Robert Indiana has made a career out of letters, numbers and graphics. Yet when his New York-based art dealer Simon Salama-Caro recently unveiled a stainless-steel sculpture of a No. 8 meant as a present for the artist’s 80th birthday, Indiana made a self-deprecating joke.

“It’s something I’d rather forget about,” he said, eliciting laughter from a group of onlookers gathered to celebrate Indiana’s milestone.

Love, of course, was a party theme for the legendary artist whose simple, blocky graphic of that four-letter word came to be seen as the face of the Pop Art movement, peace movement of the 1960s, and the Summer of Love in 1967.

“Love” made Indiana famous. The graphic — you know the one, with the letters “L” and “O” stacked atop “V” and “E,” and the “O” set at a jaunty angle — was originally designed in 1963 as a Christmas card for the Museum of Modern Art in New York but became even more well-known in the forms of stamps, prints and sculptures that stand in cities all over the world. One recent afternoon in New York City, a steady stream of tourists posed for photos in front of the Love sculpture on Sixth Avenue.

At Indiana’s party, held at the home of longtime Indiana friend and Vinalhaven Press founder Patricia Nick, guests signed a large “Love” card for the guest of honor. Music of the 1960s played throughout the sunny, warm afternoon. Indiana was serenaded, at one point, with The Beatles’ “All You Need Is Love.”

But in a way, Salama-Caro’s gift of the No. 8 sculpture seemed somehow more appropriate for this moment in Indiana’s career than all the Love at his birthday party.

“It’s one of my favorite numbers,” the artist said in a short interview during the party. “Eight relates to my [painting] ‘Eighth American Dream,’ which was dedicated to my mother. She was born in August [the eighth month of the year]. It has something to do with [the word] eat, and eat was the last word my mother said when she died.”

As Indiana also pointed out, the No. 8 is made up of two circles. There are neither beginning nor ending points in a circle – just a continuous line. As the political and social movements of the 1960s latched on to Love, current political movements have circled back to Indiana for inspiration. The presidential campaign of Sen. Barack Obama, which built momentum on the word “hope,” is using Indiana’s own work with that word to spread its message.

It’s a kind of bracketing of political movements, one party guest theorized, which makes Indiana’s work once again ripe for this age.

“People want authenticity. They’re interested in re-establishing a value system especially with the energy crisis. We need to rethink fundamentals about how we’re doing business in this country,” said Donna McNeil, the director of the Maine Arts Commission. “That harkens back to the whole movement in the 1960s when people wanted to eat better, they wanted to live off the land, they rejected a lot of materialism. Words like ‘love’ and ‘hope’ are kind of touchstones for a different way.”

Living out a dream

Although the thought of his 80th birthday didn’t thrill Indiana, he was willing to poke fun at himself during his brief appearance at the party. Underneath a rumpled tan blazer and black button-down shirt, Indiana revealed a black T-shirt with a version of Mark Twain’s quotation, “The reports of my death have been greatly exaggerated.”

The 30th anniversary of Indiana’s move, in 1978, to Vinalhaven is likely an occasion he would be more willing to celebrate.

Indiana, who was born Robert Clark in New Castle, Ind., is so at home here that he leaves the Penobscot Bay island as infrequently as possible. A few months ago, Indiana said, he was approached about arrangements for a private plane to fly him from Maine to Switzerland to accept an award. Indiana declined the trip and sent a representative instead.

But Indiana doesn’t see what many Maine artists see when he looks at the lobster boats chugging in and out of the island’s Carver’s Harbor or the sweeping views of the bay.

“Maine has never inspired me,” Indiana said. “My inspiration comes from inside, not outside. I have never done one single Maine landscape, you see. Marsden Hartley is one of my favorite artists, but what I like about him is his military paintings, not his landscapes.”

That may be, but others see plenty of Maine in Indiana, especially in the way he lives his life.

“I think Maine attracts a do-it-yourselfer, a person who is a rugged individualist, and certainly Bob is that,” McNeil said. “A lot of the adjectives you can use to describe any Mainer, I think Bob holds in his individual person. And Maine is very accepting of different kinds of characters. Bob thrives here because of that kind of acceptance.”

It’s a similar relationship to that between the city of Bangor and Stephen King — residents pride themselves on leaving the best-selling author alone when he’s out and about.

Vinalhaven residents not only accept Indiana, but appear to be nonchalant about his presence. Indiana eats breakfast at Donna Webster’s Surfside restaurant. The only sign of the famous artist is a print of “Love” on a wall of the restaurant.

