What do Janet Mills, Chellie Pingree and Dr. Nirav Shah have in common?
They each have a Pat Eltman piece in their art collection.
Eltman’s oil paintings of sunrises, sunsets and seascapes are entirely apolitical. But the artist, who turns 71 this year, spent four decades shaping our political landscape as a strategist, campaign manager and grassroots organizer. Politicos have purchased several of her paintings over this past decade that she has enjoyed a second act as an artist.
“We’ve been lifelong friends, most of us,” Eltman says, adding that she gave Shah hasn’t been a Mainer as long but she gave him a painting out of gratitude for all he’s done to keep Mainers safe through the pandemic.
A lifelong South Portland resident, Eltman has always been drawn to the sea for healing air and renewal. That’s what she captures in her art—the sun rising or setting in warm oranges, salmons and golds over Maine seascapes with islands, marshes and footpaths cutting through seagrass. The process of interpreting photos with oil paints, she says, is meditative and utterly calming.
As the saying goes, the calm comes before the storm. But, in Eltman’s life, the reverse has been true.
When Lyndon B. Johnson came to Portland in 1964 to campaign for re-election as president of the United States, Eltman was there with the Teenage Democrats from Cathedral High School. She was hooked, drawn to the perpetual storm of politics as a way to bring change.
Eight years later when her friend Peter Curran campaigned for a seat in the Maine state legislature, she went door to door, dropping off leaflets in the evenings after working for the telephone company all day. Through this most humble of beginnings, Eltman’s circle of friends quickly became the movers and shakers in the Democratic Party at the Maine State House. Then, when Jimmy Carter was elected and tapped longtime Maine Senator Ed Muskie as U.S. Secretary of State, Maine’s sphere of influence grew nationally.
“My career in politics took off from there,” Eltman says. “I ended up working on presidential campaigns as political and field director.”
She worked on the Carter-Mondale presidential re-election campaign in 1980.
“Maine became a very important swing state,” Eltman says. “And I was tapped for deputy state director because of my knowledge of Maine’s political landscape. This is what started me on my journey in national politics.”
She worked on the Mondale-Ferraro campaign in 1984, followed by Jim Tierney’s campaign for governor of Maine in 1986.
In the early days, Eltman made as little as $15—per day—as a grassroots organizer. In the State House, some of the male legislators called her “Cupcake.”
“It was a man’s world, basically,” Eltman says. “But, when I came back to the Speaker’s Office in 1988 after the Dukakis campaign, finally, more women started getting elected. In my lifetime, I’ve seen the first woman as Senate President. I worked for Libby Mitchell, who was the first woman Speaker of the House and only the third woman in the country to be elected Speaker and President of the Senate. And now we have our first female governor, Janet Mills, and our first female Secretary of State, Shenna Bellows. In my 40-year span, I’ve seen quite a bit. Women have worked hard and come far.”
In 2000, Eltman was the regional political director for Al Gore’s presidential campaign in the Midwest.
After decades of hectic travel campaigning in Washington, Boston, Detroit, Chicago, St. Louis, and Oklahoma City, Eltman shifted gears and became Maine’s state director of tourism.
“That was the best job—selling Maine, the most beautiful state in the whole country, to the world,” she says. “Lighthouses, lobsters, and moose.” And so much more.
Her next campaign—against breast cancer—was a more difficult and personal one.
“It’s like your life stops when you hear that you have cancer,” she says. “It’s always in the back of your mind. It’s a sisterhood, when you go through breast cancer.”
A tumor was detected through a routine mammogram and treated with a lumpectomy followed by radiation. This month Eltman has reached 12 years of remission.
Perhaps it was reaching that milestone of being cancer-free that made her see the world a little bit differently and take things a little slower, a little more creatively. Because it was a decade ago when Eltman walked past a sign about art lessons on the door at Roux & Cyr gallery in Portland and decided to pick up a brush.
She says, “It’s about seeing a beautiful sky and thinking, ‘Wouldn’t I love to paint that?’”
Eltman’s first art show was in 2015. The venue was the “One Night Stand Gallery” at Planned Parenthood in Portland. Since then, she has had several shows at the Couleur Collection in Falmouth and at Roux & Cyr.
Eltman often paints on commission. Or, captivated by the beauty of nature, she goes back to her studio with a photo, captures the essence with her brushes and paints, snaps a photo with her phone and posts her work for sale on her personal Facebook page.
Although her home has as much framed art as a gallery, it’s common for her to have nothing of her own art in sight other what is in progress on her easel.
Her largest commissioned piece is a 2-foot by 4-foot seascape of sunset on Casco Bay. Characteristically for this artist, the buyer was a labor leader in Washington, D.C.
Other than creating a lifetime of contacts for prospective buyers, one might think that politics and painting would be as different as night and day. But not for Eltman.
“In politics, you need a strategy, and the same is true with painting,” she says. “Both are about interpretation.”
For her, perhaps, politics and art are more like sunrise and sunset: One shines a light to make a more beautiful world, the other captures the fleeting light because the world is beautiful.