Henry Isaacs’ Portland studio is an open and airy place filled with tiny painted sketches, canvases, piles of tubes of Gamblin oil paints and tin after tin crammed with hundreds of paintbrushes. The walls of the studio’s front room are filled with colorful and affably optimistic framed landscapes painted in Isaacs’ easily-recognizable style. The walls of his studio are covered with about a dozen paintings in process and scores of studies ranging from full size canvases to tiny squares dolloped thick with oil paint.
This is the story of why Isaacs has hundreds of uncleaned brushes sticking out of tins in his studio. It’s a cautionary tale.
Having travelled and taught around the world, It might not be surprising that a Maine artist like Henry Isaacs would have partied on a bus in Cuba with Jacques Derrida (well, sort of: the French philosophe was stiff and grumpy in the midst of the joy of others) or sat in a meeting with a brain like Jeremy Bentham’s. Bentham, after all, founded the University College of London, and Isaacs taught at the Slade School of Fine Art, the art school of the university spiritually founded by Bentham.
During the last decade, you would most likely have spotted Bentham in the halls of UCL. But Bentham, the spearhead of philosophical utilitarianism, is now visiting the United States and he is featured in “Like Life: Sculpture, Color and the Body, 1300-now,” a show at the Met Breuer (through July 22, 2018).
On June 6, 1832, the day Bentham died, the terms of his will established a continued “life” for him as an “auto-icon.”
And when I say Isaacs sat in a faculty meeting with Bentham’s brain, I literally mean Betham’s brain — chemically preserved in a large jar.
However wacky this may sound, the comparison between Bentham and Isaacs is anything but. While teaching at Mass Art in 1988, Isaacs rushed to help two men who accidentally spilled a pair of 50 gallon drums of Butanone during a delivery.
Butanone is also known as methyl ethyl ketone or MEK, a widely used industrial solvent that smells like a combination of butterscotch and acetone.
One of the men immediately left the scene. Isaacs helped the other. For this helpful gesture, Isaacs was rewarded with chemical narcosis, meaning he was poisoned to the point of passing out.
Another token of his helpfulness was a lesion on the top of his brain, which was pickled, to a certain extent, like Bentham’s. This condition took years to discover and then years to find a treatment which finally took place in Sweden. (Saab Aeronautics recognized and treated what they call “painters’ disease.”) Isaacs has had to absolutely minimize petro chemicals from his life.
For a while, Isaacs worked in acrylics, but the quick-drying plasticky paints didn’t allow for him to push the paint around on the canvas, to paint the way he preferred to paint, with thick strokes pulled through wet paint already on the surface. He tried pastels as well, but found them too dusty,
Isaacs had met Bob Gamblin while teaching at the Slade. Gamblin, whose company was based in Portland, Oregon, was trying to market his new paints and no one at the English school even wanted to talk to him, so they sent the junior American professor to meet with him. Gamblin and Isaacs hit it off from the start. In 1991, Gamblin created a new paint recipe using pure poppy seed oil and sent samples to Isaacs. (Isaacs has found that paints even by the leading brands contain solvents even when they are not listed; such exposure is dangerous for him.) “Bob rescued my studio,” explains Isaacs. “From that point, I have used Gamblin paints. And now, his pure poppy seed recipe is the stuff that’s in the marketplace.”
Isaacs paints with vegetable oil from the grocery store and never washes the Winsor & Newton brushes he buys in bulk for the less than $2 each. Ultimately, he breaks them up and recycles what parts of them he can. “I use brushes by the bushel. I have to.” With this, Isaacs pulls a brush dripping with oil out of a tin and wipes the thick dollop of grayish blue goo from its bristles. Without hesitating, he pushes it through the thick paint piled on his palette and begins to rework a small picture of the underside of a bridge. The wet paint is buttery and Isaacs moves the brush about the surface with wizened confidence.
Because painting with pure oil can make the works take weeks to dry (“Alone, Bob’s paints take three to five weeks to dry,” he comments), Isaacs uses tiny amounts of Galkyd. He cannot use turpentine, Turpenoid or driers.
“I am compulsive about painting every day,” he notes. Pointing to a wall filled with 150 tiny, loosely painted canvases, he continues, “For every project I do, I make 50-100 of these little guys – hundreds of these ‘notes.’ These are for a project for a hotel in Marrakech, Morocco. These are beautiful schools, madrasas. I am working on making a huge painting that captures this kind of interior space made 2D. As far as my studio practice goes, I work from these ‘notes.’ I take no pictures. I rely on them even from years ago. These (he points with his brush) were painted on site four years ago.”
On another wall hang 75 of Isaacs’ “notes” he made in Guatemala in May. He muses: “These are little pieces of memory. My job, here in the studio, is to put them together.”
Last winter I found myself in a bit of an artistic slump. The flow of energy and ideas that had moved through me freely and guided my work for years seemed to have dried up. As winter gave way to spring, I reached beyond my studio walls to other artists in my orbit curious about what they were working on. How had they ridden the wave of creativity over the long haul? What did their daily studio practices look like? I wanted their insights. Ultimately their answers cast my experiences as part of a larger and ongoing conversation. As painter Gail Spaien notes, “painting is a physical manifestation of life…it brings us in closer contact with what it means to be alive and heightens our awareness about that which is not visible.”
Henry Wolyniec is involved with three distinct bodies of work at the moment. The first, which he has been working on for the last decade, consists of paper collage and relief printing. The second is a series of painted wire and paper sculptures started in the summer of 2017. The third is photography, which he has been doing for about three years. Henry says of his work that it is not concept driven or grounded in ideas; rather he continues at a piece until a series of visual decisions seem to come together.
Photography started as a fast and easy way for Wolyniec to capture an image. After a while, he noticed that certain kinds of images, specifically densely-packed compositions that included some form of overlapping shadow or reflection, kept showing up. Around the same time, he saw that his collages, in comparison, had gone flat and lacked composition. Recognizing he had worked himself into an aesthetic corner, Wolyniec realized photography would help him find his way out.
For Henry, navigating his need to have the time, energy, and focus his work requires has meant letting go of certain personal relationships not in sync with art making, as well as making specific choices around work and living situations that are affordable and studio friendly. Keeping life simple and uncluttered works, he notes, if money is not a motivation or within realistic reach.
