Tom Crotty, a painter of Maine and longtime advocate of Maine art, died Saturday at age 80, leaving the state without one of its most popular contemporary artists.

His family said he was diagnosed with cancer in November and had undergone two surgeries in recent months.

In addition to his painting, Crotty operated Frost Gully Gallery in Freeport, where he sold the work of established artists like Dahlov Ipcar, Stephen Etnier and William Kienbusch. Crotty opened Frost Gully in 1966, a year after he moved to Maine. It had several locations in Portland before Crotty established it in Freeport. More recently, he also opened a short-lived gallery in Thomaston.

Ipcar expressed the surprise of many when she learned of Crotty’s death. “I’m shocked and stunned and devastated,” she said Monday. “I knew he was sick, but we were all so optimistic that he was doing better.”

Crotty was born Nov. 30, 1934, in Boston. He came to Maine in 1965, living first in Cape Elizabeth before buying a house in Freeport the following year. He remained in the Freeport house for the remainder of his life.

Crotty was known for his highly realistic oil-on-canvas images of Maine, including vast winter scenes and sprawling seascapes. The paintings spoke to two strong currents in Crotty’s life: His love of the sea and his desire for solitude, both of which were embodied in his love of sailing. His paintings incorporated Maine’s natural light and beauty at all hours of the day and in all seasons.

His work is widely collected, and Crotty had a waiting list of several dozen collectors who wanted to buy his paintings, said former Portland Museum of Art director Daniel E. O’Leary.

O’Leary was among Crotty’s strongest advocates. As museum director, he gave Crotty a major exhibition over the winter of 2003-’04. O’Leary got to know Crotty in the early 1990s, when Crotty operated his gallery on Congress Street. O’Leary often brought collectors and museum supporters to Frost Gully to look at work.

O’Leary soon realized that he rarely saw Crotty’s own paintings hanging in the gallery. “That’s because they were hard to come by. They were painted, but never shown (publicly) in Maine. They were in private collections all over the country and in homes up and down Falmouth Foreside, Yarmouth and Cape Elizabeth, but nobody ever got to see them. That was the underlying reason I wanted to do the show,” O’Leary said.

The exhibition, titled “A Solitude of Space,” changed Crotty’s life, Ipcar said. Crotty spent years railing against the Maine art establishment, including the Portland museum. He was both grateful and humbled with the exposure of a major exhibition in Maine’s largest museum. “I think that Portland exhibition mellowed him considerably,” Ipcar said. “It was a beautiful show and very well received.”

O’Leary clearly remembers the night before the opening, when he invited Crotty in to see the exhibition before anyone else. O’Leary had just finished hanging it and worried that Crotty wouldn’t like it.

“I don’t think he had ever seen more than a few of his paintings together at one time. He was so gracious, he refused to suggest even the slightest change,” O’Leary said.

Daughter Melissa Crotty Chaput said people often misunderstood her father. He spoke his mind, sometimes sharply, about art, politics and many other subjects, and he was known in the art community for his strong opinions. But he was kind and generous, his daughter said. In the hospital before his most recent surgery, Crotty asked his daughters to be sure that a nurse who was caring for him received a print of one of her favorite paintings. He was also loyal to the artists he represented and as committed to their careers as his own, said his son David Crotty.

“The artists he has today are artists he has been dealing with for 45 years,” he said. “They were like family to him – and us.”

As of Monday, the family had not decided the future of the gallery.

 


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