Over 20 years of inspiring art on MDI

SOUTHWEST HARBOR — Teaching art was not something Mike Duffy set out to do.

“I started as a graphic designer,” he said in a recent interview with the Islander. “I kind of fell into teaching by accident, filling in for a friend, teaching comic book art.”

More than 20 years later, any child who has an interest in art and grew up on Mount Desert Island has likely been instructed and/or guided by Duffy. He first made his way here in 1998, volunteering as a drawing artist at Camp Beech Cliff during the summer.

“I had a ball,” he recalls, adding there were only about 60 campers at that time. “It was fun showing them how to draw things.”

Even though he was running an art school in Pennsylvania, Duffy returned to the camp in Mount Desert the following summer and was hired as a counselor.

“When I came here, they were just finishing the new bath house,” he said, explaining there were outhouses prior to that change. “When I first started, I thought I was not that good at teaching. As I did it, I got better.”

In addition to being the art director at Camp Beech Cliff, known to children 12-years-old and younger as MikeDuffy, all one word, he teaches art at Harbor House Community Service Center, Mount Desert Nursery School (prior to the pandemic) and some adult education classes.

“I’ll give them the tools and nudge them a bit,” he explained about teaching. “It’s all about the process, not the product.”


As with many artists, Duffy finds places to fill in the gaps with work when the summer camp season ends, including running the arts and crafts area at the Blue Hill Fair, teaching after school at Harbor House and recently starting an online comic book class for kids.

Drawing has been a passion of Duffy’s since he was in second grade.

“I kind of liked drawing anything,” he said. “My mom couldn’t really punish me by sending me to my room. I’d just get some paper and start drawing.”

That passion stayed with him through college, where he studied to become a professional illustrator. Working as a teacher of art, Duffy delves into multiple mediums to inspire budding artists.

“You hear them talk back and forth and come up with a story and it comes through in their art,” he said about kids. “They’re not afraid to put it out there and draw something really weird.”

Part of Duffy’s job is encouraging the weird, not focusing on perfect and allowing kids to create their own style. When something isn’t coming together the way Duffy wants in his process, or for the child artist, he recommends walking away to gain perspective.

“Sometimes I don’t want to figure it out, just walk away,” he said. “Sometimes I bite off more than I can chew… I tell kids I mess up all the time.”

As with many creative people who are in the flow, Duffy never has a lack of inspiration.

“I’ll come up with an idea and work on it and then come up with another idea,” he said. “I’m always writing down ideas; if I don’t I’ll forget it. They just come at me so many times.”

In addition to collecting ideas, Duffy collects materials and the artwork of the children he has taught.

“It’s like a giant art museum here,” he said about his home. “I’m big on recycle art. One of my favorite things is working with Coke bottles. I can cut them to make them into ‘Star Wars’ figures.”

Outside of repurposing recycled materials for art, Duffy’s favorite thing these days is working with paint.

“That’s my main passion is doing watercolors,” he said. “If you can control the water, it will do whatever you want it to do.”

His paintings mostly come from photographs he takes around Mount Desert Island.

“There’s an endless supply of scenery up here,” said Duffy, who does not own a cell phone and says if he did, it would only be to have a quality camera.

When he created the kid-friendly map for the 100-year anniversary of Acadia National Park in 2016, Duffy highlighted some of that scenery.

At the end of last year, he began creating rocks out of clay that look like the smoothed granite orbs that come from the shores of the national park. Using a pasta maker to create a uniform thickness for the clay, Duffy starts with paper, covers that with foil, wraps the thin layer of polymer clay around that, bakes it and paints it to look like granite.

“My fake rocks, that’s my answer to people taking the rocks from the national park,” he said, noting they weigh almost nothing due to their materials. “When you’re on a budget, you get creative.”

Last summer, when Camp Beech Cliff was closed because of the pandemic, Duffy worked at Camp Max with Harbor House. There is no guarantee this coming summer will be different than last. At 61 years old, Duffy says he has been thinking about retiring from camp.

“I don’t feel it,” he said about his age. “I still run around the playground with the kids.”

Sarah Hinckley

Sarah Hinckley

Former Islander reporter Sarah Hinckley covered the towns of Southwest Harbor, Tremont and neighboring islands.

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