Currently at work on a series that explores different color combinations, Ingrid Ellison’s paintings are an effort to balance pressure with open space. Her ideas come in the form of visual cues from nearly everywhere–the foggy harbor, a solitary mountain path, cracked and peeling paint, the shadow on a wall, a new tube of paint, passages from books and phrases from poems or songs, as well as time spent alone, out of doors, moving through space, woods, or water. There her mind empties and her thoughts are clearest.
Lately she has begun to explore writing as an extension of her creative practice. She keeps a visual journal that she takes everywhere, in which she writes, draws, paints, and collages.
Frequently she experiences a period in which she feels as though she has explored all her options in a particular body of work and were she to continue, she would begin repeating herself. This is usually followed by a series of unsuccessful paintings that she keeps making until something new reveals itself, and then she is off following that tangent. It’s a very experimental phase, she says, and one of her tricks to moving through it is to force herself to start differently.
Kim Bernard has been working with a quarter round shape that forms a particular mark. It took her weeks of focusing exclusively on this flow-like element to get the mark right. This was followed by several more weeks of figuring out what materials to work with and how to apply the mark. She says this period was characterized by quite a bit of dissatisfaction, but she dealt with it, because “the older I get, the less I am willing to accept something that’s not just right in my work.”
Movement has been a consistent theme in Bernard’s oeuvre, which ranges from kinetic sculpture and gestural painting, to painting with a pendulum, sculpture racing contraptions, spring shoes, and finger painting.
Recently, Bernard experienced a bout of creative block. She had finished her Amphibious Tiny House project, which consumed her for 2017. She felt a bit lost and spent the next few months fighting going to her studio because it was painful to be in there. To ease back in, she gave herself permission to do whatever she wanted, as long as she was in the studio. She messed around with paints, drew, took photographs. Most of the work she produced was not good, but she persevered , telling herself that nothing was guaranteed to happen if she didn’t try. And eventually something sparked.
During this period, Bernard read books about the creative process and listened to podcasts on creativity, all the while observing herself and taking notes. She developed a workshop called “Cultivating Creativity,” in which she guides students through playful exercises that inspire, build creative confidence, and generate ideas, leaving them with an arsenal of go-to strategies they can revisit for inspiration.
Bernard just turned 53 and she feels a sense of time passing. She has become increasingly selective about the kind of work she does and where she exhibits. “I don’t want to waste time and energy spinning my wheels on what’s not meaningful.”
Throughout her career, Gail Spaien has explored the question of how to bring the natural world into a static gallery setting. Her paintings translate the sensations around her with concentrated detail, depicting an idealized view of nature and a denial of unpleasant things. She paints the world as she would like it to be and invites the viewer to experience a painting as an object that holds an opportunity for contemplation, physical intimacy and affective power.
A painter of ‘weather and seasons,’ Spaien feeds her studio practice by working in her garden. She says that she has come to appreciate the symmetry of landscape design through hours spent composing an image and arranging her garden to create a form of balance that is both stable and active.
And Spaien admits that she is lost a lot. Her strategy, like that of Wolyniec, Ellison, and Bernard, is simply to keep working. That is followed by taking walks in all kinds of weather, as well as looking at art in person and in books.
At this time in her career, Spaien refuses to worry about whether she is doing it right anymore. This has, at times in the past, hindered her ability to have a particular kind of freedom in the studio. When stuck, she returns to pragmatic, technically-based core questions. Throughout all of her work is the thread of her core inquiry. How, she wonders, can she give form to life’s paradox and poignancy?
Industrial Maine: Our Other Landscape opened at the University of Southern Maine – Lewiston/Auburn Atrium Gallery on March 12, 2018. The exhibition included 70 works of art from 27 artists from across the State of Maine working in a broad range of media. The exhibition was authorized by USM-LA Dean Joyce Gibson. Robyn Holman, the former curator of the Atrium Gallery, was instrumental in helping me create and stage the exhibition. Randy Estes, the facilities manager at USM-LA, oversaw installation. I was responsible for the concept and served as guest curator.
After initial promotion of the exhibition and the opening, during the last weekend of March, I was informed that the University had removed 3 paintings by Maine artist Bruce Habowski from the exhibition. Bruce’s paintings have appeared in a number of respected galleries and museums, including the Center for Maine Contemporary Art and the Portland Museum of Art. The paintings by Bruce submitted and selected for the Industrial Maine exhibition were Maine “urbanscapes”. The paintings were selected because of their strength and appropriateness to the theme.
I was not informed in advance or included in a dialogue about the decision to remove the art before the University took action. In the days and weeks that followed, I learned that the paintings were removed at the direction of University of Southern Maine President Glenn Cummings. My understanding is that President Cummings chose to remove the paintings based upon a complaint from a member of the community arising out of unlawful sexual contact for which the artist was convicted in 1999 and served a jail sentence. I do not know the specific nature of the complaint to the University, the relationship of the complaining party to the incident or the University, or what steps the University took to investigate and explore alternative courses of action before removing the art.
After speaking with President Cummings and communicating with Robyn Holman, the artist, members of the Union of Maine Visual Artists, and artists participating in the exhibition, I elected not to rehang the exhibit or try to fill the empty spaces where the paintings had hung. I understood that President Cummings had faced a really difficult decision, but felt that rehanging the exhibition would erase the University’s action. Instead, I installed a 3×5 placard in the empty spaces. The placard read:
This painting has been removed by order of the USM President.
-Janice L. Moore, Guest Curator, Industrial Maine: Our Other Landscape
On Sunday, May 6, 2018, the Maine Sunday Telegram/Portland Press Herald ran a positive review of the exhibition by Maine art critic Dan Kany, with a companion article on the removal of the art by reporter Bob Keyes. I gave interviews for both the Kany review and the Keyes article, but declined to identify the artist out of respect for his privacy and concern for the victims. My understanding is that the paper identified and disclosed the name of the artist and the nature of the offense because the artist was easily identified from promotional materials for the exhibition and the criminal history was a matter of public record. My understanding is that President Cummings declined to give an interview for the Keyes article, but the University gave a brief statement explaining its action. The Keyes article appeared with a photo of the placard.
