Radio Maine Episode 18

Rick Hamilton: All Paths Lead to Art

Rick Hamilton has had many careers, but he has always been an artist at heart. In addition to traveling the world while in the Navy, he has worked as a framer, a machinist and a salesperson. Throughout these adventures, Rick remained connected to a creative spirit that was reignited by a chance encounter with a young artist on the Eastern Prom in Portland. While he names Picasso, Modigliani, and Basquiat as influences, Rick is humble about his work and suggests that “anyone could do what I do.” Most people would respectfully disagree with his assertion. Rick, with his impressive work ethic and commitment to his now full-time artistic career, has emerged as an incredible talent with a unique signature style. Join Dr. Lisa Belisle on Episode 18 of Radio Maine, and find yourself transported to the magical world of Portland Art Gallery artist Rick Hamilton.

Dr. Lisa Belisle:

Hello, this is Dr. Lisa Belisle and you are listening to, or watching, Radio Maine. And today I have with me artist, Rick Hamilton. It's great to be able to have this conversation with you, Rick. 

 Rick Hamilton:

Thanks, Lisa. Good morning.

 Dr. Lisa Belisle:

Rick, tell me about your art. You're a little bit different than many of our other Maine artists that are affiliated with the Portland Art Gallery in that the scenes that you're depicting don't have much to do with Maine. 

Rick Hamilton:

That's true. And, if you visit my studio, there's very little evidence to say this is a Maine artist.  I think my colors maybe have a Latin feel to them. I was heavily influenced by the time I spent in the Caribbean and the Mediterranean. So I think that shows in my art. I do love Maine and I'm always thinking that maybe I should paint more Maine scenes but I just always go back to the same colors and themes. And I really love that. So that's where it ends up. 

Dr. Lisa Belisle:

Rick, you spent time in the Navy. Tell me about that. 

Rick Hamilton:

Yes. I joined the Navy nine days after I graduated high school. I just wanted to not necessarily leave Maine but just go and do things. And so I joined and I did travel the world and it was amazing. And at that time I had no idea about art. I had no interest in it. I had no idea that I would be painting things that I experienced in the six years I was in the Navy. 

 Dr. Lisa Belisle:

And what was your role in the Navy? 

 Rick Hamilton:

I had a few different ones, but I was on submarines mostly. 

Dr. Lisa Belisle:

So that must've been an interesting experience to be down deep in the depths when you're used to being in the broad open spaces of Maine.

Rick Hamilton:

True. Yes, it was, but I really just didn't think about it much. They could've told me to do anything and I would have went and done it.  So I wasn't nervous or scared or anxious. I just did what they told me.  And that was that.

Dr. Lisa Belisle:

You originally moved here from out of state up to Bangor and then down to Scarborough where you graduated from high school. You've had the experience to experience Maine in different ways. What are some of the things that you've noticed about different parts of the state? 

Rick Hamilton:

I've always been drawn to the ocean.  So, anytime I'm in Maine, I really like to spend time by the ocean. I'm lucky where I live in South Portland that I get to see the ocean every single day.  I really love that.  I'm drawn to the ocean. I like Portland because of the busy-ness of it. I like the chaos and the action and the people and the buildings.  I'm really drawn to that. That's why Portland is my favorite city. 

Dr. Lisa Belisle:

So when I look at your pieces, the colors really are more reminiscent of the oceans that are elsewhere and not in Maine. We have the darker waters up here, we don’t have the blues of the Mediterranean or the Carribean. Is this part of the reason why your palette looks the way that it does because of those influences?

Rick Hamilton:

Yes, I would say so. I spend a lot of time on or near the water and I'm always thinking it's so beautiful here with the sail boats and the dark blue waters, I'll say things like, why aren't you painting this? And I'll go to the studio and try to do it. And then the oranges or the turquoise or the pink show up. And I just go with it.

Dr. Lisa Belisle:

Maybe this is something where you'll work your way towards. It's just not where you are right now. 

Rick Hamilton:

It could be, it could be, you never know.

Dr. Lisa Belisle:

Before you went into art full time, you actually had a whole other life and a whole other career. 

Rick Hamilton:

I did. Yes. I've had a lot of different careers. I've been a fisherman, a roofer, a carpenter, a salesman.  Those careers just never really spoke to me. I started painting in 1999. I was living up on Munjoy Hill and there was a little girl that lived in the apartment below us. One day she was out painting on the Eastern Prom and I just walked up and said, “what are you doing?”  She said, “I'm painting. Do you want to try it?” I said, “sure.” I had nothing else to do. So I did it. And I said, “this is really amazing.” So either that night or maybe that week, I went out and bought my first paint set and I said, “I need to be doing this.” And I've been doing it ever since. 

