LEWISTON — Museum visitors describe “An Adventurous Spirit: The Jane Costello Wellehan Collection” as “earthy,” “electric,” “unexpected,” even “transcendent.” In many ways, this describes the life of the collector herself.

The 70-piece exhibition at the Bates College Museum of Art, which opened Nov. 5 and runs through March 19, 2022, features Wellehan’s collected artworks by 45 mostly contemporary Maine artists. Distinct from the region’s standard, idealized fare of beaches, boats, barns and bridges, the six-decades-old collection also represents some of Maine’s uncharted, unexplored, weathered and complex places, both literally and from the artists’ perspectives.

Plein air painter Neil Welliver’s (1929-2005) woodcut “Islands Allagash,” exemplifies this. Referencing the process as much as the result, Welliver once said, “To paint outside in the winter is painful. It hurts your hands. It hurts your feet, it hurts your ears. . . . The paint is rigid, it’s stiff, it doesn’t move easily. But sometimes there are things you want and that’s the only way you get them.”

Like Welliver, Wellehan pursued the things she wanted with the same discipline and determination. A lifelong advocate and perennial student of the arts, her interest was far more than purely aesthetic. She went on ceramics and glass-making tours, took photography workshops and reached out to Maine’s celebrated and lesser-known legions of artists and artisans to learn how things were made. In some instances, her support helped build an artist’s career. Her passion for the arts went to her core.

In an account written by collection catalog essayist Jessica Skwire Routhier, Wellehan was on oxygen and in a wheelchair the last month of her life. During that period she visited the Portland Museum of Art with eldest daughter Sheila Wellehan, where a color photograph by Eliot Porter caught her eye. Learning it was a dye transfer print, Wellehan vowed to investigate how he did it when she got home.

HALLWAY AS FREEWAY

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The robust exhibition includes a banquet of oils, watercolors, ceramics, a sculpture of a young Dahlov Ipcar by her father, William Zorach, glassworks, woodcuts, photography and mixed media. Artists represented include Daniel Minter, Dozier Bell, Lois Dodd, Dahlov Ipcar, Sam McMillan, Alec Richardson, Sarah Knock, Will Barnet, Ann Lofquist, William Thon, Dennis Pinette and David Driskell, among others. Dale Chihuly’s undulating “Tango Red Persian, 2004” was purchased because it reminded her mother of the ocean, said daughter Mary Wellehan.

Mary Wellehan — a potter, former art teacher and the fourth of Wellehan’s six daughters — said every piece of art was on display at all times for family, friends and guests in her mother’s Portland  home. It was considered livable art. Nothing was rotated or warehoused, as is a common practice for art collections. A grouping of Lissa Hunter baskets, for example, was informally placed above the bench where the family routinely tossed coats and cast off wet and muddy boots. “The dog would be on the bench,” Mary recalled. “Nothing was off limits. I’d go in and lift off the lids of these beautiful ceramic pieces, trying to see if there was anything inside. It was tactile. Everything was at arm’s reach. It was never, ‘Don’t touch that.’ Lined with art, the hallway was a freeway, with kids running up and down.”

Bates College Museum of Art Director Dan Mills, who first met the collector at a museum event in 2010, concurred. “It was important to Jane that the art be interactive — that the family gets to have some fun with it.”

CERAMIC KUDOS

Said to favor ceramics, Wellehan believed the craft was underappreciated. “The gift of her ceramics collection boosts the museum’s holdings of works by contemporary ceramists,” Mills said, among them Susan Dewsnap, Lissa Hunter, Paul Heroux, Sequoia Miller, George Pearlman, Warren MacKenzie and Jane Peiser. “With ceramics part of Bates’ core studio disciplines, aspiring ceramists will be able to study these objects as a teaching and cultural resource.”

Mills recalls Wellehan promising her artworks to the college more than a decade earlier, something she’d reaffirm to him at subsequent museum events. “In 2017, she decided it was time to move forward, inviting me to the house in Portland,” he said. “There was art everywhere: up the stairwell, above the kitchen cabinets, in the little area between the kitchen and great room, over the bench. And she told me to choose,” he recalled, “actually offering us all of it.” Given her generosity and the significance of what he saw, Mills said the museum chose most everything. There were 90-plus acquisitions in all.

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PROVENANCE

Born in Lewiston in 1938, Jane Costello was the granddaughter of former Sun Journal publisher Louis Costello. In 1959, upon Costello’s death, his son, Jane’s father Russell Costello, helmed the paper the same year Jane married Daniel J. Wellehan Jr. of the shoe manufacturing and retail family. The union of the two prominent families made the young couple a kind of regional royalty.

Graduating the following year from Bates College, Jane Costello Wellehan’s Bates lineage can be traced back to paternal grandparents in 1898. A four-semester class “in ‘Cultural Heritage’ awakened my love for ancient cultures and religions, art and architecture,” Wellehan wrote in a story for The Bates Student (newspaper) in 2017, explaining how it inspired a lifelong pursuit of the same.

Embracing her community, she served as a volunteer chaplain at Maine Medical Center and Mercy Hospital and on numerous nonprofit and corporate boards. These included Community Health Services, Sweetser, and Portland Ovations, where she spent 29 years promoting the essential role of the arts in well-rounded communities.

Wellehan passed away in 2019, leaving her collection — plus an endowment to support acquisitions, internships and educational programming — to the museum. Her goal was to make art accessible to generations to come of students, faculty, staff and the public.

“Often a collection is stronger than the sum of its parts,” said museum director Mills. “You end up making connections and seeing dialogue between works, and learning about the perspective of the collector. It’s a wonderful gift to the college and to the state of Maine.”

Said daughter Mary, “The spirit of what my mother chose was evident when I walked into the museum on opening night. There was so much joy represented in the art — in nature and in moments of her life. The way the museum has displayed the collection is powerful. It really honors these artists. We lived with it, but now it’s elevated to such a beautiful tribute.”

The Bates College Museum of Art is open Monday through Saturday from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m., with additional hours until 7:30 p.m. Monday and Wednesday throughout the academic year. Check the website at Bates.edu/museum or call 207-786-6158 for holiday closings. Every visitor must wear a mask and present a hard or digital copy of a COVID vaccination card or proof of a negative COVID test within the last 48 hours.


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