that give his work its magic. There is nothing usual about Oakes or his paintings.

True to his word, Oakes never forgot his angel. He might have tuned her to out from time to time, mostly during the 35 years that he lost to drinking. But he was fully tuned in when she tapped him on the shoulder six years ago.

"She was just saying hello," Oakes said. "I didn't feel great, mentally or otherwise. It was time."

With the friendly nudge of his personal angel, Oakes gave up the booze and began reclaiming his life. He's been on the path of recovery since.

Among the debts he is repaying is one to his angel, in the form of art. Since 2007, Oakes has labored over a huge painting he calls "Angel Is."

It's a portrait of his personal angel, with her long blonde hair, blue eyes and a set of wings sure to inspire jealousy in other angels. He sets her in the Port Clyde of Oakes' childhood, which he returns to almost every day in his memory and imagination.

There is no teasing Port Clyde out of Oakes. His father was a fisherman; his mother, a sardine packer. The village and his childhood inhabit many of his paintings.

He includes no detail by chance. If there is a buoy in the painting, it features his father's colors. If there's a lobster boat, it's his dad's. If there's a woman, it's probably one of his former wives. If there's a fishing shack, it's where he grew up.

Asymmetrick Arts in Rockland will feature Oakes' paintings in a month-long exhibition in July, during which time the Strand Theater will premiere a new film, "Charles Wilder Oakes and the Muses of Port Clyde," by Maine filmmaker Dale Schierholt.

(Continued on page 2)

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