SOUTHWEST HARBOR — In contrast to the grey, wintery weather outside, lots of color has recently been added to the lobby of the Harbor House Community Service Center.
Bright, bold, larger-than-life paintings by Philip S. Steel now hang high on the walls of the lobby and the first floor hallway, protected from curious hands.
“He would love the fact that all of his paintings are right there where all the visitors can see them,” said Steel’s daughter Amy Pulitzer in an interview with the Islander. “We were grateful to have those paintings go up somewhere.”
Steel, who opened Salty Dog Gallery with his wife, Joan, on Main Street in Southwest Harbor in 2005 and ran it for more than a decade, died two years ago in March. The couple had made Mount Desert Island their year-round home in the last few years before they both passed, according to Pulitzer.
“They just became such a great part of the community,” she added, noting that her dad had many ways of expressing his creativity. “When he got older, he loved his accordion. Art shows were a way they could just play music.”
Steel was the only child of a high-profile performing arts couple, opera singer Robert Steel and theater actress Beryl Van Horn Steel, so it was no wonder that being creative came naturally. Steel’s painting career began as a teenager. He studied drawing and painting at the Philadelphia Museum of Art and the Chester County Art Association. After earning a bachelor’s degree in architecture, Steel joined the U.S. Navy, married and established a family while going on to earn a master’s degree in architecture. His work in building design can be seen throughout the East Coast.
When he later married his second wife, Joan, the two of them created an architectural and interior design business called Steel Design & Associates. But, at a certain point, he was not feeling fulfilled, according to Pulitzer.
“He was having a mid-life crisis in the ‘70s and Joan said, ‘remember how much joy painting brought you?’” Pulitzer said about how he got back into painting using both oil and watercolor paints.
It was his love of the sea and respect for those who worked hard making a living on it that inspired much of Steel’s work. The paintings on the wall of the Harbor House all have the ocean, fishing and life by the water as a common theme and is a small portion of the more than 100 paintings Steel had stored at their Fernald Point Road home.
“Harbor House is delighted that the family asked us to display these paintings so people can continue to enjoy Phil’s art,” said Diana Novella, the community relations director of Harbor House. “They are a great addition to the building and the community.”
While the characters in the paintings in the community center are largely from the community of Tangier Island in the Chesapeake Bay area of Virginia, they invoke similarities to those from Mount Desert Island.
Featuring people and scenes from Florida, Virginia and Maine, Steel used his paintings to collaborate with authors and playwrights and tell a story with them. They became published books and later a public television miniseries.
“My dad always had these big projects going on,” said Pulitzer. “He just loved these big, change the world kind of projects.”
There were three books written, “Net Loss”, “Fishing Gone” and “A Green Sky”, the last of which was based on Swan’s Island. Each book, focused around the story the paintings told, was turned into a stage production some of which made it to esteemed venues such as the Smithsonian Institution in Washington D.C., several Ivy league colleges and theaters in Boothbay, Camden and Bar Harbor, as well as Florida. They had an impact and at least one was influential in bringing awareness to a political issue affecting the net fishermen of Florida.
“I’ve always admired the water’s moods and the people whose lives are affected by the sea, the wind, and the currents,” said Steel in a quote added to his 2018 obituary.
Two of the books are available for purchase a Harbor House. All three stories were made into a miniseries produced by Jeff Dobbs Productions of Bar Harbor and shown on public television.
It is not clear how long the paintings will be up at the Harbor House, as well as the some that are hung at the Common Good Café. The latter was a favorite place for Steel to play his accordion.
Pulitzer said there is no timeline for the Steel art show, “as long as they are being appreciated.”