Water is Life and Knowledge is Power Insight / Incite Feature by Krisanne Baker

Two months ago I found myself waking up, in what I thought was a National Geographic magazine spread, at the top of a rainforest mountain in Malawi, Africa. Passion can take you on some funny paths. Ten years ago I could easily have imagined a safari in Africa, but not for the reason that got me there in April 2018 with my teaching colleague, Melissa Barbour, who had invited me to collaborate with her. My reason for embarking was water, the rains of Africa, and the passion to make and empower change.

Water quality microscope workshop, Krisanne Baker photo

My day job for the past twenty-five years has been as a crazy high school art teacher. I get a kick out of working with hormonal teenagers getting ready to jump into life. When people find out that I teach at the local high school, they say, “Oh, thank you!” They can’t imagine why I’d be crazy enough to want to spend all day with their kids, but they are grateful.

Teaching also funds my main job – I mean the one in my head and my heart – being a painter; and all the expensive art supplies that go along with it. Once my son was old enough, I finally had the opportunity to work on a MFA. I didn’t do it to become a better teacher, although it did make me that, but to get deeper into my own work. You see, I’d always felt like there was something missing.

One of the hardest and yet simplest things to put together as a research thesis in grad school was what I was passionate about. I knew it was water. But where to go from there? Twelve years ago, there were no front page headlines about climate change, Flint, Michigan, Nestlé Corporation, or drought. Why water? I’d spent years making paintings of its many moods and atmospheres. But the reveries just weren’t enough. What it came down to is that I CARE about water. And when you look at the myriad ways in which it touches our lives and makes our lives possible, I thought, well, EVERYBODY should care about water!!

Principal Mirrium painting, Krisanne Baker photo

My research led me down a road I never thought possible – one that scared the pants off of me – ACTIVISM. “Oh, no, I can’t do that! I don’t know the first thing about it. . .  what would I say? What could I possibly do? Does that mean I have to give a performance or something? Wait, no, I can’t do that, I’M AN INTROVERT!”

All I can say, is introvert or extrovert, if you are passionate about something, you find a way to share it with people. The hardest thing I found was to stay positive and not blame or make people feel bad about all the difficult water situations. I found the most meaningful way to bring about a change is to educate people. With knowledge comes the care and the desire to do positive helpful things. Actions start small and grow bigger, bolder, and louder.

Water is Life, Mpamila, Malawi, Krisanne Baker photo

First I did my work in true introvert style. I made short videos, using myself as a model, superimposed upon various water situations that need our attention. That way I could perform, but didn’t have to come eye to eye with an audience. But after my short films, I began having to do Question and Answer talks, or tell stories . . . or give a gallery talk about series of paintings I made to raise awareness of water quality, chemical infiltration, and women’s body burdens.

Five years ago, I began incorporating my water awareness work into my classroom teaching. I developed the Gulf of Maine: Endangered Ocean Creatures curriculum, and Gulf of Maine: Dare to Care. Students wholeheartedly engaged. When I was presented with the idea of interdisciplinary teaching in Africa to teachers in a remote area, the first thing I looked up was their connection to water. My first thoughts were the Darfur droughts and water wars between Israel and Palestine. The area where I was to go was water rich in comparison. Malawi, if you don’t know where it is – I didn’t – is just inland from the Eastern shores of Africa, and is home to one of the largest bodies of fresh water on the continent, Lake Malawi. It’s just above Mozambique.

Mural planning, Krisanne Baker photo

My mission was to incorporate art and the local rainforest ecology in a teachable curriculum for the Ntchisi district teachers, in the hopes that they would implement local ecological stewardship through art and action. When we think of rainforests, we usually think ‘rich in resources,’ which they are. Rainforests currently face major deforestation problems, not only due to removal of rare and beautiful woods, but also through exponentially increasing populations – a global problem. I hired a forest ranger to guide twelve teachers and me through the Ntchisi rainforest. We learned about the water system, in concert with the plants and animals, and how everything is connected through water. Back in a classroom, I drew global water systems on a chalkboard. I talked about how much the ocean covers the planet, and how we need to care for all waters, as they continually circulate from oceans to clouds to mountains to rainforests, etc. There were looks of amazement, and lightbulbs glowing in the minds of these remote educators. I was amazed that this was new knowledge to them, but in a landlocked very remote area, what else should I expect? I was grateful that they were receptive and completely engaged and passionate.