Almost immediately after the Kany review and Keyes article appeared in the Portland paper, I began receiving calls and emails from advocacy groups, reporters, attorneys and a number of others defying categorization. The National Coalition against Censorship released a statement opposing the University’s action as censorship. Trolls posted on my social media accounts. In the week that followed, President Cummings gave a number of media interviews defending his decision. He emphasized the nature of the artist’s offense and the University’s obligation to create a safe space for University students passing through the Atrium.
I declined all media requests after the interviews I gave to Dan Kany and Bob Keyes. In my view, the Keyes article had accurately reported the story and any further statements or interviews would only contribute to prolonging a news cycle that might be hurtful to victims, the artist, or the students.
I was unaware that, during this time, in the week following the publication of the Kany review and Keyes article in the Portland paper, the University removed the placards.
Throughout this entire episode, I have struggled with the appropriate, ethical response. While I strongly oppose the University’s unilateral decision to remove the paintings and subsequent removal of the placards without first engaging in any meaningful dialogue around alternatives, I am also very sensitive to the interests of victims, the artists, and the community. I have struggled with a number of questions. Was the victim ever consulted? What was the complaining party hoping to accomplish? What was the actual threat to student well-being? There was nothing on the face of the art that presented a “trigger.” Was the University concerned that a protest by the complaining parties might pose a threat to the emotional safety of University students? If so, was it possible to contain a protest or take other action to address the concerns of the complaining party? Didn’t the public controversy caused by the University’s unilateral removal of the art actually amplify the issue, putting the “triggering” conversation not just in front of all University students, but in front of an even wider audience? Was there a way the interests of the complaining party, the victim, the artist, and the University could be reconciled short of removing the art? Was removing art from a standing exhibition based upon a complaint arising out of the past conduct of the artist actually the best option?
I was confronted, too, with the issue of denying access to the art based on the past behavior of the artist. I wondered about the appropriateness of removing art due to an offense committed by the artist nearly 20 years ago. I am acutely aware of the interests of victims, but how as a society do we ask artists to engage with their communities after they have been convicted and served a sentence? Is it meaningful to talk about rehabilitation? Should artists require the permission and consent of victims to present their art? What about the art itself? Should the community be denied access to art based on the past behavior of artists?
This entire experience raised these and a host of other highly complex issues that extend well beyond this single art exhibition. What are the responsibilities of museums, galleries, and curators with regard to artists who may have engaged in misconduct? What are the responsibilities of critics and teachers? Should curators and gallery owners conduct criminal record checks? Should artists be asked to sign statements attesting to a “clean” history? What counts as an offense that warrants rejection or removal of art? Should we ban the movies of Woody Allen? Take down the Picassos?
I set out as a guest curator to create an exhibit that presented the works of artists who – like me—are making art inspired by Maine’s industrial landscape. In that I think I was successful. Ultimately, I was able to execute an idea and create an exhibition which presented a different view of Maine. Some artists created new work for the exhibition, which was immensely satisfying. I was able to meet and visit some of the artists I knew only by reputation and connect with them. I learned their processes and motivations. I met faculty, staff and students and was immensely grateful for their overwhelmingly positive support. Contemporary Maine art got to exist in a place of learning in a city where industry has been hugely significant for over a century. That was positive.
Over the course of the exhibition, I was able to communicate with many of the artists and get their feedback. There was no consensus on the best course of action, but I was able to hear them and to listen. I was also able to turn to the Union of Maine Visual Artists as a valuable resource for advice, opinions, and ideas on individual and collective responses. Our Portland chapter met as a community and discussed many of the potential implications. We were able to do this with care and consideration from multiple perspectives. Unsurprisingly, we didn’t always agree on what an appropriate response should look like, but we were able to talk and explore ideas in real time sitting together around a table. When events seemed overwhelming and I needed help, the UMVA showed up both individually and collectively. This community supported me. I was profoundly moved by this and I am incredibly grateful for it. To be part of a community with a shared passion and to connect and support each other even when our opinions differed is a deeply important and meaningful thing.
In the course of creating an exhibition focused primarily on artistic merit and my own vision around a single theme, I found myself operating in unplanned and seemingly uncharted waters, far from what I wanted or ever set out to do.
I know I have learned from the experience. I hope we all have. I find myself, though, with many more questions than answers. The questions, I think, are ones we are confronting collectively. I’m optimistic, if we approach our challenges as opportunities for meaningful engagement and dialogue, we can work out better answers.
Not all artists can afford a traditional, daily studio practice. For some, the studio is a state of mind entered into on the drive home after a long day packed with professional obligations. These artists make exceptional work while maintaining an alternate identity – be it teacher, parent, janitor, or doctor. For Michael Mansfield, that identity is Executive Director and Chief Curator of the Ogunquit Museum of American Art.
Earlier this year, I had an opportunity to view Mansfield’s personal artwork – a series of small, intricate video pieces cleanly framed in white and hung on the wall. At first glance, one of the pieces appears to be looped, hand-drawn footage of a hummingbird, its underside exposed to the camera. In another work, a flock of birds fly in and out of a cluster of reeds. Their movement is hypnotic.
I sat down with Mansfield to discuss his work, his remarkable career history (which includes rebuilding Nam June Paik robots and hacking theme park software to run the technology behind the Smithsonian Museum of American Art), as well as his vision for the Ogunquit Museum. This is an excerpt from that interview, focused on Mansfield’s work as an artist. The full interview will appear in the July issue of The Bollard.
Were there any pivotal moments that pointed you toward the arts as a potential career path or passion?
I studied architecture and art history in my first year as an undergrad and quickly realized that the engineering side of architecture was less interesting to me. I was more interested in its visual presentation, mostly through photography, so I chose to study photography. Prior to that, I really didn’t have any exposure to art. I grew up in East Texas. Other than looking at occasional magazines with black-and-white photographs, I didn’t have any access to visual storytelling.
Did travel inform your way of being?
Yes. There is a great tradition in Texas of environmental photography and street photography, Gary Winogrand and George Krause. I was encouraged by the professors I had at the University of Houston to go out in the world with a camera, make images and bring them back to see if they worked. I received grants to travel domestically and abroad to make photographs. I also had a number of paying jobs to do editorial work, which made me better at composing an image. I was working in color photography and black-and-white photography and digital photography and then eventually in video and filmmaking all at once, so I made a pretty wide mess of work.
Were you showing that work?
I was. I had a number of little published projects. I was showing the work in galleries, little student-run spaces, and small community spaces.
