The Salty Dog Gallery in Southwest Harbor is more than a place to display and sell art. Owners Philip and Joan Steel have created a community space where budding artists can take classes and where local musicians can show off their talents.
Like many visual artists, Philip Steel began drawing as a child in grade school in suburban Philadelphia, doodling in his notebooks.
“I would always do sketches in the margins,” he said, adding that his teachers weren’t always pleased with his efforts.
Later, he and a few other promising young artists were taken under the wings of an art teacher who encouraged them to show their work. At the time, Steel was mainly working with pastels and charcoal. In one show, he won the top award for his charcoal drawing, a show in which another young artist, Andrew Wyeth, took the watercolor prize.
Graduating from high school, Steel was faced with a choice.
“I was either going to be a commercial artist or an architect,” he said.
Architecture won out and Steel received a bachelor’s degree in that discipline from Penn State and, subsequently, a master’s degree from the University of California at Berkeley.
Steel had a successful career as an architect in Florida but also continued to paint and draw on the side.
“I’ve always painted watercolors, some oils and charcoal drawings,” he said.
Things came to a head in 1987, when Florida experienced a “depression” and Steel’s architecture firm suffered as a result.
“My wife said, ‘Just go paint,’” he recalled.
He began teaching at the Vero Beach Museum of Art one day a week, a position he held for 20 years. He also, through a partnership with a local travel agency, began leading art tours and teaching classes on trips to Europe.
About 20 years ago, at Joan’s insistence, the couple began to spend summers in Southwest Harbor. They opened the gallery 11 years ago and, in 2011, became year-round residents of Mount Desert Island.
Two motives spurred the opening of The Salty Dog.
“I wanted to show my work,” Steel said. “And we wanted to get other good artists in with us.”
This year, the Steels have seven different shows running from May through October, which will feature local artists such as Wini Smart and Ivan Rasmussen as well as artists from away. Live music, he said, is offered at each opening, during the winter months and by happenstance. A Steinway baby grand, circa 1917, occupies a prominent spot in the gallery and visitors often stop by to show off their pianistic skills.
Steel’s work is always on display year-round. His colorful images often capture boats and other maritime scenes.
In the winter months, the architect leads workshops in painting. One of his students is Griff Fenton of Lamoine.
Fenton is modest about his artistic skills.
“I have no talent at all,” he jokes.
Fenton and his wife, Sandy, began taking classes a few years ago.
“It’s great therapy,” he said.
Not only is Steel fun to work with, he has a unique style of teaching.
“It’s not a class per se,” Fenton said. There is not a lot of discussion; students just jump in and begin painting. The teaching comes as students encounter problems and begin to ask questions.
“He doesn’t give you a directive,” Fenton said. Steel prefers to have students develop their own artistic vision instead of imposing his own ideas on their work.
“It’s an incredible way of teaching,” Fenton said.
Joan was once an interior designer and now does pottery. Although her work isn’t displayed in the gallery, she plays an important role.
“She runs this thing,” he said. “I just help her out with the PR.”
The Salty Dog Gallery is located at 322 Main St. in Southwest Harbor. For more information, call 244-5918 and visit philipsteel.com.