CAPE ELIZABETH – When Dudley Bostwick, 83, of Cape Elizabeth, sets up shop at South Portland’s annual Art in the Park event Aug. 13, he’ll have the distinction of being one of only two artists to have appeared in every show since the event’s founding 32 years ago. But Bostwick’s art career goes back even further than that, to the sale of his first painting at age 10.

This past week, he took time to talk about his art career, the Maine coast during World War II, talking tough to Clint Eastwood, and the “Great Chicken Incident.”

Q: When and where were you born?

A: I was born in 1928, in Newton, Mass. But I used to live summers on Stratton Island [three miles off Old Orchard Beach, now an Audubon-owned bird sanctuary]. When I first came into the world, that’s where I spent my first summer and I lived there all through the Second World War.

Q: What was it like to be a boy on the Maine coast during World War II?

A: Well, I tell you, I had a very interesting experience. I found clothing smoldering up on the rocks by the state park that had been set afire. In the pocket of the pants there was a little slip that said, “Houlton Prisoner of War Camp.”

The clothing was left by somebody who had escaped from the camp up there, who was then picked up by a U-boat, right up here [near Two Lights State Park].

A next-door neighbor was an assistant D.A. of Portland and he called in the FBI. I rode along with him all day – I was only a kid of 13 – looking to see if somebody saw who had worn these clothes. Later that week, they got the U-boat. The destroyers sunk it right off the coast and, afterward, the rocks were covered with crude oil.

Q: It sounds like it was an exciting, and maybe even a little scary, time.

A: Oh, yes. One time, a friend and I were rowing in from Richmond Island and we had a bit of a headwind, so it was past dark when we got near shore. All of a sudden this searchlight snaps on us, so we stood up and started to sing “The Star-Spangled Banner,” shouting, “Don’t shoot! We’re Americans!”

Q: So, although you lived in Massachusetts, you had family here in Maine?

A: Yes, my grandfather was a keeper in the Life Saving Station here [at what is now Two Lights State Park]. That was a service that pre-dated the Coast Guard. They’d row out to rescue people from any ships that wrecked on the breakers.

My family, the Dyers, owned all this area [around Two Lights] from the 1600s. It was farmland until they transferred Lighthouse Hill to the state.

But my family has continued to live here. My mother was one of four daughters of Captain Sumner Dyer. Each one was given a plot of land here on the coast. My mother lived in a coal shed that belonged to the West Light, which my grandfather rolled down to the shore on logs. It was then converted into a home. It was left to me when my mother died and I gave it to my son when I built my home and gallery [on Dyer Lane].

Q: At what age did you become interested in art?

A: I started painting at the age of seven. I lived in Auburndale, Mass., at the time and took an interest in it thanks to a local artist who lived nearby. His name was Henry Orne Rider. He did a lot of nautical paintings and used to travel with Winslow Homer, although, at the time, Winslow Homer didn’t mean a thing to me.

I was 10 when he passed. They were having an auction of his paintings and I went over to see it. The man who did the selling said, “What’s your name, son?” I told him and he said, “Mr. Rider left you something.”

He’d left me his paint box and a painting, “The Coming of the Norsemen,” painted in 1930, which I still have.

Q: Did you ever take art lessons?

A: When I graduated from high school I went to the Vesper George School of Art, in Boston, for two years. It was right across from Fenway Park. In fact, once in a while, a ball would come over the fence and hit the building.

It was a commercial art school – strictly commercial art, so there was no degree to be had – but I got the basics there of perspective and angles and vanishing points, and so on.

Q: What did you do when you complete your coursework?

A: Well, I was in the reserves for the United States Coast Guard, and during the Korean Conflict I had to go full-time, from 1950 to 1954. I was a little upset because I was already signed up to go to junior college. But they took me, so there wasn’t much I could do about that. I was just a seaman, so I said, ‘I’ll take the first damn school that opens up so I can become a petty officer.’ What came up was the Cooks and Bakers School, in Groton, Conn.

Q: What did you do after the war?

A: After I got out of the service I went to the Culinary Institute in New Haven, Conn., where I learned to become a chef. Then I became a food manager for a catering company that served meals at the Fall River Firestone Tire and Rubber factory. That’s where they made the whale that was used in “Moby Dick,” the movie. At that time, my first wife and I lived in Lizzie Borden’s home, in Fall River, where she had killed her parents.

Q: That must have been creepy. How long did you live there?