Primarily that was street photography and landscape photography?
Yes. I was really focused on the changing nature of street photography, and just having a camera and being a part of something.
How did you move from street photography to your most recent body of work?
The program I was in for undergrad was photography and digital media. It was the first program of its kind, in the ‘90s, at the college level, that combined traditional photography and digital media. Ed Hill and Suzanne Bloom, who ran it, were a collaborative called MANUAL. They produced a lot of work that married traditional and digital media and, as students, we had access to some pretty high-tech equipment. I began looking at digital images and how they were composed for computers using Photoshop and layers, and when I left college, that didn’t leave me. I kept working with it. I began working with desktop-publishing video programs. I was making films and then scanning them in and editing them digitally and I was also taking photographs and animating them through the same editing process.
I realize you can’t break apart the technical from the conceptual, but that all sounds very technical.
It was more about trying to find a way to extend an image in time. The photograph was a finite moment. Working photographically, I was often looking at contact sheets. I would shoot 50 rolls of film and produce 50 contact sheets and then see those images in sequence and see how an event unfolded over time. I realized that there were really beautiful limitations to that single image I was trying to create, and once I arrived at that composition, I wanted to expand the image into time. It was a single photograph, but I wanted it to exist for a bit longer. I was really into the persistence of an image, or how one thing stays in your mind for a period of time, and how that informs your association with that object or that event, even though it’s only recognized as 1/25th of a second, or less. Taking that single instance, and then blowing it up and being able to examine it from multiple angles, seeing how I might elaborate on my understanding of what that image was. The work that I produce now is often created from parts of smaller images. It is very technical but my reasoning behind it is much more conceptual. The technology allows me to make the work. It enables me to extend that moment of a single image into something much longer.
Were there any specific concepts or questions you were pursuing that have found their way into your curatorial efforts?
Yes. I’ve always been interested in the artist’s relationship to their material and how that material provides both insight into the contemporary moment, and is also a testament to human ingenuity and creativity, that we can receive a bit of technology that was created for one purpose and then imagine something new from it. Artists have always engaged the latest technologies that are available to them – as painters and sculptors and artists working with more traditional media as equally as artists working with more contemporary media. The role that industry and technology and commerce played in early American modernism can be easily identified in the work you see from that period just by the composition. It is enlightening about what the moment really meant, both to them, then, and to us, now. In the work I’m making, I am seeing the same approach to technology resulting in works that open our eyes to something new, just as was happening 150 years ago.
You’re primarily using technology to focus, visually, on nature, which is interesting.
It’s true. I was working in an urban environment a lot, and I always found inspiration in the landscape. I suppose it’s not unlike artists who left the cities and urban areas in the 1880’s. I was encountering the wilderness in a different way and trying to find what that meant. I would take a single image of a rare bird in New Zealand, or in Utah, and then create a world around that single image so I could expand my one experience with that bird. I have a photograph of a North American Red-Headed Blackbird that I took just outside of Ogden, Utah, with a field of reeds in the background. I had a single instance of that bird, but it was not complete, he was hidden behind the reeds. I couldn’t really see him, so I did quite a bit of research into Red-Headed Blackbirds and images of Red-Headed Blackbirds. Then, I constructed him from information I was able to find online, digitally, and embedded him into an image that I could then expand in time into a virtual world. I could recreate his existence and allow him to live a fuller life, something more meaningful that would last longer and be more consequential than just a single photograph.
Does your experience as an artist impact your work as a curator and museum director?
I hope it does. I like to think that my experience as an artist makes me more sensitive to the struggles artists go through, especially when I’m in a position to support their work. I know how hard it is to carve out a living as an artist and how much sacrifice and determination and willpower and luck it requires. I hope this informs my conversations with artists. I hope it makes me a better listener and a better champion for the work they’re doing.
What about exhibition design?
I rely quite a bit on my experience as an artist. Helping an artist realize their vision in space within the confines of the gallery is not an easy task and the work that an artist is doing in the studio doesn’t always translate to a gallery space very simply.
You stopped showing your work in 2009 to avoid conflicts within your professional career. To me, that carries a hint of tragedy, but I can see the upside if this decision resulted in a kind of openness to explore concepts and make work without the pressure of the public eye.
It’s true. I have to admit that in one sense, it’s a huge relief that I’m not under the same scrutiny as an artist, that I’m not at risk in the same way as an artist. I’m able to let go of that work, and I don’t have to take the risk of putting it in front of people. I like the privacy this affords me. I get to work out of the spotlight without any of the competition or conflicts or consequence of rejection. But, what I miss the most is the feedback … making work and having a conversation about it. The discourse around what’s important, what’s meaningful, and relevant.
Perhaps Maine artists want to look back to Hope’s time when viewing art in a gallery was sometimes more of an ‘event’, like going to a theater. Linking studio practice and tourism is very much what we do here during Maine summers.
Jane Bianco, Curator at the Farnsworth
James Hope (1818/19-1892) was a respected contemporary of painters Frederic Edwin Church (1826-1900), Albert Bierstadt (1830-1902), and others who aggrandized expansive vistas of the American landscape. From 1852, Hope was established as a portraitist and landscape painter with studios in New York City and Castleton, Vermont. Twenty years later he relocated to Watkins Glen, New York, after completing a lucrative painting commission at the popular tourist destination. Its central appeal, a shalestone and sandstone canyon featuring stepped waterfalls and pothole pools was a geologic wonder carved from the wilderness. It drew thousands of visitors after opening as a public attraction in 1863, and also became the inspiration for many of Hope’s paintings during the last two decades of his career.
This natural spectacle was described exuberantly as a place “in whose marvelous gorges and splendid cliffs man may read, as scarce anywhere else, the world’s age…pages of history-in-rock, clothed in rare and exquisite ferns and orchids….” In 1872 Hope strategically located his gallery near the entrance to the glen and charged visitors a fee to view his gallery, which he also stocked with souvenirs and stereoptic cards of scenes from the glen made by his photographer son. His account of the gallery included encouragement to linger, as noted in the Descriptive Guide Book of the Watkins Glen:
HOPE’S ART GALLERY
This gallery, built by Captain J. Hope, late of 82 Fifth Avenue, New York, is beautifully lighted and contains a superb collection of more than one hundred of his finest paintings. Here can be seen the leading scenes in Watkins Glen, and its surroundings; also scenes in New England, Virginia, California, Europe, Sic., chief among which are, his celebrated picture of
also his great historical painting of the
ARMY OF THE POTOMAC,
and many others well known in former New York exhibitions.