Dr. Lisa Belisle:

So what was it about that initial interaction with the little girl who was painting? Was it the colors? Was it just the act of painting itself? Was it just that it spoke to a different part of your spirit? 

Rick Hamilton:

I think it just spoke to something that I couldn't really identify.  The colors, not so much, but maybe just the fact of dipping the paint on the brush and then putting it on the paper. It just did something for me.  

Dr. Lisa Belisle:

Have you worked with your hands before in your life? It sounds like you were a roofer and you did things professionally like that. Is that something that you've spent time doing? 

Rick Hamilton:

I did. Yes, I really did.  I was a carpenter and I was a machinist for a little while. So I've spent a lot of time working with my hands. 

Dr. Lisa Belisle:

So it’s like you had a muscle memory and your hands, all of a sudden picked up this paintbrush and it was another way of manifesting this physical aspect of art. 

Rick Hamilton:

True. Yes.  And I think I developed a good work ethic through those other careers and I brought that into art. I really do. I spend a lot of time in my studio and I really appreciate the hard work. I feel like I've gotten to where I am right now just by hard work. I don't think that I have any special talent. I think I just got to where I am by just painting over and over and over developing my skills and my sense of the paint. 

Dr. Lisa Belisle:

You've said that you have no formal training in art. Has that ever been intimidating for you knowing that some artists go into this with an art school background or, you know, studying with museums or other types of opportunities? 

Rick Hamilton:

No, I don't think so. I think maybe that's actually made it less intimidating that I don't have that background because I don't know that I don't know things that they know, you know what I mean? Like, I'm just going into it as a guy who just likes to paint what's in his mind. And I have no notions that I don't have the training that these other people have so I may be less of an artist. So I think that the fact that I have no training actually helps me to be less intimidated. 

Dr. Lisa Belisle:

Do you think that we encourage children when they're young to remain connected to their creative spirits? Or do you think that somehow we send them in a different direction suggesting that some people can be artists and some people can't be artists and you have to get trained or else you can't be an artist? 

Rick Hamilton:

Yes, I really do think that.  I have a lot of people that come to my studio and they'll say things like I could never do what you're doing. And I almost get into arguments with them and say, yes, you can. There's nothing special about me. I think every one of us is a born artist and we're taught through schools and social pressure that we're not as good as we think we are. We're not all artists. And it's only a gift that's given to a few special people and the rest of the society can’t access those gifts. And I think that if you look at the art of a kindergarten class it kind of proves the point.  When I see that art, I'm just blown away by it. I think it's just amazing that these kids just let loose whatever’s inside them without any idea of what they should do or what the painting should look like. And then over time, somehow that idea gets knocked down. 

Dr. Lisa Belisle:

So when you say that you went into your studio and just started working on painting, did you have any specific artists who influenced the type of work that you do? Did you study different people's techniques? How did you self-educate on this topic? 

Rick Hamilton:

I would say my two and maybe three biggest influences would be Picasso, Modigliani, and maybe Basquiat’s work.  But I didn't really study them hard. I would look at their work and I wouldn't look at it a lot because I was afraid that I would copy it. So I would look at their work just to get a sense of what they were doing and then take that with me just a little bit, not so much that I would copy it, but I think you can see the influence in my art. 

Dr. Lisa Belisle:

Yes, definitely.  Tell me about the piece that's behind me here in the studio.

 Rick Hamilton:

The title of that is the “Chorus Line at Bonsouzzi's.” I'm a little bit unsure of the pronunciation of that word because I just made it up the other day in my studio. I don't think it's a real place. I just made it up so it can be pronounced any way you want. And when I was painting that, I had this feeling that I was looking at a small little night club in the French Riviera and we were watching a group of chorus line dancers. 

Dr. Lisa Belisle:

So that's what people see when they look at this painting, as they see this line of women dancing with these brightly colored tutus. And it really does make you feel like you want to go to the French Riviera and join right in. 

Rick Hamilton:

Yes. Then mission accomplished. 

Dr. Lisa Belisle:

What about the piece that's behind you? 

Rick Hamilton:

I believe the title of that is “I'll Play Flamenco On My Red Guitar.” When I'm in the studio, I always have music playing and a lot of times it's salsa music or flamenco music.  There was one song, I can't remember the song but I would listen to it over and over. And it just put this idea. It was actually a YouTube video of a woman dancing in the streets, maybe in Spain or somewhere in Europe and this young guy playing flamenco guitar next to her with just an amazing voice. And I would listen to it over and over and over. And I painted that painting while I was listening to that music. 

Dr. Lisa Belisle:

How strong of an influence is music on your work? 

Rick Hamilton:

It's very big. Music is huge in my life in general. In the car, I always have music on and I never paint without music. There's so many podcasts I want to listen to. I'll go to the studio in the morning and say, Rick, just listen to these podcasts and then maybe I'll make it a half an hour through. And then I say, no, I need the music. I got to have the music. 

