Todd Bonita’s new gallery at 39 Ceres Street might be the missing link the Portsmouth arts scene has been waiting for. In a city where a Sheraton hotel sits across from a salt pile, and lobster boats share the Piscataqua with luxury cruises, artists are stuck with the difficult task of depicting Portsmouth’s rough edges and close-knit, small-town community while still maintaining a high-quality aesthetic. Bonita’s gallery, slated to open on Friday, April 1, seems to have found the balance between the two extremes by bringing a who’s-who of Seacoast artists together for a special inaugural exhibit.
Bonita’s own work focuses on simple scenes from New England fishing towns, many of them influenced by his other gallery, located in Ogunquit, Maine.
“Since the ’20s, artists have been occupying those fishing shacks on Perkins Cove and using them in the summertime as little art shanties. And this image — it’s this sort of blue-collar approach that appeals to me.”
Bonita is excited to expand to Portsmouth because, although he lives in Greenland and often paints in Maine, he feels at home here. “I love this town,” Bonita says. “I feel like Portsmouth is blossoming right now. People are investing in the arts here.”
The gallery will primarily feature Bonita’s work and the work of six other artists, most of whom mentored Bonita.
“My desire is not to be a gallery owner in the traditional sense, where I represent and manage 40 artists. I want to balance my painting time with exhibiting the work of my teachers and instructors and mentors.”
In addition to using the space as a studio, he hopes to curate a different exhibit every two months by collaborating with visiting curators, highlighting solo shows, and inventing new themes. “If it’s in here, I love it,” Bonita says.
Artist Alastair Dacey, who Bonita playfully calls the gallery’s “ambassador,” says managing a gallery is an “engaging creative process.”
“Usually the painter controls the painting, the framer controls the frame, and the gallery owner controls the wall,” he says. “To own the gallery, (Bonita) gets to coordinate the whole creative project, soup to nuts.”
Bonita first met Dacey in 2005. “He was one of my first students,” Dacey says as he looks around the gallery at Bonita’s work — paintings of weatherworn fishermen coiling rope in torn waders and rust-stained boats that seem to glow.
“About a dozen artists called, contacted, and emailed over the course of the first two days and said, ‘What can I do?’” — Todd Bonita
The gallery’s first exhibit is a benefit for Dacey, who lost his home when the historic Edmund Tarbell House in New Castle burned down in January. The home once belonged to early 20th-century painter Edmund Tarbell, whose work is the subject of a pair of exhibits at the Discover Portsmouth Center. Dacey curated one of the exhibits on display at Discover Portsmouth.
After the fire, Bonita, who signed the lease on the gallery that same month, soon found himself acting as a liaison between Dacey and the Seacoast art community.
“About a dozen artists called, contacted, emailed over the course of the first two days and said, ‘What can I do?’ And a number of them hadn’t met Alastair,” he says. The April 1 exhibit will primarily focus on the work of six artists — Donald Jurney, J.C. Airoldi, Stan Moeller, Dennis Perrin, Bonita, and Dacey. It also includes works from nearly two-dozen local artists, including Dennis Perrin, Colin Berry, Stapleton Kearns, Colin Pagem, Chris Volpe, Lisa Noonis, Wendy Turner, and others.
Dacey says the generosity of strangers has meant more than financial assurance. “These checks and these notes, some of them from people I’d never met before … I just realized that I wasn’t in this struggle alone,” Dacey says.
Artists form communities for a variety of reasons, from similar aesthetic styles to simply understanding each other’s approach to creating and living with art. That’s why Bonita, despite Dacey’s protests, made the gallery’s opening exhibit a benefit. Dacey is currently living in temporary lodgings provided by the nonprofit Friends Forever.
“I think that the success of the night is already there, in the fact that all these artists are coming out in support of one another,” says Bonita. “It’s an affirmation of a very strong and close art community.”
The Todd Bonita Gallery, located at 39 Ceres St., Portsmouth, opens Friday, April 1 from 5-9 p.m. The opening exhibit, a benefit for Alastair Dacey, runs through May 3. Visit toddbonitagallery.com for more information.