Guests can spend many a pleasant hour here, and no visitor to the Glen should fail to see this splendid collection. There is an admission fee of 25 cents to this gallery, as it does not belong to the Glen. A short distance beyond the Gallery is a convenient platform, erected for the use of picnic parties.
By 1882 Hope was supplementing his studio practice, managing “seasonal repairs and ornamental structures of the Glen,” and capitalizing further on this attraction by collaborating with the souvenir business operated by the Glen Mountain House hotel, perched above one of the ravines.
The Hope gallery of idyllic landscape paintings, as introduction to the splendid glen with its steep pathways along and across deep pools and gorges, drew many visitors. They came on foot to experience the slightly dangerous, sublime beauty of the Glen, but unexpectedly would have confronted drama of a different sort upon entering the gallery. Hope’s other spectacle was his series of six-by-twelve-foot panoramas depicting the September 17, 1862 Civil War battles of Antietam. Painted in Hope’s last decade, these sweeping, large-scale views depict with immediacy some of the bloodiest Civil War battles between Union and Confederate forces, showing troop movement and death. His firsthand observations of the battles as a member of the 2nd Vermont Regiment were the essence of a number of smaller paintings as well, including one in the Farnsworth Museum collection, currently on exhibit in Rockland, Maine. It is a reduced-scale version of his panorama aptly named Wasted Gallantry, and depicts the 7th Maine Infantry charging into the line of fire in a futile attempt to eliminate Confederate sharp-shooters. It has been noted that certain of the painter’s graphic details seen in the foreground in this and others of the series correlate with Alexander Gardner’s Civil War photographs documenting combat’s horrific aftermath, namely, the shocking display of soldiers’ mangled corpses.
The incongruous display of death and beauty within the gallery would have intensified the visitor experience. Twelve years after Hope’s death, a 1904 auction catalogue listing eighty-three of his paintings quoted artists Frederic Church and Albert Bierstadt, and Civil War veterans, all who attested to the sensitivity and veracity of Hope’s compositions and their ability to transport:
Hope’s example of making his studio gallery part of an expanded sensation, in particular by way of his commemorative, even confrontational, exhibit, would have incited reaction—provoking, it might be argued, transference of heightened awareness to the landscape on an even grander scale, to be experienced just outside the studio.
The Famous Hope Canvases, Fifth Avenue Art Galleries, preface to auction catalogue, January 22-23, 1904, unpaginated. The catalogue lists 83 canvases, including Hope’s six panoramas (at5 ½ x 12 feet) focusing upon the September 1862 Civil War battles of Antietam.
 Elizabeth Theriault Strum, James Hope: Nineteenth Century American Painter, Masters Thesis, Syracuse University, 1984, (courtesy National Park Service, Antietam National Battlefield), 15-23. The Glen Mountain House, a resort replete with paths along the gorge and bridges spanning its rivers, with vista of cascades, had been opened to upwards of 10,000 tourists during the summer and autumn of 1863 by local newspaper owner Morvalden Ells and landowner, George Freer.
 The panoramas have been conserved by the National Park Service, and are on view at Antietam National Battlefield headquarters’ James Hope Gallery, in Sharpsburg, Maryland.
 Dates of the smaller paintings of battle scenes have not been fixed; Hope may have produced these prior to his large-scale panoramas.
 See Philip Whitman, Long After Battle: James Hope’s ‘Authentic’ Commemoration of Antietam’s Bloody Lane, Masters Thesis, Skidmore College, 2017.
For 40 years now (1978-2018), I have been writing about art in Maine. Over that time I have been privileged to visit several hundred artists in their studios. Not only did I learn most of what I know about contemporary art from studio visits, but I have come to regard an artist’s studio as a special kind of space, a place of creation, reflection, learning, expression, contemplation and spiritual renewal.
Artists’ studios are among the most human of places I know. I find myself feeling safe and relaxed in these industrious spaces the same way I do in churches, cemeteries, libraries, bookstores and museums. In all these places, one is in touch with generations of living. In a studio, one is also in touch with the immediate, the moment, even the moment before creation.
In the following paragraphs, I propose to reflect on a few of the artist studios that have made an impression on me and to consider some of the things I have learned there.
Studio as time travel
The first studio I visited regularly was Alfred “Chip” Chadbourn’s sky-lit and woodstove-heated space above his garage in Yarmouth. Up the wooden stairs and under the eaves was a little world away from suburbia, a cheerfully cluttered atelier where Chip painted and taught, read, smoked, dreamed and thought. In his “blue de travail” French worker’s jacket, Chip cut a rakish figure as he stood working at his easel, brushing buckets of color and Mediterranean light onto otherwise Maine landscapes.
With his handlebar mustache and European mien, Chip was Central Castings’ vision of an artist. His absorption of the history of art was such that I understood that when he was in his studio he was as much in the company of Bonnard and Vuillard as he was of the occasional visitor from the present.
That was the 1970s. I got this same sense of time travel in 1985 when I visited portrait painters Claude Montgomery and Gardner Cox in their respective studios. Portraiture was a conservative genre even then, so the sense of stepping into the past seemed fitting.
Claude Montgomery’s Georgetown studio was a rustic, smoky space. “Ash and burnt logs spill from the great stone hearth,” I wrote in a Maine Times group portrait of portrait painters. “The walls are cluttered with portraits of friends and family. Books mount to the ceiling a dizzying height away. North light skylight, ocean view picture window. A grand piano and a grand array of artistic impediments – a bouquet of brushes here, Winslow Homer’s old easel there – command the floor.” I’m sure I must have meant “implements” rather than “impediments.”
Gardner Cox was “a portrait artist’s dream.”
“Wavy white hair beneath a blue wool slouch hat, wild, bushy eyebrows above gold-rimmed glasses. Jaunty green bowtie, fire-engine red suspenders, yellow and black checked sports jacket with a red bandanna stuffed casually in the breast pocket. Brooks Brothers bohemian, Boston Brahmin deshabille, an artist and gentleman.”
