PORTLAND — Robert Nason always starts his story at the beginning.

“I was born in 1923 to a middle-class family in a middle-class neighborhood,” says the grizzled old man. “The first world war had really just ended, and by the time I was in high school, the Depression was just letting up. But by then, we were looking at World War II.”

He shakes his head at the memories and smiles at the loss.

Nason grew up in Cranston, R.I., and parlayed his public school education into a seat in the freshman class at Rhode Island School of Design in fall 1941. In December, the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor.

After his freshman year, the Navy sent him first to Brown University in Providence, then to Columbia in New York City and finally to Harvard in Cambridge for training as a communications officer. Nason did not see battle, and as soon as his commitment to the Navy ended, he was back in Providence studying art at Brown and RISD.

His ideas about the world formed by his time and experiences, he chose a life in the arts. “I’ve just always felt comfortable doing it,” he said.

Nason, 87, had a long career as a public art school teacher – the last 15 years in suburban Boston, and a longer one as a studio artist. Through March 26, the Portland gallery Addison Woolley is showing 50 years of work in an exhibition titled “Journeys to the Interior.”

These are mostly pastel drawings, often rendered in brilliant colors, of abstract figures. There may be an evolution to this work, but it mostly stands as a five-decade journey of one man’s studious and steadfast fascination with the human figure in its many forms. There is a narrative here about faces and figures, and Nason’s artistic approach to both.

He writes in his statement, “The show implies there was a grand plan. What interests me the most to consider at this point is that when these were produced months and years apart, there was no plan. Each image emerged from the last, often not following the same form but quite the opposite, contradicting its earlier model.”

Some are casual – a self-portrait of his figure in a mirror while convalescing in a hospital after a bypass operation a few years ago.

Others are studied – from fully formed facial portraits to reductive, fanciful sweeps of diamonds, ovals and rectangles.

“Journeys to the Interior” is curated by Susie Schweppe, who operates the studio-gallery space Running with Scissors. Nason has kept a studio at Running with Scissors for six years.
Schweppe said Nason is the hardest-working artist at the cooperative.

“He is here seven days a week, eight hours a day,” she said. “You talk about a serious artist, who is compelled. That is how he lives. It’s how he understands his place in the world and everything around him.”

Schweppe appreciates the depth and quality of Nason’s work. He is always busy, always active and always willing to try new things. He has pieces in all media – mostly paintings, but also drawings, prints and mixed-media works – in storage units around the city. At Running with Scissors alone, Nason has hundreds of finished works scattered about.

Schweppe sees in him not only a serious artist and committed painter, but an important local figure with a story to tell and lifetime of work deserving of attention. “I just want to get him noticed and have more people appreciate his work,” she said.

This is the second show that Schweppe has helped Nason organize. Last fall, they collaborated on a show at Addo Novo on Congress Street in Portland.

Nason has lived in Portland since the 1970s. He’s had shows here and there, but never sought any commercial market for his work. He always found the process of selling his art far less agreeable than the process of making it.

“I like to show my work. I like people to see it. I want people to see it. I don’t do it for myself,” he says. “But I have found that I cannot think in terms of commercialization. I just can’t do it.”

Nason loves his job as an artist, and feels grateful he is able to do what he loves. Without making comparisons of talent or accomplishment, he sees himself in the same lineage of Cezanne and Picasso – serious men committed to their art.

“I just consider myself a part of that,” he said. “What better thing would there be than that?
“If you can do, how can you do anything else?”

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

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