Beverly Hallam approached her artwork with the curiosity of a scientist, ever eager to incorporate new techniques and technologies into her art-making processes. Best known for her pioneering use of the airbrush and, later in life, for embracing digital abstract images, Hallam died Feb. 22 at age 89 at her home on Surf Point Road in York.
Hallam had been sick for several years, with a progressive lung disease. In August 2011, she told the Portland Press Herald that she still enjoyed working “when the spirit moves me.” Her longtime confidante and best friend, Mary-Leigh Smart, said Hallam suffered a stroke Wednesday morning that partially paralyzed her. She died the next morning. “She was blessed that she didn’t have to linger long like that,” Smart said. “I can’t imagine her surviving and being paralyzed.”
A painter, printmaker and lifelong educator, Hallam was a key member of Ogunquit’s art community and was known nationally as a pioneering postwar female artist. Hallam’s career included several milestones that distinguished her from her peers. She was an early proponent of acrylic paint and became one of the medium’s most accomplished purveyors. She mastered the art of monotype printmaking and became most famous for her detailed and intricate airbrush paintings of flowers.
Her flower paintings are rich in detail and exact in color, often showing sunlight refracted through glass vases, shadows on walls and tabletops, and the intricate precision of petals, stamens, stems and seeds. She took a centuries-old subject of still-life painting and applied modern techniques in ways that no one had tried, said Carl Little, a Maine arts writer.
Hallam’s mastery of the airbrush was both unexpected and thrilling, Little said, and gave her “the grand point of her life. Who saw that coming? I don’t think anybody did, except you knew she would do something great for her next act.” Her flower paintings are in museums across the country, including nearly every museum in Maine.
In Rockland, the Farnsworth Art Museum on Feb. 25 hung her 1985 painting “Orange Prince” as a tribute. “She was one of the most accomplished realist painters of her generation,” Farnsworth Curator Michael Komanecky said. Near the end of her life, when her strength faded and some of her other facilities began to fail, Hallam used a keyboard, a video monitor and a color printer to make abstract images.
News of Hallam’s death signaled “a sad, sad day,” Little said. “Beverly was a great friend and a wonderful artist.” She came from a family that included inventors, engineers and artists, said Little, who wrote a book about Hallam, “An Odyssey in Art.”
“She had something in her DNA that led her that way,” he said. “She took in everything, and she was really committed to art. That’s all there is to it. She was one of those people who put her mind to it and went after it.”
Hallam was born in Lynn, Mass., in 1923, studied at the Massachusetts College of Art and taught art in Massachusetts until the early 1960s. She began coming to Ogunquit in 1949 and was part of a second generation of artists who made their home on Maine’s southern coast. She was active in the Barn Gallery in Ogunquit and the Ogunquit Museum of American Art. “She came at a time when the New York scene was turning to abstraction,” said Ron Crusan, director of the Ogunquit museum. “With the dramatic cliffs and breaking waves of Ogunquit as inspiration, she brought youth, innovation and enthusiasm” to the region.
She was instrumental in bringing acrylic paint to Maine, helping to set the tone for modernism in contemporary Maine painting, he said. Hallam’s Surf Point Road house is legendary in art circles. It is a sprawling home, with magnificent views of the ocean. She and Smart spent several decades together there.
After Smart dies, the Surf Point Foundation will operate the home as a retreat for artists, scholars, critics and historians. Several of Hallam’s paintings are on view at the Art Gallery at the University of New England on Stevens Avenue in Portland. Her paintings are part of a show that celebrates Maine female pioneers in art. The show runs through Sunday, March 3.
“Her spirit in this show is huge,” said UNE gallery Director Anne Zill. “She will be sorely missed. … In this show, people often stop in front of Beverly’s works. They have a power to them that is completely arresting. People stop and spend time in front of her works.”
Zill called Hallam “a force of nature. She was strong, organized and driven to work every day, to discover new things about her work as an artist. She owned her world. She owned her art world.”
The Portland Museum of Art began collecting Hallam’s paintings in the late 1960s, and has acquired her paintings and prints regularly through the past decade. That puts her in a small group of artists whose achievements and innovations the museum consistently heralded over several decades, said Jessica May, curator of contemporary and modern art.
Hallam was the subject of a Maine Masters film, “Beverly Hallam: Artist as Innovator.” Filmmaker Richard Kane spent many days with Hallam on the project, which was completed in 2011. He called her a “real joyous personality. She found humor in everything. She was a lot of fun to work with.”
Little is fond of telling a story about Hallam from her youth. It illustrates her family’s dedication to Hallam’s career choice.
Hallam’s mother, Alice, ran a hair salon. One day, she met Leonard Bernstein’s father, Sam, who sold hairdressing supplies. They started talking about their kids.
“You can’t imagine what my son Lennie wants to be,” Sam Bernstein told Hallam’s mother, according to Little.
“He wants to be a composer … of music … a musician. Can you believe it? I can’t stand it.”
He then asked Alice Hallam what her daughter wanted to be.
“She’s going to be an artist,” Hallam’s mother answered.
“Oh my God,” Bernstein replied. “They’re both going to starve to death.”
In addition to her work in the studio, Hallam is being remembered for her work as a teacher. She taught continuously for most of her life, including at the Maine College of Art in Portland. The college gave her its Art Honors award in 2001.
In her artist’s statement, Hallam cited her lifelong process of learning. “As the mediums in art change, I change along with them. As Michelangelo said, ‘I am still learning.’”