Artist Erick Sahler makes the Eastern Shore pop.
A turquoise pickup truck ambling down a technicolor street in Snow Hill. A log canoe heeled over, hiking boards skyward, on a bluebird Miles River day. A Warhol-esque cup of golden Thrasher’s fries with the tagline, “No ketchup.” In the world of Erick Sahler’s silkscreen serigraphs, Delmarva’s destinations and local cultural touchstones are elevated to the iconic with a signature style that’s 60 percent WPA travel poster, 30 percent Madison Avenue marketing pitch, and 10 percent native son nostalgia.
For Sahler, the lower Eastern Shore’s small towns and traditions are more than mere inspiration—they’re in his blood. Born and bred in Salisbury, Md., almost all of Sahler’s life has been happily spent in his hometown. The notable, reluctant exception was four years studying graphic design at college. “The only reason I left then,” Sahler says, “is because my dad wouldn’t let me stay in Salisbury for college, and wanted me to leave for a few years and try life off the Shore. So I picked UMBC [University of Maryland Baltimore County] because it was the next-closest school, and after about three years, I couldn’t wait to leave. I’d had enough of the city life and I was ready to come home.”
Pulled back into the orbit of his hometown, Sahler saw the landscapes and scenery with a fresh perspective. Though the techniques he used to capture them were new, Sahler’s childhood Eastern Shore haunts had long fueled his artistic imagination. As a boy, Sahler’s natural talent was honed under the instruction of Eastern Shore artist Keith Whitelock. Whitelock, who specialized in maritime scenes of workboats and the seafood industry, took the young Sahler under his wing and into the local waterways on art field trips.
On excursions to boatyards and harbors, the pair sketched the people who made their lives on the water, along with their boats, tools, and scenery. These trips with Whitelock helped Sahler develop his talent while kindling a lifelong love of the Shore’s inimitable sense of place. “Keith became my mentor and my hero,” Sahler says. “He taught me how to draw, how to paint. And Keith was the one who really opened my eyes to how special Chesapeake country and the Eastern Shore are.”
Through Whitelock, Sahler met Salisbury screen printer Dave Rossi, and would go on to work as a teenager in Rossi’s screen-printing shop throughout high school and during college summers and weekends. Sahler credits Rossi with introducing him to the concept of graphic art and how to powerfully present an idea—whether on a book cover or a billboard—in a narrow palette. “Working with Dave forced me to see the world in very limited colors,” Sahler says. “We had a six-color press, and we charged more money for more colors. I drew crabs, I drew mud trucks, I drew workboats in only two or three colors. Eventually all of those elements just fell into place as far as my artwork goes.”
Sahler’s subject matter and technique are perfectly suited for his preferred style, a vibrant, lighthearted mashup of Mad Men-era marketing and retro travel posters. The result is a larger-than-life celebration of the Chesapeake’s unique landscape and culture. From scrapple to Dolle’s saltwater taffy, Chincoteague’s waterfront to the Oxford-Bellevue Ferry, the places and experiences of lower Delmarva—past and present—are presented as icons, rendered in bold colors with a local’s sense of pride.
“My work is meant to be a celebration of this place, and to appeal to people that are perhaps left a little cold by more traditional work, like a decoy or a painting of a skipjack,” Sahler says. “The idea from the beginning is that I would make Eastern Shore art for the rest of us, and create ways to elevate and recognize beloved Eastern Shore places and culture that have flown under the radar of the art world.”
In 2021, Sahler, a former newspaper graphic artist and illustrator, will have spent a decade making art dedicated to the joy of Delmarva’s places and pastimes. To mark his 10 years of work, the Dorchester Art Center will hold a month-long retrospective in July, featuring everything from Sahler’s teenage T-shirt designs to his newspaper illustrations and limited edition, handmade screen prints.
When asked if he thinks he’ll ever run out of fresh sources of inspiration, Sahler’s response is characteristically upbeat. “Every new design can lead to an artistic revelation, and you love each work for a different reason,” Sahler says. “They might be a milestone in the illustration of a print, in the subject matter of a print, or in a new experience that becomes the seed for a new idea. But there’s always something new to explore.”
For Sahler, the source for new ideas will only dry up if he ever stops being an enthusiastic tourist on his own turf. With his penchant for adventure and passion for place, that doesn’t seem too likely. “I haven’t gotten past St. Michaels yet,” Sahler says. “My first print was of Downtown Salisbury, with the idea that I was proud of this place, I believe in this place, and darn it, we’re going to celebrate it. And the concentric circles have just gone out from there.”
To learn more about artist Erick Sahler’s work, visit his website at ericksahler.com or follow him on Facebook at facebook/ErickSahlerSerigraphs.
To learn more about his July 2021 show, “RETROspective: Erick Sahler,” at the Dorchester Art Center in Cambridge, Md., visit dorchesterarts.org for updates.