It seemed, at first, like an unorthodox topic for an exhibit at the Farnsworth Art Museum in Rockland. Disaster, natural or man-made, as depicted in both paintings and other mediums? It’s a rather grim subject, full of death and destruction.

And yet, as Farnsworth registrar Angela Waldron discovered as she assembled the exhibit that later became “Art of Disaster,” on display through April 23, 2017, it was a topic that held great fascination for people of all stripes. When faced with a full-fledged disaster — whether it’s something smaller-scale, only affecting a handful of people, or something enormous and history-making — it’s hard to look away.

“It’s engaging in a way that is truly visceral,” said Waldron. “It’s something that affects everyone, regardless of who or where you are. It’s egalitarian. It can strike anyone, anytime. It’s an equalizer.”

The art chosen for “Art of Disaster” spans an array of mediums, styles and eras. Waldron curated the show based on subject matter, and to that end, the exhibit is, in many ways, a history lesson as much as it is an art show.

The works featured range from a highly realistic 1862 James Hope painting depicting the brutal, bloody Civil War Battle of Antietam, to pop art icon Larry Rivers’ 1970 silkscreen “Ready-Aim,” depicting a scene from the Boston Massacre, and includes not just war scenes, but also storms, floods, fires, terrorist attacks, shipwrecks and daring rescues.

“It really spans a wide gamut of times and events,” said Waldron. “And it was a really fascinating experience, assembling this exhibit, from both our collection and on loan from people.”

One of the highlights of the exhibit is a painting by Maine artist Waldo Peirce, a Bangor native and longtime resident of the Midcoast, and a colorful, fascinating character in his own right. “The Fire at East Orrington,” a large oil painting by Peirce, depicts a 1940 fire at the Crook family dairy farm in East Orrington, in which Brewer firefighters battled an enormous blaze, in which they saved the home but were unable to salvage the milk room and the kitchen.

A 2011 story in the Bangor Daily News featured an interview with the daughters of the family that owned the farm — Priscilla Washburn, now 85, and Betty Renaud, now 83, who you can see in the painting, dressed in bathing suits after the sisters went swimming in the nearby Sedgeunkedunk Stream, watching in terror as their family farmstead went up in flames.

It’s those local events — many of which remain in the memories of older Maine residents — that constitute a large percentage of the works featured in the “Art of Disaster.” For Rockland specifically, there are a number of images of the Fire of 1952, a blaze that leveled much of downtown Main Street, provided by the Rockland Historical Society and the Owls Head Transportation Museum.

“There are a lot of people that remember the fire of ‘52,” said Waldron. “The local element was really important, and that’s been one of the things people have responded to the most.”

Another local event — although one that happened 180 years ago — was the wreck of the Royal Tar, a passenger steamship en route between St. John, New Brunswick and Portland, which caught fire and sank off the coast of Vinalhaven. With it died 32 people and the elephants, camels and other animals that were part of a traveling circus show.

Waldron found two representations of the Royal Tar — a “crankie” created by Tenants Harbor artist Annie Bailey, which is a moving panorama depicting the story of the wreck, and a paper etching titled “The Legend of the Royal Tar” by Vinalhaven printmaker Chris Clarke.

While visiting Clarke on Vinalhaven, Waldron also came across Clarke’s large, highly detailed etching “10048,” depicting the disastrous scene immediately after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, for which Clarke was present.

“We managed to go from the Royal Tar to 9/11,” said Waldron. “It’s very profound, and it’s something that’s still very much in people’s memories.”

Though war and man-made disasters make up a portion of the exhibit — a haunting image by American artist Leonard Baskin, “Hydrogen Man,” depicts the horror of the atomic age and radiation, while others showcase the Spanish American War — nautical images figure strongly as well. Not only are there the depictions of the Royal Tar, but there are also etchings by Winslow Homer depicting rescues at sea, and paintings of various other shipwrecks in and around Maine and New England.

“The whole idea for this show came from my doing research on ship portraits. I spend a lot of time in storage, as registrar, so my role is often behind the scenes. I’m very intimately familiar with our collection,” said Waldron. “When you have the combination of weather and the elements interacting with humans, that’s often when you get some of the most memorable images. They stay in your mind.”

Waldron believes that it’s not just the event itself that resonates with people — it’s the aftermath.

“It unites people. You have the actual event, the aftermath, the recovery and the coming to terms of it. There’s heroism involved. It really encapsulates a lot of human experience.”

Also on display at the Farnsworth are “N.C. Wyeth: Painter,” through Dec. 31; “About Buildings,” an exhibit of architectural drawings, through Jan. 8; “Pushing Boundaries: Dine, Graves, Lichtenstein, Rauschenberg and Rosenquist,” through Jan. 22; “Other Voices,” featuring works from Alex Katz’s collection, through Feb. 19; two Andrew Wyeth exhibits, through March; and “Celebrating Maine,” through October 2017.

The Farnsworth is open from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Tuesday through Sunday, through Dec. 31; it is closed on Mondays. The museum also will be closed on Tuesdays from Jan. 1 through March 31. The museum will close at 2 p.m. on Christmas Eve and New Year’s Eve. Admission is $15 for adults, $13 for seniors, $10 for students and free for those age 16 and under.

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Emily Burnham

Emily Burnham is a Maine native and proud Bangorian, covering business, the arts, restaurants and the culture and history of the Bangor region.