Dr. Lisa Belisle:

What about words? I understand that words and things that people say also influence your pieces. 

Rick Hamilton:

Yes, they do. I would say that, and relating back to music, a lot of my ideas for paintings will either come from a sentence or phrase that someone will say in conversation, or maybe I'll pick up something on a line from a song, and it'll just put a little idea in my head. And then I'll take that idea to the studio and play around with it and see what comes out of it. 

Dr. Lisa Belisle:

You were mentioning to me that your daughter is going to go to MECA (Maine College of Art) next year. And when I suggested that you've been a good influence on her, you said, well, actually, I don't really have that much to say. The thing that she's done is to really work very hard herself and really be very motivated. So what I'm hearing from you is that your influence may not be the words that you speak to her but maybe more the role modeling that you've been offering her. 

Rick Hamilton:

Yes. I think that's right.  We very rarely paint together. And even our conversations about art are very limited, but I remember like when she was in kindergarten or first grade, she made this really neat I guess you'd call it a comic book series of cats. And somehow, after she did that, I think she must have got some pushback from some buddy that's saying, hmm, this doesn't look like a real cat. So she kind of got away from art around second and third grade, and then through no work of mine directly, she found her way back and, and found her own voice in art. And now she does it on her own terms. 

Dr. Lisa Belisle:

Speaking of cats, I hear there's a motif that exists within your pieces. 

Rick Hamilton:

There is, yes. Every piece I think for the past six years or so has a little tiny kitty hidden in it. 

Dr. Lisa Belisle:

I heard that this was true and I've been looking and looking for these kitties in your pieces. Is there one in the piece behind me? 

Rick Hamilton:

There sure is. Yes. I can give you a hint. It's on one of the woman's shoulders.

Dr. Lisa Belisle:

Okay. I'm going to look behind me now. Because I should be able to find it.

Rick Hamilton:

It's pretty small and I will tell you, it may look more like an ant. I am ambivalent about cats. I don't have cats. I'm a little bit allergic to them. So I won't go pet a cat just for allergic reasons. I don't particularly like them, which is strange that I put them in, but I'll tell you why I started doing it.  I did a piece, I would say six or seven years ago called “Serenading The Cats” and it was my idea that there was this old fisherman playing guitar in a seaport village in maybe Spain or Italy. And at the bottom of the painting, there were three or four big cats walking through the painting. And they were like feral cats. And he was just serenading these cats at the seaport. And somehow, from that, it developed into me hiding a little kitty in every painting. 

Dr. Lisa Belisle:

I think I found the kitty. I think you're right. It actually does look more like an ant than a kitty. 

Rick Hamilton:

Yes, it does look like an ant because my work is not very detailed as you can tell. 

Dr. Lisa Belisle:

Well, it is and it isn't, I mean, you have very specific lines that I'm seeing. It's definitely not abstract. Right?

Rick Hamilton:

Yes. True. I guess we can call it figurative work. Because there's figures in almost every painting. 

Dr. Lisa Belisle:

And I hear that somebody, a past gallery owner, actually labeled it as expressionism. 

Rick Hamilton:

Yes. I would buy that. I would say it's expressionism. 

Dr. Lisa Belisle:

It doesn't sound like it's that important to you as to what it's actually labeled.

Rick Hamilton:

True. Yes. I don't care. I don't care what it's called or labeled.

Dr. Lisa Belisle:

So as you've moved into this next phase of your life where you really focus on art full-time after having had multiple different careers have you needed to do anything differently as far as the way that you approach your time or approach your attitudes toward being an artist? 

Rick Hamilton:

I don't know, but I think the one thing that is always in my mind is the idea of selling art. And I try, I think pretty well to keep that out of the studio. So when I'm in the studio painting, I try not to think about, is this a piece that somebody would buy?  I think it's almost impossible to get that idea completely out of my head because this is my career and I do need to sell art.  It’s important to me to be able to eat. So I do, I try. And for the most part, I do well at this to keep that idea out of the studio. 

Dr. Lisa Belisle:

You've identified this as a theme that if you focus too much on what we call the supratentorial or the ideas and the thoughts that it really kind of interacts with your creative process, whether you're a child or whether you're an adult who's trying to sell art. So that must've been an interesting practice for you over the years to kind of make that disconnect. 

Rick Hamilton:

Yes, it has been interesting and it's taken work. It takes work and practice. It took work and practice for me to get there. And I think I did one piece… I think this piece might be in your studio right now, of the man playing guitar and the woman dancing with the city behind them. So that painting was done during a phone call I was having with somebody and my attention was on the phone call and the person I was talking to and I painted that painting on the phone with her. And I looked at the painting after the phone call. I said, this is one of my favorite paintings ever because I wasn't thinking, you know what I mean? I wasn't thinking about painting while I was doing it. I just did it. 

