FREEPORT, Maine - A well-known figure in the Maine art world died over the weekend. As well as being a respected painter, Tom Crotty was an outspoken art promoter and gallery operator who championed the work of many other Maine artists.
For those who were close to him, Tom Crotty carves out a very large place in the memory, says art historian Dan O'Leary.
O'Leary - who as director of the Portland Museum of Art organized a major exhibition of Crotty's work in 2003 - recalls one story in particular from Crotty's childhood in a tough Boston neighborhood.
"He was working in a gas station and he'd come out against some gang group. He was about 15. These gang members pulled up in a car and the driver stuck a gun in his face when he went to see what they wanted. And Tom was so angry at the guy he grabbed the gun, chewed him out, and then threw the gun back at him," O'Leary says.
Tom Crotty employed a similar fearlessness when it came to chewing out opponents in the art world, says O'Leary. "He felt that art world really didn't pay enough attention to quality. He was fiercely loyal to the artists he represented. He wasn't particularly nice to the ones that disagreed with him, but he was always sincere."
Crotty moved to Maine in 1964 and two years later opened the Frost Gully gallery in Freeport, which is described as Maine's oldest, year-round professional art gallery.
At various times, Crotty also ran galleries in Portland and Thomaston. Among the artists he represented is Dahlov Ipcar, who's perhaps best-known for her illustrations of animals. "He had a long history of, you might say, opposing the art establishment in Maine," Ipcar says.
Ipcar says there was a time when many gallery operators in Maine were reluctant to show home-grown talent, preferring instead traveling exhibits from out-of-state artists - something which angered Crotty.
He was also an extremely good painter himself, recalls Ipcar. "He was a realist in amazing details, but always something very individual about his style."
Crotty's work is often described as "photo-realism." For example, he created many seascapes in incredibly intricate, almost photographic, detail.
But the problem that Dan O'Leary encountered when trying to put together the PMA exhibition, he says, was that most of Crotty's paintings were in private hands and had to be tracked down.
"The thing that always struck me was you could never see his works," O'Leary says. "So when I organized the exhibition of his paintings I had to go outside of Portland, and it turned out that his most beautiful and amazing paintings were in Ohio.
The PMA show changed Crotty's life, says O'Leary, and exposed a lot of people to his work. So much so that orders for more paintings came in flooding in, and Crotty had to create a waiting list with nearly 40 names on it. "I think he'll be remembered foremost as a painter," he says.
But Tom Crotty's son, David Crotty, says his father should also be remembered as a patron of the arts - an outspoken advocate for those whose work he admired, "someone who recognized talent in other people as well. He was very good at that, he had a good eye for seeing other people's work and making good quality judgments about it."
Tom Crotty, who was 80, died on Saturday. He had been diagnosed with cancer last year.