The colorful Mr. Cox, a North Haven summer resident, painted in a line of descent from John Singer Sargent. His studio was a dingy, cluttered space in Boston’s Fenway Studios, a brick block of 48 studios that is “the oldest continuous artist building in the nation.”
“Thin, gray light streams through the towering windows that overlook the expressway. At either end of the big room stand commissions in progress – a portrait of Tufts University president Jean Mayer and a portrait of Harvard Law School professor Louis Loss. The portraits seem less in the Sargent society tradition than in the more expressionistic vein of Graham Sutherland, one of the last of the great English portraitists.”
Studio as real estate
Fenway Studios was built in 1905 to house artists displaced when another studio building burned. The venerable Copley Society and St. Botolph Club contributed to the civic effort to aid Boston artists. It is rare to find purpose-built art studios these days.
Artists are ever in need of ample and affordable space in which to work. I have often said, only half facetiously, that art in Maine is all about real estate. The first artists came looking for landscapes to paint. Subsequent generations came to escape the city summers and to find cheap places to live and work. As such, all manner of warehouse, office, factory, farm and educational buildings have been repurposed as studio space.
One of the most industrious studio buildings in Portland began life as the Calderwood Bakery on Pleasant St. First, Maine College of Art converted it to a printmaking studio and then artists Alison Hildreth and Katarina Weslien purchased it in 1996. Today, the Bakery Studios house the studios not only of Wooly Hildreth and Katarina Weslien, but also those of the Peregrine Press, White Dog Arts and Wolfe Editions, as well an individual artists such as Richard Wilson and Charlie Hewitt.
At one time it seemed to me that Charlie Hewitt had studios up and down the Eastern Seabord from Vinalhaven to Maryland. These days his primary work spaces are in the Bakery Studios in Portland and in a converted garage in Jersey City, New Jersey. Charlie, the most productive artist I know, creates paintings, prints, ceramics and sculpture, all featuring his distinctive expressionist vocabulary inspired by French-Canadian Catholic roots.
One of the things that amazes me about Charlie’s productivity is that he manages to create a large body of work while also managing his real estate holdings in New Jersey. When I first met Charlie in the 1980s, he was living and working in a third-floor loft on the Bowery in New York, derelicts asleep in the doorway, addicts shooting up in the park out back. By the time he left the city some 20 years later, his building housed rock stars and movie directors, and hipster moms had commandeered the park.
That’s the power artists have to transform undesirable neighborhoods, make them desirable and, thus, price themselves out of the market. As Soho became too expensive for all but blue chip artists, working artists like Charlie moved on to Chelsea, Brooklyn and Jersey City. Charlie’s investment in Jersey real estate not only provides some income, it also plays a strategic role in his art career.
“The work gets made in different places and assembles itself here for the New York market,” Charlie said in a phone call from Jersey City. “If I had just the studio in Maine, it would be difficult.”
Studio as mirror of the soul
Over the years I have been impressed by how an artist’s studio often mirrors his/her own persona. Whether Carlo Pittore’s converted chicken barn in Bowdoinham, Richard Estes’ immaculate ballroom studio in Northeast Harbor, Robert Indiana’s Odd Fellows Hall museum of self on Vinalhaven or Neil Welliver’s great barn in Lincolnville, it’s not just the art but the studio that reflects who an artist is.
The wondrous home and studio of Wally Warren in rural Ripley, like Bernard “Blackie” Langlais’ art farm in Cushing back in the day, is a total expression of the artist. The yard of this roadside attraction is filled with whirligigs, totems, small boats, arches, and satellite dishes painted like ornamental shields, all in Warren’s palette of bright colors. Inside the home studio there is Warren’s “Cities of Dreams,” miniature urban landscape dioramas fashioned from recycled electronic parts.
Eccentric and exuberant, Wally Warren’s world is a Central Maine landmark.
“It’s kind of the folk art idea of surrounding yourself with color because of the starkness of the environment we live in,” says Wally Warren of his gaudy assemblages of debris. “It’s the joy of just doing it.”
At the opposite end of the spectrum is painter Grace DeGennaro’s fastidious studio in the loft of a post-and-beam barn attached to her Yarmouth home. The divine geometry of DeGennaro’s art is all about order, as is her studio. When I stopped by recently, Grace was in the midst of a work-in-progress series inspired by Platonic solids. Her paints were all laid out in chromatic order, surf clam shells for paint containers. I told her I hoped she hadn’t bother to clean up the studio just because I was coming for a visit.
“Oh, no, it’s always like this,” Grace assured me. “I can’t work unless everything is in its place.”
Prior to moving into her barn studio five years ago, Grace worked in an even larger space in Brunswick’s Fort Andross Mill Complex on the banks of the Androscoggin River.
“I loved working there, but I don’t miss it,” she said. “Working at home, I can climb up here any time of the day or night. My work is closer to me.”
Grace said the only thing she misses about not being in the mill is the sense of community, the sharing of resources and ideas that can take place when artists are housed in the same space.
Studio as the best place to see art
Fort Andross, also known locally as the Cabot Mill, is a 495,000 square foot brick mill complex that at various times manufactured textiles, shoes and brushes. Today, it is lively warren of offices, shops, restaurants and long, sterile hallways that lead to colorful artists’ studios. Among the artists working there most recently are Nick Benfey, John Bisbee, Brad Borthwick, Jim Creighton, John Coleman, Andrew Estey, Tom Flanagan, Cassie Jones, Richard Keen, Josh Mannahan, Elijah Ober, Tessa G. O’Brien, Bronwyn Sale, Emilie Stark-Mennig, Andrea Sulzer and Ian Trask.
Cassie Jones’ studio is a long, narrow space with high windows overlooking the Androscoggin. One wall is hung with dozens of recent paintings and constructions in which color, pattern and form seem to work out their own equilibrium. As a young mother of two, Cassie finds she must husband her time in the studio more carefully these days.
“I’m so lucky to get here two and a half days a week,” said Cassie. “It’s a great balance for me. I’m amazed how efficient I can be. I now do in two and a half days what I used to do in four.”
When I tracked down sculptor John Bisbee, he and two studio assistants were busy in the riverside basement hot shop bending his signature nails into a myriad of forms and letters, working feverishly to meet the deadline for his American Steel exhibition at the Center for Maine Contemporary Art in Rockland this summer. The most important thing I have learned from years of studio visits is that a studio is the best place to see art, right there where it’s created.
