Skip to main content

Maine coastline inspires artist’s work

Alison Bramhall puts a new spin on marine charts, adding flair to Fishers Island Sound and other ports

Alison Bramhall puts a new spin on marine charts, adding flair to Fishers Island Sound and other ports

You’ve never fully seen the coastlines of the world until you’ve seen them through Maine artist Alison Bramhall’s eyes.

Take the coast of her home state, for example. Casco Bay is submerged in a lush turquoise, while the mainland glows in a deep royal blue. Islands are dotted in tangerine, yellow and lime, finished off with a border of Bramhall’s favorite color, magenta.

“Colors run through me and they make me happy,” says Bramhall, 41, owner of Festive Fish, where she sells her colorful designs on silk ties, baby clothes, T-shirts, painted fruit bowls and furniture. She also makes colorful prints from actual nautical charts for ports such as Boothbay Harbor, Vinalhaven and Mount Desert Island. Those prints are also available on greeting cards and calendars.

“I thrive putting color against color,” she says. “Hot pink, orange and magenta; they’re mine. They are what define my work.”

Currently based in Yarmouth, Maine, Bramhall was born and raised in Portland in a family that loved sailing. Her father owned a Watkins 27, and later a Sabre 24 and 36.

“We were always out on the water from the minute it got warm,” says Bramhall. “My love for colors came when my mom got me some Swiss magic markers that came in a metal tin that weren’t your traditional marker colors. It had lime, brilliant blue, violet — real juicy. When they went dry, I was in tears.”

Inspired by her boating background, Bramhall’s first artistic venture began with painting three whales on a wide barrette. Her design caught on, and through the help of her mother she soon had five local accounts.

“I would buy a pack of barrettes from Goody, but I only wanted the fat ones and they only sold those separately,” says Bramhall. “I did all sorts of designs, like three strawberries in a row, and they became very popular. I remember stringing wire between the drapes in my bedroom where I would hang the barrettes to let them dry.”

Her barrettes were so in demand she began buying the packs from Goody wholesale, although they wouldn’t sell her the wide kind individually.

“I have two coffee cans just full of thin barrettes,” says Bramhall, laughing. “I hated to throw them out in case they were useful later.”

When she attended college at the University of New Haven (Conn.) in 1986, she enjoyed wearing boxers as shorts, but she couldn’t find any designs in the stores that suited her.

“I could never find any that were funky or fun enough,” says Bramhall. “So I bought them wholesale and began painting designs on them.”

Much like the barrettes, the boxers became so popular that in 1995 the crew of Young America wore them in defense of the America’s Cup. The design featured a mermaid in the front and Young America in a red-and-blue font along the sides. When Bramhall decided to go out West to jump-start her career as an artist in 1993, she found herself waiting tables instead.

“Ironically, it gave me another artistic outlet, because I had to wear ties to my job,” says Bramhall. “So I started designing ties with starfish, sailboats and coastlines on them.”

In order to promote her work, Bramhall sent a tie to Angus King, the governor of Maine (1995-2003) on Valentine’s Day in 1994. It had art deco hearts in red and orange on a blue-and-green background, colors free-flowing into one another.

“He actually called me and thanked me for the tie, and every year on Valentine’s Day he sends me a handwritten thank-you note,” says Bramhall. “I’ve sent him a couple of other ties over the years and he’s been seen wearing them during public appearances.”

Festive Fish solidified in 1994 when Bramhall began making hand-painted greeting cards with fish on them in addition to the ties.

“Over the years, the name just stuck,” says Bramhall. “And I think festive describes my work pretty well.

Her coastlines began as a result of a foot injury in 2004 that left her with extra time to spare. She took the month of September off and was looking at a vibrant chart she had done of the coast of Ireland during her sea kayaking trip in August 2001.

“I thought to myself, well, how does the coast of Maine look? Pretty spectacular if you ask me,” says Bramhall. “So I started doing Casco Bay and kept on painting.”

The charts were an instant success at boat shows, much to Bramhall’s surprise.

“People just loved them, they liked how they were cool and different,” says Bramhall. “And men buy them just as much as women do.”

Since 2004, Bramhall has done charts of Harpswell Neck, New Meadows and other New England ports. Starting this year, Bramhall has included “Great Escape” island charts featuring Bermuda and the Virgin Islands. Each painting is done with acrylic paint on watercolor paper. The printing process, called Giclée, offers small and large square and rectangular prints with prices ranging from $135 to $275 unframed and $225 to $525 framed.

“Other products I’ve done have always been functional, but this is just a bit of foof that you stick on the wall — and it’s been the most successful,” says Bramhall. “These charts were a leap of faith and I told myself ‘Just go for it.’ It’s a matter of not being scared.”