David Little calls it a reset, but it sounds like a rediscovery.

Widely known as a landscape painter with a love of Katahdin and the Down East coast, Little, who lives in Portland, is showing a series of new paintings at Merrill Memorial Library in Yarmouth that represent a return to his abstract and surrealist roots. He explored those painting styles at Southampton College in New York in the early 1970s and at the University of Iowa a few years later.

By the 1980s, he had fallen in love with Maine and slowly became a landscape painter, eventually settling into a plein air and studio painting practice that included watercolor, oils and oil pastel. Now 70, Little has built his career and identity around his adept handling of the Maine landscape with a painterly and literary touch. In tandem with his brother, the writer Carl Little, David has researched and written books about the art of Katahdin, Acadia and Portland.

But everything changed with the pandemic. Little felt despondent, complacent and anxious. The gym was closed, a class he had signed up for had been canceled, and volunteer tours he led of artists buried in Evergreen Cemetery were postponed. Naturally active, he felt uncomfortable sitting around.

“The Prince of Serendip” by David Little, on view in Yarmouth. The pandemic sparked a return to Little’s abstract roots. Courtesy of David Little

In late March of 2020, he read a story in the New York Times in which the writer suggested finding cheer during the pandemic by returning to a childhood love. In the writer’s case, that meant ink drawings, which required patience and concentration and were helpful during anxious times.

Feeling anxious himself, Little related to that idea. “I thought, why not go up to the third floor of the studio and see what’s up there? I had not been not up there in 30 years, other than to look at some oil pastels. Everything was completely dirty and dusty. Just tables full of stuff.”

The palettes and paints of David Little. Photo by Laurene Buckley

He climbed the ladder to the third story of his backyard Portland barn and rediscovered a world he had left behind in the form of hundreds of works of art from his surrealist past. He cleaned off the tables “just to see what would happen,” freshened his palettes from 40 years ago, and began a journey of rediscovery. Since then – and nearly nonstop with classical music playing –instead of landscapes, Little has been painting in a style that he calls lyrical abstraction, inspired by the surrealists Joan Miro, Vasily Kandinsky and others.

Pausing only to hang the show in Yarmouth, he produced three dozen collages and more than 100 mixed-media works on paper, mostly experimental ink drawings full of shape and color. The title of the show reflects his new direction, and energy: “Line and Color: An Artist Let Loose.”

In addition to his new paintings, Little is showing work that he began in the 1970s and recently finished. For the first time, he’s also showing abstract photos, all taken during the pandemic. The work is on view at the library through Dec. 31.

He is having as much fun as ever, and feels energized in unlikely but familiar ways. “At my age, to have rediscovered my earliest love and passion in art, I am pretty excited, I must say.”


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