Mildred Burrage found her way to a military hospital on Staten Island during World War II to work as an art instructor and medical artist. During her free time, the Maine artist traveled into Manhattan to visit museums and galleries.

There, Burrage saw the paintings of Jackson Pollock and his abstract-expressionist contemporaries. The experience was profound. When she returned to Maine, Burrage abandoned representational painting and threw herself headlong into the world of abstract expressionism.

The dramatic shift in her own work mirrored the many shifts in her life. Reinvention was part of her artistic process and part of her experience as a human being. Burrage, who died in 1983 at age 92, lived abroad as a teenager, experienced two world wars and befriended famous artists and presidents. She opened an art gallery that’s still operating today and began a historical society, and along the way helped Maine emerge as a contemporary art center. Burrage, who never married and lived with her sister most of her adult life, took a wide view of the world and applied it back home.

The results of her explorations are on view through June 26 in a comprehensive examination of her 70-year career at the University of New England Art Gallery in Portland. “The Art of Mildred G. Burrage” offers insight into the life of one of Maine’s most inventive and exuberant — though, perhaps, less celebrated — 20th-century artists, including her bold embrace of abstraction in the form of “mica paintings,” which she made by collecting flakes of sparkling mica from Maine rocks and incorporating them into her work. Her experiments brought her national attention.

The exhibition paints a portrait of a woman whose artistic life led her from Portland to Europe and placed her in the company of Claude Monet, Franklin D. Roosevelt, novelist Kenneth Roberts and other extraordinary leaders in art and politics. She was an avid patriot who made recruiting posters for World War I and worked in the shipyards of South Portland during World War II, a pioneering advocate for the arts and one of the first people in Maine who promoted the craft movement as a serious art form.

SUMMER IN GIVERNY

Burrage’s experience in New York was similar to what she had experienced in Paris, where she traveled as a teenager before World War I and where she learned to paint in an Impressionist style from her French contemporaries. One summer in France, she lived in Giverny next door to Claude Monet, whom she met.848660_5009 mildred.jpg

In its artistic energy and progressive thinking, pre-World War I Paris was similar to post-World War II New York. In Paris, Burrage saw some of the earliest exhibitions of Picasso and Matisse. In New York, she saw early work by Pollock and Willem de Kooning. Just as she had as a 19-year-old in France, in middle-age Burrage had the opportunity to experience the cutting edge of art first hand, said curator and historian Earle G. Shettleworth Jr.

“Only this time it’s American art,” Shettleworth said. “Pollock and his abstract contemporaries, they are the ones who really established post-war New York and thus post-war America as the center of the art world, and thus its shift from Paris. And there she is, once again at the apex of what is happening in the art world.”

Burrage showed her paintings across the country and drew national attention for her mica paintings. The university gallery has assembled two dozen mica paintings, along with work from throughout her career. The show is an extension of a small exhibition the Portland Museum of Art put together four years ago, which helped reintroduce Burrage to contemporary audiences. In that show, curators focused solely on the Impressionist work she created during the five years she traveled in France, from 1909 until the outbreak of World War I in 1914. The PMA exhibition also included dozens of the weekly letters that she sent to her family in Maine from France.

The University of New England show creates a more complete profile of Burrage, said Shettleworth, who met the artist when he was 19 and she was 70. They remained friends until her death. The university borrowed work from the Portland Museum, the Farnsworth Art Museum and Colby and Smith colleges for this show, as well as from private collections.

Shettleworth co-curated the exhibition with Burrage’s younger cousin, Sally W. Rand.

Burrage was born in Portland, lived in Kennebunkport and settled in Wiscasset, where she lived with her sister, Madeleine, who made jewelry from silver and gold and precious stones. They must have been a force. They were strong-willed women, the daughters of Maine’s first state historian, Henry S. Burrage, and Ernestine Maie Giddings, Henry’s second wife. The parents never let an opportunity pass to encourage their children toward artistic pursuits.

Burrage co-founded the Maine Art Gallery in Wiscasset and was a committed preservationist, following the lead of her father. She established and directed the Lincoln County Cultural and Historical Association in the 1950s, and purchased and preserved historically significant buildings across Maine.

She and her sister also worked to establish artist networks in Maine, which were designed to promote Maine art and address issues unique to artists working in rural states. In 1947, she curated the first serious exhibition of Maine crafts.

