Phippsburg artist Ed McCartan has taught from the jailhouse to the pulpit.

PHIPPSBURG — Ed McCartan has built his life around the arts. As an artist, McCartan has spent decades finding the balance between teaching and learning while exploring elements of spirituality and philosophy in his work. He believes that nature holds the secret to many of life’s complexities and encourages artists to explore the concept of growing through experience.

“There was this teacher who taught at The Sorbonne and he’s pouring concrete with these Italian immigrants and he’s learning how to do this, and I said, that’s where it’s at!” McCartan said.

McCartan’s background is diverse, to put it mildly. The son of Irish immigrants, he grew up in Chicago and eventually earned graduate degrees in Fine Art, Theology, Philosophy, and Art Education.

Much of his life has been devoted to exploring spirituality on a number of levels; McCartan was a Catholic priest for eighteen years before meeting his wife.

As he puts it, he is “overly educated, but learning all the time.”

As a teacher, McCartan has worked with a wide variety of demographics throughout his career: young children, high school and college students, teachers, and senior citizens. He encourages artists of all ages to embrace the concept of mushin, a Japanese term meaning no-mind, in which individuals free themselves from cerebral organization and structure (and, with it, anxiety and pressure for perfection).

“This little kid was doing this drawing of a train. He was drawing these lines, rhythmically. I asked him to tell me about his drawing, and he was drawing the rhythm of the train on the tracks. It was brilliant. I loved it. That’s how his mind worked,” McCartan said.

During his career, McCartan has also found himself herding sheep on Allen Island with Jamie Wyeth, transporting artwork back and forth between exhibitions, preaching at The Popham Chapel in Phippsburg, and working with maximum security prison inmates — “like normal guys I grew up with in Chicago who just went awry.”

McCartan believes that it’s important for the public to realize that artists are real people with flawed, sometimes messy, lives.

“Look at Caravaggio…he killed a guy and was on the lamb, painting incredible paintings. These people were whole (perhaps confused) people in their lives,” McCartan said.

He also believes that it’s healthy to see artists at work during the creative process and encourages people to realize that making art is not precious. “It’s good to see a work in progress, not a finished piece.”

McCartan’s life and work as an artist is continually evolving as a result of the elements that surround him. His large acrylic paintings celebrate small, often overlooked details in nature in a way that reflects his interest in Buddhism and Taoism; his style is characterized by loose, gestural work complemented with unique textures and organic patterns that are almost playful in nature, much like his demeanor and approach to life as a professional artist.

McCartan’s art is a continual work in progress that develops as a result of his interest in variety and experimentation within the realm of spirituality and nature.

Although he explores growth and change throughout his work, McCartan also values the concept of coming full circle as an artist.

“I’ve gone in a circle,” he said, “minimalism, then figurative things with bodies flying around, then back to nature. I’m picking up things from previous styles. One of my teachers once said, ‘Ed, your work looks like a group show.’ I used to be nervous about that, but now I’m not. I’m trying new things…There’s something about going circularly. When you let all the other crap go, you come back to figure out who you are … . Everything changes but still remains the same.”

McCartan talks about the future in terms of exploration and growth as an artist. He plans to keep painting until he is no longer able to do so, while exploring as much as possible. He is especially interested in becoming more open to the water, the land, and the small towns in Maine, which hold a natural draw for him as an artist with a strong connection to nature and spirituality.

McCartan will continue his endearing habit of rambling about ideas and artistic influences, which is very good for artists psychologically and philosophically, but “tough on your partner,” and looks forward to teaching more classes at Midcoast Senior College in the future.

“Get over it…you do this because you love it.”

McCartan encourages aspiring artists to find the balance between making a living and making art in their own way, while remaining open to experience and opportunities for growth. Stay open and things will fall into place.

“Once you’re open to the arts, you can’t go back again,” he said. “Trust your soul, your impulse. Go after that.”

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