American Steel, Bisbee’s response to Trump’s America, was an exhibition-in-progress when I visited, some elements completed, others roughed out, the rest to come. As pieces were finished in the basement forge, they were carted in an industrial elevator to the cavernous space Bisbee maintains on an upper floor, a space he shares with several younger artists.
Bisbee’s studio is filled with the earlier work for which he is best known, elegant organic abstractions fashioned from welded nails. But American Steel is a different sort of beast, a kind of socio-political narrative of the decline of American manufacturing and the rise of a phony populism championed by a putative billionaire. The installation features realistic objects – a bathtub with oars, a pistol, a broom – combined with satirical text such as “This is such a witch hunt” and “This arrangement no longer works for us,” all made of nails.
American Steel will fill an entire gallery at CMCA. And when I asked John what having such an expansive studio space to work in meant to him, his terse answer was, “Everything.”
A few days later I got to see Kayla Mohammadi’s Caldbeck Gallery exhibition in its unedited form in the old Bristol schoolhouse where she maintains her Maine studio. Inspired by the title of the film “The Shape of Water,” the paintings take the artist’s distinctive pattern approach to bodies of water, abstracting the landscape through form and color.
Kayla Mohammadi’s Boston studio is in the famed Fenway Studios, as is that of her husband, painter John Walker. When Walker was chair of the graduate program in painting at Boston University, his studio was on the third floor of the former Fuller Cadillac building on Commonwealth Blvd. Since retiring from BU, Walker has spent more and more of his time in the couple’s South Bristol home and has acquired a collection of local buildings – a school, a store, a warehouse, and the former hall of the Improved Order of Red Men – as studio, storage and display space.
John, who was at work on paintings for exhibitions in England when I visited, is very attuned to the special power of an artist’s studio. In fact, photographs of studios figured in his decision to become an artist in the first place.
“The thing that did it for me was seeing pictures of artists’ studios, of people working, artists like Pollack and DeKooning working in their studios, all that activity,” said John. “I thought, ‘I want to do that.’”
John Walker agrees that the ideal place to see a painting is where it is created.
“I don’t like exhibitions,” he confided. “I feel sad for the pictures in those clean, neutral spaces. They look so lonely hanging there.”
John Walker’s advice to aspiring painters has always been simple and direct.
“You go away and paint some pictures no one has ever seen before,” he tells them, “and then the art world will find you.”
The studio is central to the art making experience because it is where art is born and where it is most at home. For the artist, it is simultaneously a retreat from the world and the place where he/she engages it most intensely. It is a private place, a work space, a place of research, discovery and, for some, even worship. And that is why it has always seemed to me to be such a privilege to visit one, to get a preview of art-in-progress and of the place and process of creation.
(Edgar Allen Beem is a freelance art writer and political columnist who lives in Brunswick.)
Last summer I was the recipient of a six month studio residency through the Ellis-Beauregard Foundation. I left my modest garage-studio behind my house, where I have been making paintings, drawings, prints and some sculpture over the last ten years, for a large high-ceilinged space at Lincoln Street Center in Rockland. Shifting spaces has been transformative for me.
Mostly I responded to the scale of my new space by following the impulse to work larger. I painted and collaged a series of wall-sized paper pieces that I made on the floor. I had a backlog of painting ideas that I wanted to get out of my head as a way to loosen up my other work. I found it liberating to work on a temporary, unfussy surface that I could reshape on an impulse. Not only did I find relief to my restlessness by turning my back on the loaded history of painting on stretched canvas but I also found a sense of possibility in the physical building itself. The new studio suited me in ways that I could not have predicted and so I have stayed on as tenant.
I am back to working on canvas but it is unstretched and I am still using the floor as my work surface. I’m using the same collage approach as I used with the paper pieces but the materials have slowed the mark-making down. There’s a body-intelligence in making work with the whole physical being — walking around and across the painting or on hands and knees. I trust it.
I talk a big game about being open to change in my studio but notice that I always have some hesitation or resistance to it when the crucial moment arrives. I’m interested in that conflicted moment and what it is telling me. A studio friend refers to it as threshold anxiety.
Very recently I’ve been working on small stretched oil paintings in my old studio again. I feel the same but completely different, like a tourist who has traveled and then come home. The residency and the changes it encouraged remind me to find the place where I stay both flexible and focused in the presence of my work while allowing myself to do all those underrated non-quantifiable studio acts: eat all the snacks, stare at the wall, read, and miss people.
My work has always had an organic, visceral aspect which I consider to be part of my concern with life issues, like vulnerability, passion, and the uncanny.
Drawing in notebooks is my lifeline to my work whether I am in my studio in Maine or Miami or traveling on the road between them. My hand goes where it wants in these visual journals. After I fill each one, I reconnoiter, selecting and tearing out what might be used for inspiration.
Last summer, after completing two long narrative works, I found that I was drawing heads and faces in my notebooks. I wondered how far the features could be distorted or moved around and still read as a face.
Before that, I had been mixing recognizable faces with imagined forms and questioning my need to do this.
Was the realism a crutch to impress the viewer that I could do it? Was it a way of enticing the viewer into the more difficult passages of my work? Or both?
Of course, I know that my best work is not so carefully considered. It’s what emerges when faced with an empty wall. But my fascination with faces was an issue I needed to explore.
I recalled that Philip Guston, at a turning point in his work, made a series of small painted sketches that he considered his “alphabet”, his vocabulary. The photograph of his efforts has always moved me because they are so direct, without sentiment and trying to hold on to what he’d done before.
Guston realized that a lifetime of devotion to art requires the occasional jolt to one’s satisfaction. Like a long relationship, it needs refreshment and redefinition, all the while staying true to the basic alphabet.
I thought back to his efforts and decided to challenge myself to create a vocabulary of heads and faces, leaving the next phase open-ended. Guston used his basic vocabulary as the inspiration for his new work – work that was not, at first, accepted by his admirers. I sensed that I was not taking as great a leap but embraced the exercise anyway.
Here’s what I did:
I culled 20 intriguing face/head sketches from my notebooks and transferred them to sheets of medium-sized Fabriano paper, using black ink and brush. Then I placed bright, colorful, geometric forms behind the faces to give a feeling of space behind them.