“She had this extraordinary intellect combined with extraordinary energy,” Shettleworth said. “In every area she worked in, she had a strong personal vision and sought to realize that. If you understand that, you can understand why she had this wonderfully open approach to continually embrace new ideas in her art, constantly reassessing and reinventing whatever she was doing.”

She did so not with reluctance, but with fear. She saw in Pollack’s work what she called “another way.”

“These were not decorative, planned, cooked-up affairs,” she wrote in 1974. “It was not easy for me to change. I was frightened, I found. It seemed preposterous to stop copying nature but I kept on.”

Her mica paintings might more accurately be called collages. She made her images by attaching mica, foil and colored paper to a panel, and painting over them. She had discovered mica a decade earlier, in the 1930s, while helping her sister search for Maine tourmaline deposits.

Mica intrigued and challenged Burrage’s artistic instincts. It is difficult to work with, in part because it’s delicate and also because of its reflective nature.

One in the series of "mica paintings" by Mildred Burrage (below at her easel in about 1930).

One in the series of “mica paintings” by Mildred Burrage

Her commitment to it sustained her. In the late 1970s, Colby College Museum of Art Director Hugh Gourley offered a retrospective exhibition. She declined, Shettleworth said, because she wanted only to show new work.

“She was always looking forward,” Shettleworth said. “This was true right up until the time she was no longer able to paint, when she was 90 years old. Until that time, she was always looking to what would be next, what would be the future.”

MAKING MAPS

The mica paintings may be the most unique work Burrage attempted, but they are not the most remarkable elements of the show. That distinction belongs to a small series of highly detailed and beautifully crafted maps that Burrage copied and displayed, rather successfully, as artwork. She began making maps after her return to Maine from Paris, and continued doing so among her other art projects into the 1930s.

They are the earliest examples in the exhibition of Burrage’s self-reinvention, Shettleworth said. The maps spoke to both her interest in art and history, he said.

With its detail and near-perfect rendering, the most interesting of the maps is a watercolor copy of Samuel de Champlain’s engraving of “New France,” published in 1613. It includes what is now Maine and Canada. There also are copies of maps of old Portland, Cape Ann and Washington, D.C.

The National Capitol Park commissioned Burrage in 1933 to make the D.C. map as a fundraiser for the George Washington Parkway. That same map was reprinted on linen, and used as a handkerchief or scarf. First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt promoted the maps personally, as she and President Franklin D. Roosevelt were friends and patrons of Burrage.

Maine artists, Wiscasset, 1958. Collections of Maine Historical Society. Item #53967 on MaineMemory.net. Maine artists, from left, Ruth Lepper Gardner of West Southport (1905-2011), William Thon of Port Clyde (1906-2000), Gustaf Tenggren (1896-1970) of West Southport, Dahlov Zorach Ipcar of Georgetown (1917- ), Mildred Burrage of Wiscasset (1890-1983), and Margaret Conant of West Southport chat in Wiscasset. All affiliated with the Lincoln County Cultural and Historical Association, the artists were discussing the Red Brick School House, which they hoped to turn into an art gallery that would showcase Maine artists.

Maine artists, from left, Ruth Lepper Gardner of West Southport (1905-2011), William Thon of Port Clyde (1906-2000), Gustaf Tenggren (1896-1970) of West Southport, Dahlov Zorach Ipcar of Georgetown (1917- ), Mildred Burrage of Wiscasset (1890-1983), and Margaret Conant of West Southport chat in Wiscasset in 1958.

Burrage showed her maps widely, including in Boston and Washington, as well in Bar Harbor in the late 1920s. The Champlain rendering, which she completed in 1928, is owned by the Jesup Memorial Library in Bar Harbor.

There’s also a watercolor rendering of Dartmoor Prison, which Burrage completed for her friend Kenneth Roberts, the novelist from Kennebunk. He used it in his book “The Lively Lady.” She made several drawings for Roberts’ books over the years.

Burrage had some history with UNE, noted gallery Director Anne Zill. In 1969, the college conferred its Deborah Morton Award to Burrage, in recognition of her career and service to Maine. The award honors notable Maine women.

Burrage died 33 years ago. Many people who knew her are still alive and have come to see the show, Zill said. But perhaps more important, the exhibition has introduced her work to many people who were either unfamiliar with her art or not aware of her range, she said.

“We’re celebrating the life of an important woman in Maine history and one of the most accomplished artists in all of Maine,” Zill said.