BATH — When Ogunquit Museum of American Art curator Ron Crusan spoke about the museum’s 2014 showing of Richard Brown Lethem’s work, he told the Portland Press Herald, “This is a nod to a local artist who should have national status.”

In many ways, Lethem is a national artist, though his name may not be quite as well known as some. His work is in collections across the country, he’s won various awards and has taught in New York and studied in Paris. He is included in the iconoclastic compendium, “The Outlaw Bible of American Art,” published by San Francisco’s Last Gasp Press, alongside artists like William Burroughs, Sue Coe and R. Crumb.

Though Lethem lives in Bath, having relocated from Berwick three years ago, “Sources: A Creative Conversation” at the Green Lion Gallery is his first showing in the Midcoast area.

Last year, the Maine Jewish Museum in Portland presented a two-part show, “Afflictions/Nebraska Triangle,” which featured works from two different eras. The paintings in “Afflictions,” from 1985-2010, were bold, dark and overtly political, while newer pieces from the “Nebraska Triangle” series commented on the landscape and state of Native American culture and traditions with slightly more subdued — but just as abstract — tones. It was a terrific showing of Lethem’s work.

“Sources: A Creative Conversation” includes a glimpse of the Nebraska pieces, but focuses on assemblages by Lethem, which speak to the artist’s more playful side. Constructed in the mid-2000s in Maine (Lethem has lived here for 25 years), they were inspired by a stint teaching home repair carpentry in Brooklyn decades ago, and they explore the idea of “construction,” examining what being a “maker” is all about.

They reveal a wonderful, unseen side of the artist.

The show also features Falmouth artist Judy O’Donnell, a longtime friend and student of Lethem’s at University of Southern Maine in the 1980s. In further flipping things on their head (Lethem is more of a painter, O’Donnel considers herself more of a sculptor), “Sources” focuses on O’Donnell’s oil and encaustic paintings. One beautiful bronze piece, titled “Together,” along with the whimsical “Victrola“ hang in the gallery window, allowing the viewer a peek at her striking sculpting work.

“Judy and David (Morgan, Green Lion owner) came up with the idea of a two-person show at a time when I was anxious to show a series of small assemblages pieces,” Lethem said. “I was delighted with the idea, and given Judy’s recent painting and our joint history of working together, it seemed a good fit.”

Morgan also gave a nod to former gallery partner Penny Lane for the pairing idea; Lane is now curator at the Chocolate Church Art Gallery.

Lethem has been making art for some 60 years, and began teaching in the early 1960s. “I’ve rarely had a student as focused, hard working and motivated as Judy. She has a wonderful talent and energy.”

At a recent gallery talk with the two artists, O’Donnell praised her teacher and friend several times with his “generosity” in letting her work bloom organically as a student, and in embracing and supporting her talents.

O’Donnell’s paintings are subtly lush and delightfully abstract, and her sculpted pieces of bronze, glass, steel, paint, fiber and stone startle in the best way possible. Her constructs wed grace to impossibility, humor to sensuality, and architecture to nature.

There is real symbiotic energy between the artists. O’Donnell’s work is just as pointed as Lethem’s, and each allows the same scant degree of playfulness into their work. The artists’ shared concerns for environmental and social issues result in similar kinds of questioning and keen observation.

They are both practitioners of meditation. “It clears the clutter and helps focus on the source,” O’Donnell noted.

Gallery owner Morgan wrote about the show in a way that neatly summarizes: “Both O’Donnell and Lethem delve deeply into personal sources of intuitive and subconscious imagery that is often abstract, but still weaves in and out of the everyday world of recognizable objects while it tugs at complex emotional and even spiritual roots.”

A Korean War veteran, activist, pacifist and Quaker, Lethem grew up in the Midwest — in Missouri and Nebraska — the source for his echoes of Midwestern prairie color. Much of his work is inflected with the German and abstract expressionism that he no doubt encountered while studying art in New York in the late 1950s. The artist’s commitment to social justice and peace permeates.

“I see my work coming from a sensibility formed in the 1960s by the Civil Rights and Vietnam eras,” Lethem said. “Social justice and the innate quandaries of our responsibility to our fellow humans is in the mix. I met up with the Quakers — in opposition to the war — in 1967, and I’ve been journeying with them since 1971. Inward-seeking for authentic feeling is what art is all about.”

Lethem says the Nebraska series has morphed into works about the American Abolitionist Movement. “Growing up in a rural part of the Midwest where a lynching took place made this subject matter particularly relevant for me,” he said. “Early on, I read the sad texts of the Indian genocide. Some recent readings about the Underground Railroad have generated the latest subjects.”

Lethem was one of the “Zumwalt 12,” a group of protesters arrested at a Bath Iron Works christening for blocking a public way in 2016, when he was 83 years old. He told the jury: “My sincere intent was not to block anything, but to open a doorway for my country to regain its equilibrium and sanity.”

The protesters were sentenced with community service.

A full life undoubtedly adds to Lethem’s palette.

“As an artist, I see change as a constant. I’m very open to searching for the new and unexpected in my work. I try to follow my intuition and my subconscious wherever it leads.”

The Green Lion Gallery is at 104 Front St. in Bath, and “Sources: A Creative Conversation” runs through July 15. For more info: 844-3770 or greenlionart.com.

See more of the artists’ work at richardbrownlethem.com and judyodonnellart.com.

Lorry Fleming is a Coastal Journal contributing writer. She can be reached at [email protected].