Portland artist Holly Ready keeps her gallery door open. Outside, Congress Street buzzes with the hum of motors, the stomping of feet along the sidewalk, and an incessant beeping as a truck pulls over to the loading zone. Inside the gallery, dozens of seascapes hang on the white walls, reflecting pockets of light back to the street outside. Occasionally, one pair of stomping feet will step inside to take in the light from up close.
“I love it when people come in just to look, when someone comes in and interrupts me,” said Ready. “As an artist, I get so focused on what I’m doing. It’s great to get jolted like that every now and then.”
This columnist had jolted Ready mid-smear. She was adding a smidgen of white to “Blue Violets,” a 30x30 inch oil on canvas piece. The top 80 percent of the painting is sky, thick with rolling, purple clouds. Below, a strip of trees lines a calm pool of ocean.
Ready squinted, stepped back, and retired her palette knife.
“Landscape, for me, is just a vehicle for light,” she said, finally sitting down for her interview. “Here in Maine, there’s a roughness you don’t get anywhere else. There’s a rawness. I think you can really feel the elements here.”
Ready’s landscapes cultivate this sense of rawness and dispatch it back to the viewer. The motif of the spot of light ringing out across the water recalls for a moment the luminescence of J.M.W. Turner. But there is nothing British about these landscapes. This is the Maine coast as can be seen a hundred times over driving down I-495.
Ready herself grew up in Natick, Mass., but she spent each summer of her childhood at her grandparent’s home in Cape Elizabeth.
“We lived on the ocean,” she recalled. “I knew I had to live near the ocean eventually.”
“My uncle and grandma were professional artists, so I was exposed to art from a young age,” she said. “I was always painting. But when I went to college, it was more for business than art. I was told I wouldn’t make a living being an artist.”
It was only after having children and occasionally showing her work at sidewalk shows that Ready decided to go to school for art. She graduated from the Maine College in Art in 1994 with a BFA in painting.
“That’s where I learned it all,” she said. “Before I went to school I could get it—this whole color and light thing—but I never understood how I could do it.”
Soon after graduating, Ready began showing her work in Portland’s Greenhut Gallery and Arden Gallery on Newbury Street in Boston.
She then worked as a director at Clown Gallery on Middle Street.
“It was a very creative job,” Ready remembered. “I could select whichever works I wanted and arrange them on the walls—kind of like a collage.”
But soon, Ready was anxious to get back to her own painting.
She began renting different spaces to use as studios, and in 2003 she opened Holly Ready Gallery at 609 Congress Street, in the heart of Portland’s arts district. The space allows for customers to see her in her element.
“Ideally, I would love to have a big quiet space—something with a lot of natural light,” she said. “But in order to sell your work, you need to get into a gallery. When people come in to buy, I put the business hat on.”
Many of Ready’s paintings are already perched against the wall: matted, framed and ready to be sold. Others, she hopes to hang on to for a bit longer.
“Every now and then, I get very attached,” she said. She gestured to the large-scale painting entitled “The Basin.” Here, she has painted sleek slabs of rock in browns and greens. A multitude of new colors emerges as frothy water eddies in the open space between the rocks.
“This is a place I have relationship to,” she explained. “The process of working on it was so good for me. I hope when it goes, it goes to someone who really loves it.”
If Ready isn’t prepared to let a piece go, she has a solution.
“Sometimes I hide them away under the table,” she admitted with a laugh.
This reluctance to let go comes from a deep emotional investment in her work.
“I paint what I’m feeling,” she explained. “And that’s the kind of work I love—work that gives you a feeling. To look at a Van Gogh in person, you can feel the emotion in the brushstrokes. Flat work doesn’t do it for me.”
Ready primarily uses oil paints.
“I love the physical quality,” she said of her medium. “I love the smell of it, the buttery feel of it. I use a knife, so it’s very physical.”
Ready also works in gouache, a paint made of pigment and a binding agent.
“I use gouache for my smaller pieces,” she said. “From far away, there’s a nice glow to it.”
She held one such piece back at arms length. “When I’m stuck with one medium I often go to the other. It brings clarity; it’s good for my mind.”
There is a particular piece that radiates pink and red across the room from where we sit. It’s not for sale.
“It’s for my son,” Ready explained, getting up to look more closely. The painting depicts a piece of coastline off the Prouts Neck peninsula in Scarborough. Though she occasionally paints en plein air, for this piece, Ready is working from a photograph.
“Sometimes I need the photograph to jog my memory,” she said. “To remind me of my experience in the place.”
She picked up her palette brush, and I knew I’d interrupted the artist long enough. She was itching to get back to work.
“It’s not done. It’s kind of ‘blah’ right now; there’s no focal point,” said Ready.
She added an accent of pink to the clouds.
“I had put this one away, so I haven’t looked at it in a while,” she added.
Next, she added a smear of light green to the water. We went back to sit. At first the new streak of paint was jarring. It stood out wet and fresh against the canvas.
“I’ll know it’s close to being done when I get that ‘aha!’ moment,” she told me. “After that, I may keep adding things. You could work on it forever if you wanted to. The hardest part is knowing when to break your brush.”
Outside, it’s remarkable noisy for 10:30 on a Tuesday morning. Sitting in the gallery, I’d forgotten the bustle of the street, the bustle of campus life. The colors of Ready’s landscapes had interrupted me in the most necessary way. Perhaps these pockets of light, these currents of reds and pinks, will color my own view of the coast as I drive back along I-495, back to Bowdoin, back to my desk to write.
After a few minutes I look back at the painting of Prouts Neck. It takes me a while to find the smidgen of green. Already, it seems as if it’s always been there.