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Maritime painter pays it forward

John Stobart understands how difficult it can be for young artists as they strive to make the transition from student to honest-to-goodness professional artist.

So when Stobart developed into a renowned maritime painter, he decided, as they say, to pay it forward. Through his Stobart Foundation, he has awarded more than $375,000 in grants to art students since 1989.

The grants go to students graduating from college - with one grant going each year to a student from the Lyme Academy College of Fine Arts.

Fifteen Lyme Academy students who have received a Stobart Fellowship Award have all gathered their work for an exhibition that just opened at the Gallery at Firehouse Square in New London. (Another Lyme Academy connection: Stobart used to be a trustee there.)

Stobart himself attended the Friday night reception for "John Stobart Fellowship Award Winners: 1989-2010," which will run through Sept. 10.

Stobart, 81, a native of England who attended the Royal Academy of Arts, came to the United States in 1965. On his very first day in New York, he was offered a one-man show by the Wunderliches, who had founded Kennedy Galleries. They supported his idea to paint American harbor scenes from the clipper era, resulting in seven one-man shows.

Eventually, as his paintings ended up more and more in private collections, Stobart decided to publish limited-edition prints of the works.

Stobart admitted that, when he first went into the print business, "it was absolutely, embarassingly successful. So much money was pouring in, I thought, 'I've simply got to give something back here.' ... I had noticed how the drop-off rate of artists is pretty severe. They usually go into different things because, being an artist, you have to be awfully focused and awfully dedicated and almost crazily ambitious to pull it off."

He figured that, through his foundation, he could give students $5,000 to help their transition from the academic arena into the workaday environment.

The theory, Stobart said, was to give a boost to those young people who "need a little leg up and a little encouragement, to give them a grant at the weakest point in the chain, when they leave a college of art. ... They leave the ambience of the art teaching situation. Everything comes to a crashing halt. It's a very, very difficult time."

He said they were ultimately looking for students who had a passion in their work and a signature characteristic that made them unique.

Stobart, who lives in Massachusetts, also juried the show at the Gallery at Firehouse Square. The prizes went to Bernard C. McTigue, first place, who will get a solo show at The Gallery; Douglas Smith, second place; and Hollis Dunlap, third place.

The Lyme Academy graduates who benefited from Stobart's largesse thanked him publicly during the reception.

Katie Fogg, the manager of The Gallery at Firehouse Square who was the guiding force behind this exhibition, also happens to have won the 2010 Stobart Fellowship.

Getting the grant, she said, "gives you that confidence. It helps you with that one step you need to continue."

She recalled using the grant money to get her studio going and to buy materials.

Dora Milliken, who won a 2002 Stobart grant, described how students get out of college and might hear their teachers' voices in their heads - but don't know who they themselves are yet. The grant was an incentive to strike out on their own and figure out who they were supposed to be, she said.

Before Friday night's reception, Stobart spoke about how he loved art - and had a talent for it - from early on. He was good at drawing, he said, adding, "I was no good at anything else. ... I almost failed grammar school. As soon as I got (to Derby College of Art), I took off like a rocket. So I was always very strongly dedicated."

He said his father had told him he was never going to put bread on the table with the kind of work he was doing. Dad was wrong. But his father deserves some credit; Stobart said he picked up his father's business acumen, a vital element in building a career in art.

Stobart knew something else from early on: he had an affinity for the maritime world. He grew up in the midlands of England and rarely traveled. At the age of 8 or 9, though, he took a trip to Liverpool. He recalled with gusto seeing all the ships there - the second Mauretania, big ocean liners at a wharf loading for trips abroad. Twice a day, when the tide stopped running, he said, "All hell broke loose. All the ships moved out. It was pandemonium for a half-hour or so. To see all this was, to me, as a boy - I couldn't believe it. I saw it and ... I knew then I was married to it, I was married to that subject."


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