Nearing the top of the rainforest mountain, Krisanne Baker photo

We discussed the water sources that humans use, the mountain rainforest, and how people cutting down trees for cooking fuel would eventually collapse the water system. Malawi is the world’s second poorest country. This mountaintop population of about 40 small villages has no running water and no electricity, no fuel other than wood. When I say poor, I mean to write on a piece of paper, a teacher would first divide it into four quarters before handing it out, if they had any. Children walking with me on the road between the school and the Go! Malawi compound would ask for a sweet. If I didn’t have any, they would ask me for a pencil. They are hungry to learn. Books are a rarity. A current fundraising project begun by an 8th grade student in Maine through the Go! Malawi non-profit will build the first mountain library in the Ntchisi region, hopefully in 2020. (See the link below if you are interested in making a donation.)

Team Blessings’ Water is Life mural complete, Krisanne Baker photo

I led the teachers to incorporate their drawing (images from our rainforest walks, talks, and microscope viewings) into plans for three large painted murals. Each mural showed the place, the cycles of water, plants, trees, animals, people, fish, phytoplankton and zooplankton. (I brought a digital microscope, which we plugged into a solar inverter at the Go! Malawi compound.) Each told a visual story of how we are all connected through water and how we must care for this place to protect the water. Each mural had the simple words: Water is Life / Madzi ndi Moyo.

Krisanne Baker, Wash Day Plus Needs Notes, watercolor

At the end of two weeks, my teachers had become new water art activists. They had a plan to circulate the murals amongst several schools, with thought-provoking questions to spark discussions with their students. We have future plans through Go! Malawi to underwrite tree planting workshops, and DIY solar cookers. Until my workshop, many of the teachers had not ever been in the rainforest at the top of the mountain. They thanked me for opening up that part of their world to them, along with the concept and practices of stewardship. I thanked them by asking them to engage their students, and left a suitcase of art supplies for them to make more murals in their classrooms as constant reminders of the importance of water to our lives. Someday I hope to meet up with one of those rainforest village children who has become a water activist.

Krisanne Baker, Ecoartist and Educator



Insight / Incite

The community of Bowdoinham recently built a beautiful, small skateboard park dedicated in memory of Matthew Townsend Parker, who died of viral encephalitis and viral meningitis at the age of 15 in 2004.  Since Matthew’s death, efforts to build the park finally came to fruition in 2017.  The park is on the Cathance River waterfront in the center of town.  Bricks inscribed with donor names comprise the walkway leading into the park, which is surrounded by a wooden fence.

The Merrymeeting Art Center (MAC) in Bowdoinham prioritized the participation of students in creating a mural. They obtained funding for a mural on the inside wall of the park via a grant from the Maine Arts Commission.  Three artists were chosen for the project: Jane Page-Conway, mixed media artist, Manon Whittlesay, printmaker, and Karen Goetting, art teacher at the Bowdoinham Community School (BCS).


The fence wall is large, rough and obstructed by support structures on its inner side.  This complicated the project’s design. The artists decided that the mural would be made by painting skateboard decks (without the wheels) and then placing them on the fence.  They had a local wood worker; Paul Baines, cut the skateboard decks from primed wood.

They had many sessions with the students from Kindergarten thru fifth grade during Karen’s art classes, over a period of 4 weeks. Discussions occurred regarding the physicality and energy of a skateboarder and how one might visually portray this with lines, shapes, color and texture on the boards.  Students were limited to two primary colors and no use of symbols or words.