“I probably don’t see him the same way everyone else here does. See, I’ve known Bob and I don’t think of Bob as being famous and hoity-toity and rich and all that,” said lifelong Vinalhaven resident Becky Jameson, who along with Webster was one of the party guests. “He’s a regular guy. He comes to my house for Christmas dinner, I have breakfast with him now and then. I just see Bob as a friend.”

Still, Indiana has brought plenty of attention to Vinalhaven. He’s included the name of the island in some of his work, and was one of the first artists to be involved with Nick’s renowned Vinalhaven Press, which drew artists from all over the world to a former island schoolhouse.

Indiana’s continuous presence here may have led to the island’s acceptance of him.

“People are used to semi-famous or famous people coming here,” Nick said. “Of course, many parts of Maine attract famous people. But Bob was different. He stayed.”

The lobster boats and ocean may not inspire Indiana, but his home seems to do just that. A self-styled migrant until he settled on Vinalhaven, Indiana bought and still lives in the Star of Hope, which was the town’s former Oddfellows Hall.

“I have the house of my dreams, which is a Victorian with a mansard roof,” he said. “Ever since I was a child I always dreamed of that kind of a house, because [in] every town in Indiana, I think almost the whole country, there’s always a beautiful Victorian house with a tower. But it’s always the local funeral parlor, you see. So as a young man in the Depression, I often toyed with the idea … of becoming a funeral director so I too could have a house like that.”

Indiana may not like to leave Vinalhaven, but next summer he’ll likely have to shed his island persona of regular resident and get on the ferry to Rockland to be recognized as an artist.

From Love to Hope

At 80, an age when many would slow down, interest in Indiana’s work seems as heightened as ever. Already this year there have been Indiana solo exhibitions in Germany and Italy. A show in honor of his birthday is currently on display at the Paul Kasmin Gallery in New York, and some of his work is in an exhibit at the Von Lintel Gallery in New York.

Next June the Farnsworth Art Museum in Rockland will launch an exhibition of Indiana’s work from the time of his move to Vinalhaven to the present. Farnsworth director Lora Urbanelli and chief curator Michael Komanecky aim to show how Indiana continues to figure into the cycle of art in Maine.

“Our mission is to talk about Maine’s role in American art, and how Maine has figured in the broader story of American art,” Urbanelli said. “Robert exemplifies that, and his life out here in Vinalhaven is a great example of the continuing story about how artists come up here and are inspired by being here.”

There was an Indiana interview earlier this month on, and McNeil said a “Love” sculpture popped up in photograph a recent edition of Vanity Fair magazine. Sculptures of “Love” in other languages are installed all over the world (the Spanish Amor seems to translate well, especially because the O can be tilted).

Just like the circles in 8, Indiana is coming around again.

Indiana’s most recent work to receive national attention was, in a way, a reaction to the No. 8.

In interviews, Indiana has expressed his opinions about President Bush’s two four-year terms in office.

“[Eight] … is enough,” Indiana said, showing a hint of a smile.

Indiana apparently wasn’t looking to attach his latest work to a political cause, his Ellsworth-based publicist Kathleen Rogers said recently. But when Obama’s book “The Audacity of Hope: Thoughts on Reclaiming the American Dream” was released two years ago, and Obama’s presidential campaign picked up steam this spring, Indiana agreed to allow his “Hope” design — in the recognizable stacked style with the tilted “O” — to be used as a fundraiser for Obama. A 6-by-6-by-3 foot stainless-steel sculpture was unveiled last month at the Democratic National Convention in Denver.

Hope will appear on items such as bumper stickers and T-shirts. At one point during the party Indiana swapped his birthday T-shirt for a Hope shirt. He also showed the party crowd a picture of Obama kneeling next to Indiana’s “Hope” design. A small version of the sculpture sat on a table during the party, and Indiana wore a “Hope” pin to the party.

With the sculpture of “Hope,” Indiana also kept business in Maine, getting Green Foundry in Eliot to fabricate the piece.

“It’s a big thing for the creative economy,” McNeil said. “It’s about what the artist can bring to the table in terms of employment, and living and working in Maine and having a national reputation. I think he symbolizes that for artists.”

Based on the reaction Green Foundry operators Lauren Holmgren and Josh Dow got from those who saw the “Hope” sculpture, it appears that, just like those circles in the No. 8, Hope is helping Indiana circle around at the age of 80.

“When we got back there was a lot of reaction to [the “Hope” sculpture],” said Holmgren, who traveled to Denver with Dow for the unveiling. “There were some people who had a strong sense that ‘Love’ was so important to them, and that ‘Hope’ stood for something that needed to be said and needed to be heard.”