A: Oh, not long. From there I went to St. Elizabeth’s Hospital in Brookline, Mass. Archbishop Cushing found out I wasn’t Catholic, but he allowed me to stay on. Later, I was told they were looking for a Protestant to run food service at a Methodist College in Williamsport, Penn., called Lycoming College.

I met a lot of famous people there. The head of the United Nations came to a banquet. Also Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. came as a chapel speaker.

I put on some very nice banquets, but Dr. King never had my food. He was fasting at the time. His wife and kids sat at the head table with the president of the college, but Dr. King said, “I’d like to sit at a table by myself and would you just bring me a pitcher of water and a glass.”

Q: So, you were at Lycoming right at the height of the civil rights movement. What are your memories of that era?

A: I remember I hired a very nice chef named Harry Thompson [who was black]. The help I had at the time was all white and they threatened if I hired him they were going to quit. I said, “Well, I’ve already hired him. You can quit if you want. I’ll get a new staff.” They didn’t leave, not a one of them, and they got to love Harry as much as I did.

Q: How long did you work at the college?

A: I left not long after meeting Dr. King. I was hired to run The Bears’ Den – the student cafeteria at the University of Maine at Orono. That’s where we had “The Great Chicken Incident.”

Q: OK, well, I have to ask – what was “The Great Chicken Incident?”

A: Oh, it was a big thing. I was on the front page of that magazine, The Maine Times, right when it first came out. I had refused to let the students bring their chickens into my dining hall. These students had chickens with the name of each candidate [to a fraternity] written under its neck and they had to take it everywhere on a leash. They brought them in and, well, you can’t have animals or anything like that in a restaurant, so I told them to get out.

The head of the union called the campus police and they had a big deal. That’s when I hit the headlines.

Q: How long did you work at UMO?

A: I was there until my second wife died in 1976.

Q: During the time you worked in food service, did you continue to paint?

A: Oh, yes. I did it for release to escape the pressures of the food business. Art gave me an escape so I could get into a different realm. When you paint, you’re a different person. You’re thinking about different things, so your mind isn’t troubled with the different things you’re facing.

But it all comes out in the art. If you’re emotional, you may end up painting a crushing scene of rocks and waves and breakers. I have one painting I call “The Gale,” and you can tell I wasn’t too calm when I did that one. But then, other times, you’re work is more serene, and it’s reflected in the work.

Q: Do you have any idea how many paintings you’ve completed in your lifetime?

A: Oh, I don’t know. Maybe 3,000. Around that, I’d guess. I’ve sold to thousands of people.

Q: Anyone we’d know?

A: Oh, sure. Elton John has my work. So do Anne Murray and Joan Van Ark. I had a picture hang in the White House during the Jimmy Carter years. I did Olympia Snowe’s Christmas card five years in a row. “Gus” Barber [founder of Barber Foods] used to buy 20 or 30 of my paintings each year to give out to his best sales staff.

I’ve done work for Barbara Bush, for the children’s hospital in Portland, and for George Bush Sr. His daughter, Dora, used to live here in Cape Elizabeth and would help me set up my paintings at art shows. Laura Bush has one of my paintings called “The Path,” which is maybe the very best painting I ever did.

And then there’s Clint Eastwood. He came into my gallery and said he was a developer. Well, at the time, they had just torn down the keeper’s house, which I didn’t like. Historically, it should have been left alone because it was one of Edward Hopper’s famous paintings. It was on a stamp. But, the town allowed it. Anyway, he came in and I said, “I don’t like developers.” I gave him an awful tough time. I didn’t even know who he was, at first.

Q: Do you still get much traffic in your home art gallery?

A: Not as much as we used to. What we get a lot of now are people looking for the Lobster Shack. For some reason, they all have GPS units that bring them right down our road. We’re thinking of putting up a sign that says, “No, the Lobster Shack is a little further down the main road.” Either that, or we’re going to start selling lobsters.

Q: And do you still paint regularly?

A: Oh yes, I’ve got two paintings going right now. I don’t walk, but I’ve got a chair that takes me up the stairs to my studio. Then I stumble around a bit until I get to my chair. Then, I’m all set for the day. I love to create and work with new ideas.

Cape Elizabeth  artist Dudley Bostwick, 83, sits with “Coming of
the Norsemen,” a painting willed to him at age 10 by artist Henry
Orne Rider that he credits with launching his art career, as well
as one of his own favorite works – hanging in background – titled
“Dyer’s Cove.” (Staff photo by Duke Harrington)

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