Demonstrations were given on how to use thick paste paints to create pattern and texture with sponge brushes and tools to drag through the paints with cut up plastic lids, pencil erasers, combs and fingers. There were several sessions of cutting stamps for printmaking.  The stamps were used following the painting sessions.








The boards are spectacular and will be installed on the fence in the springtime. One boy exclaimed  “I can’t wait to see all of the cool skateboards on the fence for the public people to see. I will be able to see all of the boards that were made in my class. I think that the skateboarders will really like looking at this art while they are skating.”

The children of BCS are proud of their artwork and are eager to see what the installation will soon look like.



Insight/Incite—Portland Culture Exchange


by Lilly Pearlman and Yannick Bizimana

Consider a community in which everyone is proud of their identity and humbled by the vastness of cultural identities.   Consider an event that transverses ownership from language to language, cultures, creeds, and personalities; interwoven and respected.  The Portland Culture Exchange is a movement building connections across communities in the Greater Portland area.  We offer platforms for different groups of Portland residents to create friendships and learn about each other through shared interests.  We deeply believe that every individual has something to teach or share, and something to learn.  Over the two years that the Portland Culture Exchange (or PCE) has existed, we have hosted events, meetings, and parties, working to build this community and vision of which we dream, and have built deep cross-cultural connections in our city.  

These events include:

First Friday Music & Dance Jams

First Friday Music & Dance Jams.

House gatherings.

Cooking exchanges.

Language exchanges.

Portland Culture Exchange, photo by megan webster

We Sing for Peace.

We’ve been fortunate to meet the people of AART!  and work with them on our beautiful new banner. Thanks, ARRT!

 There is room for every [Greater] Portlander to come learn and share, give and take.  Coming up, we have more We Sing for Peace events (January 1st), Open Mics (the next one on February 9th), and other exciting events planned. Join us and learn more at: www.facebook.com/portlandculture.

Insight/Incite: Engine and the USDAC

Devon Kelley-Yurdin

Whenever I give people a tour of Engine, an arts non-profit in Biddeford, I always like to say, “we see Engine as an incubator.” I explain that we aren’t only incubating ideas and products in our makerspace and digital fabrication facility or through our summer and afterschool arts and design programs. What we are creating space for is growth, vision, and experimentation within everything that we do. We support emerging artists by offering affordable studio space and feature early and mid-career artists in our gallery. We welcome in and coach new instructors, interns, and volunteers, and provide real-world experience to young makers through programs taught by working professionals. We were founded on the idea that the arts are important for economic revitalization, and we’re committed to designing, launching, and promoting community-based arts programming with socially responsible practices

The focus on education, both youth and adult, has evolved over the past few years to become more important to the organization. Our programs include summer and afterschool arts and design activities, and the Compass Project, a boatbuilding program for youth. Engine is the only art and design focused organization in Biddeford, and southern Maine, that is focusing on the A/D in S.T.E.A.M. (science, technology, engineering, arts/design, math) to support youth in developing skills and discovering career paths in the visual arts and applied arts fields, such as illustration, graphic design, animation, programming, 3D design, digital fabrication, woodworking, boatbuilding, and precision machining.

Some new pilot programs we have in the works include 1) a graphic design club for high school students that will work with a professional mentor to design marketing collateral for local organizations, 2) hosting a social work intern and collaborating with groups like Community Partnerships for Protecting Children (CPPC) to create programing for young folks who may not typically have access to art-based outlets and/or students who need or desire an alternative environment to the traditional classroom, and 3) creating public learning opportunities about how artists and designers can engage with municipalities beyond public art committees. 

As an illustrator, designer, and printmaker with a passion for community engaged creative programing, I am constantly trying to expand my own and other people’s visions of what creativity looks like. I think it’s a creative act to decide how you want to move through a day, how you build relationships and the networks you weave, how you organize people and engage them. I believe administrative and cultural organizing work can also be considered an act of creation (even if what you’re creating is the opportunities for other people to create).

