Charlie Hewitt has spent more than fifty years confusing art dealers by making art with every inspired thing he can get his hands on: paper, canvas, ink, paint, ceramics, metal, neon. “I’m fierce about it,” he says. “I’ve lost galleries over it. But also, I’m just curious.”
Born in Lewiston to a family of French Canadian shoe factory workers, Charlie moved to New York City in 1968 to pursue a career in art. He’s since become known for his colorful, energetic abstract sculptures, woodcuts, and paintings that often reflect the millworker community. His art appears in prominent collections in New York and beyond. But as Charlie started to make a name for himself, he saw what industry success was doing to artists. “We were commodified,” he says. “Rothko painted Rothkos forever. I used to paint Gottliebs because they were behind on orders. Pollock got tired of being Jackson Pollock. I struggled too many years to give myself over to that.”
Thus began a question—one that arguably lies at the center of every creative life: How, in this society, can one create art with the full, unchecked self?
“We have two people, us creative people,” Charlie says. “There’s the sophisticate—that’s who’s talking to you on the phone right now. And then I have another side. That part of me can’t come to the phone because he’s inappropriate, he won’t accept the conditions you set down for the narrative, he’ll say stupid things, and he’ll probably hang up. What he will do, though, is try out colors. He’s my creative experimenter. That part of me needs to come out.”
Take “Hopeful,” Charlie’s 24-foot-long multicolored neon collaboration with printmaker David Wolfe that shines above Speedwell Projects in Portland and Bates Mill in Lewiston. Or the 14-foot-tall cowboy boot Charlie just shipped off to Dallas. These pieces show his glossier, public-facing side. But if you step into Charlie’s studio, you’ll also find scraps of paper with rough, choppy drawings of broken and obsolete objects: typewriters, plumbing, alarm clocks, oil cans. “What they really are is that other side of me saying, ‘I’m tired of being polished,’” Charlie says. “I need to go back and feed that other side with paper and clay and ink and ideas. Throw money at it, make myself nervous.”
When Charlie moved back to Maine with his family around 2006, that side of himself really started to bloom. Maybe it happened when he met some metal fabricators in a sign shop and left dreaming in neon. Maybe it was his ventures in real estate—which he calls “creative risk-taking” and sees as an extension of his art—and the plumbers, electricians, and carpenters who helped him turn a Yarmouth hardware store into a loft, renovate a farmhouse, and reimagine a roofless greenhouse on Portland’s Brentwood Street into an art space. “Everyone wakes up with these drives. They just didn’t know they were allowed to call them art,” says Charlie. “My experience in Maine is that authentic craft, and the authenticity of the people I collaborate with, and their generosity of spirit. They enable me to really grow beyond whatever I was thinking I was going to be making, because they make it better.”
In a society that worships the lone, extraordinary artist, maybe therein lies a little bit of revolution. To resist becoming known for just one thing by giving others the keys to your ideas. To inhabit your creative moment fully by highlighting the skills of fellow artists. To find in collaboration space for your wilder side.
“What a freedom that is, when you finally realize you don’t have to be lashed to the mast,” Charlie says. “Here’s a great collaborator. You can let it flow.”