Dr. Lisa Belisle: 

It's a gorgeous piece. I love the orange kind of background and the gold ground and the man with the red guitar and the cityscapes and the little hearts on the buildings. It's really beautiful and vibrant. What makes it one of your favorite pieces? 

Rick Hamilton:

Well, first of all, this is almost always true that my favorite painting is the last one I did. That is not the last one, but it was maybe close to the last one. I think just the vibrancy of the colors of that painting really draw me to it. 

Dr. Lisa Belisle:

I would agree with that. When I look at your pieces…there are some artists that I feel more drawn to their work than others. There's something about your pieces that I can definitely relate to which is interesting for me. I grew up in Maine. I haven't spent much time outside of the state of Maine, but I mean, these pieces make me want to, you know, hop on a plane and start traveling again, post COVID and experiencing the world and really kind of opening myself up to my senses and dancing in the streets. 

Rick Hamilton:

Yes, that's perfect. If I can get that feeling from somebody,  then I feel like I did my job. 

Dr. Lisa Belisle:

And what about you? What are your plans for future travel and for tapping back into that wanderlust that you once had as a young person in the Navy? 

Rick Hamilton:

I do want to travel again. I have a little problem leaving my studio. I spend a lot of time in the studio like maybe an average of 80 hours a week in the studio. And I really love it. And my inner struggle is that I tell myself “Rick, you need to go out and live these things that you're painting” but there's not a moment that I'm in the studio that I regret or that I have an unhappy moment. So I just love being there. And it's just the struggle that I have that I want to go out and live life but that would mean I'd have to leave the studio.

Dr. Lisa Belisle:

That reminds me of the quote that something like love what you do and you'll never work another day in your life. Something like that.

Rick Hamilton:

Yes. I believe that. I even have trouble saying what I do is work. To me, it's not work. If I could do anything in my life at this moment I'd be in the studio painting. 

Dr. Lisa Belisle:

Do you think that doing all of these other things that you've previously done have led you to this place where you really appreciate the opportunity to do this work that you love? 

Rick Hamilton:

Yes, definitely. Definitely. I know for fact that while I was living those experiences, I didn't think like that.  I didn't think that it would lead to a career in art but I believe that if I didn't live the life I did then I wouldn't paint the way I paint. 

Dr. Lisa Belisle:

So what was the moment for you where you said, “oh, wait, I know what I want to do. I'm going to dedicate myself to this.” 

Rick Hamilton:

Yeah. I really think that first day that I painted with the 10 year old girl up on Munjoy Hill was one of those moments and then I think the rest of it was just a gradual feeling that developed over time. I can't really think of one other big “aha” moment other than that one. 

Dr. Lisa Belisle:

So something about that experience, with that little girl, and that return to maybe your own inner child, actually kind of reintroduced you to your past self and helped you become your future self?

Rick Hamilton:

Yep, totally did. Yes, it really did. And I've since reconnected with that girl. She's got a family of her own and she still lives here in Portland.

Dr. Lisa Belisle:

Oh, so this is several years ago and now she's grown up. And, is she still doing art? 

Rick Hamilton:

No. She's not.

 Dr. Lisa Belisle:

Not yet. 

 Rick Hamilton:

True. It could come back around again. Like I said before, I believe every one of us as an artist, we really are.

Dr. Lisa Belisle:

For people who are interested in kind of getting back into art. Do you have any suggestions for them? Just go buy some paints the way you did?

Rick Hamilton:

Yes. Simple. Get a piece of paper or a piece of cardboard and paint or pencil or anything and just create something, just start doing it.

Dr. Lisa Belisle:

Start where you are and don't get too worked up about the details or letting your brain interfere in any way. 

Rick Hamilton:

Totally. Yes, absolutely. I think I'll get this quote wrong, or I know I'll get it wrong, but there's a quote from Andy Warhol that I look at a lot.  It's something that goes like, don't worry about whether your art is good or bad, let other people decide whether they like it or they hate it. And while they're deciding, go make more art.

Dr. Lisa Belisle:

I think that's a wonderful quote. And I would agree. I mean, obviously, as I've said to you, your art makes me happy. It's already made my morning. So I appreciate your putting it out there in the world and taking the time to kind of work at it and get to a place where other people can enjoy it.

Rick Hamilton:

Thank you, Lisa. 

Dr. Lisa Belisle:

Rick, I've enjoyed my conversation today with you. I've been speaking with artist, Rick Hamilton. And for those of you who've been listening, or watching, please go to the Portland Art Gallery in Portland to see his pieces or the Portland Art Gallery website. There are a lot of his paintings.  But there may not be much left because I might need to snap it all up and put it in my house. So you better get there quick. Thanks Rick. 

 Rick Hamilton:

Thank you, Lisa.