This sort of thinking, the expanse of our perception of creativity, is also really important in my other work as the New England Regional Envoy for the U.S. Department of Arts and Culture. Unlike it’s name may lead you to believe, the USDAC is not a government agency. It’s a people-powered department; a national action network inciting creativity and social imagination to shape a culture of empathy, equity, and belonging. Through a combination of local organizing, national actions, and learning and research, we use human connection, policy initiatives, participation, play, and performance to support the creation of arts and culture in the public interest and catalyze the public’s interest in arts and culture. Another way I like to put it is that it’s the performance of a department that should exist, but doesn’t (until now!).

When I host USDAC workshops I always like to post at least one of the questions that were at the center of the department’s formation three and a half years ago: How can we shift art and culture from the margins to the center of civil society, given their true value and support as catalysts for social transformation? What would it look like to perform a people-powered department—as both a playful work of collaborative art and as a serious vehicle for community-building, field-building, and movement-building? How might we invite artists and non-artists alike to step up as cultural organizers, generating momentum and public will for programs and policies that make cultural democracy real?

This people-powered department is just that, people-powered. And when I think about big social and environmental issues and how vast they can feel, I also ask myself, who is skilled at standing at the edge of a big gray unknown and stepping boldly into it? The answer I usually come up with is creative folks. I always like to say that my personal practice as an artist and maker has been useful to me, if for no other reason, so that I can learn the lesson over and over and over again that I don’t have to know how something is going to end in order to begin.

I see my role as Regional Envoy as having two major tracks at the moment. There is the outreach, education, and capacity-building that happens through workshops and gatherings that support local organizing and public engagement. This can happen anywhere in New England, and I’ve already partnered with some groups in Providence and Worcester to put on workshops that share tools for cultural organizing, educate and uplift conversations about cultural equity, and build capacity and public will for programs and policies that support arts and culture as the important parts of society that they are.

Additionally, a huge part of what I’m doing right now is identifying artists, activists, organizations, and public agencies in New England who are committed to cultural equity and arts organizing and to facilitate connections to the USDAC and to each other. The Envoy role is only six months old, so it’s a collaborative process – a creative process – discovering how it can be the most useful and effective in the region.

People can register on our website to be a USDAC Citizen Artist (you don’t have to be a U.S. citizen or an artist) to find out more and be kept in the loop with opportunities to engage with upcoming actions, events, and new policy and organizing toolkits. I am also always available to connect directly with folks who want to learn more, host a workshop, or need technical support for USDAC-aligned projects and campaigns. And, if people need a space to gather, I know a great arts organization in downtown Biddeford that would love to host it.

Devon Kelley-Yurdin is Education and Outreach Coordinator at Engine, 128 Main Street • PO Box 1681 • Biddeford and USDAC New England Regional Envoy.

For more info or to contact the organizations: www.feedtheengine.org  ; learn@feedtheengine.org and www.usdac.us  ; devon@usdac.us

Insight/Incite: Mark Melnicove: Falmouth High School

Mark Melnicove

Insight/Incite for Spring 2017 Journal  –  Mark teaches English and Creative Writing at Falmouth High School

I feel as if I have always been teaching in dark times, no matter who has been in power in Washington, Moscow, or other capitals of the world. It has always been a few minutes to midnight for as long as I can remember, and I am nearly 65, born in the same year the first hydrogen bomb was detonated.

Arts education is important because it creates safe, inspirational environments where students are motivated to express what they observe, feel, and think. To find one’s voice, to be validated for it, is empowering, no matter one’s political, religious, ethnic, or sexual persuasion. This speaks to the need for an audience, and in schools a diverse audience—classmates and teachers—comes readymade.

The day after the election most of my students walked into my classroom upset and fearful. A minority were elated. We dropped whatever lesson plan I had prepared and just talked and tried to put a premium on listening well. We didn’t solve anything, and no minds may have been changed, but everyone had a chance to be heard. This is how we build community and trust.

Schools are one of the few institutions in our country where civil, respectful discussion is considered the norm. And art, at its best, creates new frameworks in which we can make meaning out of what is incomprehensible and/or unbearable.

That day, after our in-class discussion, I suggested everyone write a personal essay about the election results. Students were eager to do so, even though there was no grade attached to this request, because they realized their lives were at stake, and it was incumbent upon them to do something about this.

Here are excerpts from some of their responses.

The election of a new president has always been a big deal for kids; they are interested to find out more and to learn who their parents are voting for. It was safe to let Barack Obama be a role model for our children; both he and his wife appeared continuously on children’s TV shows. As an American who lived under Obama’s presidency, I am proud to call him a great president as well as a great man. Donald Trump may now be called our president, but he will never be given the title of a great, or even a good, man.

Across the country, immigrants, people of all races, members of the LGBT community, and women are fear stricken. During the race for president, Donald Trump spoke of his plans to deport people in order to make our country safer. To assume someone is jeopardizing our country based on their race is one of the most racist things a person can think, and it’s amazing how a racist is now leading the government of such a diverse country.

Deporting people, or even telling people there’s a chance they or their family members could be deported is a terrible thing. Placing that fear in the minds of mothers, fathers, friends, brothers, sisters, and children is an indescribable offense.

The president is someone we’ve taught our kids to trust, but that trust has been broken now that Donald Trump is in the picture.

Girl, 15


The election this year was going to end badly, either way. If Clinton had won, there would have been angry people. Trump has won, and there are angry people.  There is nothing to do now except wait to see where things go from here. Complaining will not make Trump disappear or change his thoughts. A lot of Trump’s ideas still have to go through the other branches of government, and not all of them will survive. People have to have faith in our Congress and courts and believe they will do the right thing.

Boy, 15


Our citizens argue with and rant against each other, yelling out their biased views. I find both sides charged with prejudice. Anyone who joins into the mess is as blind as the rest.

Who wants to try to look at the other side?

This election has been terrible. All the candidates are unfit to be president, in my opinion. No one seems great. No one seems presidential.  Both sides are biased, and it annoys and angers me deeply.

Girl, 16


How on earth can Donald Trump be our president? Do you really want your children to learn from him? When other countries are SORRY for us because someone is our president, you know it is bad.

Mike Pence wants to send people to conversion therapy. HOW STUPID DO YOU HAVE TO BE TO WANT TO DO THIS? You can’t just get the gay out of someone! Being gay is not a choice!!!!!!!! Pence also wants to send women who got abortions to jail and make abortion illegal. If I am raped and become pregnant, I am going to have an abortion, whether it is legal or not. A man cannot tell me what to do with my body and my baby.

I am embarrassed to live in this country. I am not scared of Trump; I am scared of his supporters. I am afraid that people will get violent and attack people. I know I am a white girl from a middle class family who lives in a very nice town, but that doesn’t stop me from being scared of other people getting hurt. One of my best friends lives in Mexico City, and I feel sick when I think of the things Trump has said about Mexicans.

I feel as if this is a sick joke, or maybe I’m dreaming, or I have died and gone to hell (probably that one). This country is falling apart, but I think we already knew that. We were so close to making history and having the first female president, but I guess America is still sexist.  Trump is going to have the power to drop nuclear bombs and that scares me tremendously. He is already making bad relations with other countries, and he is not even the president yet!!!

If the KKK likes you, there is something wrong. I think he will only care about the rich, i.e, basically NONE of the population. He thinks climate change is something the Chinese made up, for god’s sake! Not everything’s about money and economics. Leaders of other countries are going to have no respect for our country or for him. I could definitely keep going, but I will probably have a mental breakdown if I keep thinking about it.

Girl, 15

 We overlook the perceptive voices of youth at our peril.  Very reassuring to me that they are engaged and not afraid to speak out.  I hope that being in the journal will further empower them.

Christine Higgins (Insight/Incite editor)

drawing above by Suzanna Lasker