Part of my practice, in the last few years, has been to photograph my work with objects from the studio in the foreground. Manipulation of the light source and shadows furthers a process of refinement and integration resulting in a photograph that can be seen as the final “artifact” of the process.
One phase of the process involved masking areas of the paper to leave white paper where there was no color. I used mylar to mask the white areas – and I noticed that it looked lovely as it fell to the floor. Sprayed areas of color trailed off softly and marks made by tape were bold.
The discarded mylar, I decided,would become an integral part of my journey with these drawings, and I placed the scraps as objects in front of the original art. The conceptual kick of plowing my materials back into the work added to the visual mystery of the same color behind and on top of the black and white, partially-obscured drawings.
On the wall of my studio, I placed four or five drawings, arranging them with attention to their colored parts so that a head might be turned on its side. This was a way of keeping me from being too precious with what I’d already made, my carefully inked faces. The black inked lines became the girding – the strong base of my structure – while at the same time maintaining their identity as individual pieces of art.
Pinning and taping the colored mylar in writhing, playful interaction with the under-color and ink drawings, I made a collage on the wall. The mylar encircled, caressed, obscured and opened up to let the drawings show through, giving life to the big form emerging as a unified, amorphous piece of work. This was the pure joy of creation. I didn’t worry about tape or pins showing. I’d pushed through the step-by-step process – the plodding and earnest studying – to using the results of my work in ways I hadn’t intended.
And I had my own alphabet.
The photos of the entire collage (I made several) seem like documentation of an ephemeral site-specific installation, one that could be repeated in different locations. The close ups of different parts of the overall collage are exciting new photographs.
Afterward, I returned to the horizontal format with new interest in color and ideas of how to use the heads. Inspired by a recently recovered Degas (“The Chorus Singers” had been stolen in 2009 and found this winter at a bus station near Paris), I borrowed the composition of singers shown in perspective. Instead of figures, I “plugged in” my heads and painted them in colors I’d been using. It came out quite well but seemed a bit decorative and tasteful until I added the realistic head and face of a somewhat cranky child.
Christian Barter is an award-winning poet whose most recent book is Bye-Bye Land, winner of the Isabella Gardner Poetry Award. Besides being a poet and teacher, he works on a trail crew planning and overseeing construction and rehabilitation of hiking trails on Mount Desert Island. Christian combines a rich, vibrant intellectual capacity with deep knowledge and respect for physical labor and those who do it. His work comes out of deep thought rooted in land and the people who work with it. These two poems grow out of his work as Poet Laureate of Acadia National Park. “Ile des Monts Deserts” was first published on poets.org for The National Parks Project. “The Venture” was published in The Friends of Acadia Journal. There is a sense in these poems that knowing history is part of how we can continually renew our vision and our commitment to honoring the world, natural and social. Betsy Sholl
Île des Monts Déserts
It is very high, and notched in places, so that there is the appearance to one at sea, as of seven or eight mountains extending along near each other. The summit of most of them is destitute of trees… I named it Île des Monts Déserts.
—Samuel de Champlain, 1604
When Champlain sailed into Frenchman’s Bay
and saw this island’s evergreen mountains
blown clean back to ledge along their ridges,
this utterly foreign land,
an island foreign even to its coast—
it’s founded on a piece of Africa,
brought with us in the drift—
I know there were people living here but I’m thinking
of Champlain because he was coming from
a world not all that different from ours,
of crowded, elbowing streets and long-hour shifts,
a landscape cleared and plowed, and paved and built,
the power to change tight-fisted held by a few,
and grinding, messy wars that go on and on,
from which he had returned to make this voyage—
When Champlain sailed in here in one of those
square-rigged ships that can only follow the wind,
the whole crew thirsty, in clothes that must have been
putrid, having stared for months at nothing
but water, sliced at the world’s edge cleanly
and saw this place we still see from the ocean—
huge rock pushed through by a liquid fire
then sledged by mile-deep ice into a thing
of character, and then grown over
by the green that rules this world—
did he believe again, or for the first time,
in the holiness of the earth, the unassailable
authority of Earth, its calm command
beyond whatever temper tantrum Man
throws on its floor, or did he think
he’d simply entered heaven?
This isn’t exactly the question I have in mind.
Perhaps it isn’t a question.
But I like thinking about Champlain catching sight
of this humped jungle, these long heads lifted
thoughtfully, then sailing closer
until it became a world—
thinking about his era’s view of the earth,
in which, wherever you sail, it just keeps
sending up mountains and lakes and beaches and forests,
how easy and right it must have seemed
to believe in a power far beyond ourselves,
in a kind of benevolent infinity…
I guess I am looking for my own direction
in the world such as it is—
like his, but lacking that one key hope:
that when this land is ash, there will always be another—
looking for my own way to think of Acadia,
this ever-more-precious island we’ve somehow kept
wooded, and rocky, and punctured through with clear lakes—
enough like it was that if you hold
your finger across the houses at its feet
you can still, sailing into Somes Sound,
see more or less the place that Champlain saw
and, also, know the place for the first time—
which is always the feeling of powerful beauty, isn’t it?—
that something has been here the whole time
and we are just now seeing it,
and must now reconsider all our theories
that there could be such a place—
or poem, or string quartet, or person?
They come in droves now, a long string tugging them
ever across the land bridge to gaze down
from the steep western cliff of Cadillac
into the open eye of Eagle Lake,
the tree-massed mountains of Penobscot and Sargent
building up beyond it as if the land were still gaining power,
their sheer cliff walls like cities left by dreams,
and the ocean laid out flat, its moss-tuft islands’
miniatures of cliffs and beaches calm
as if you had imagined them—
Is it the kind of life you could live
that you see here? At Champlain’s request,
French Jesuits came next, to bring around
the souls of those already here; they set up camp
at Fernald Point, and I wonder, too,
if they saw where they were—the cliff
of Saint Sauveur behind their shelters
standing up, god-like, its sheer rock plunging
straight down into water, down through murk
for leagues to find its ancient footing—
or just the prospect of some better place?
on the occasion of the centennial of Acadia National Park
May I, composed…
of eros and of dust…
Show an affirming flame.
May we not trample this place.
May we be mindful—
truly mindful, like when you’re climbing something steep.
May we come here in love, the way pilgrims come
to certain tombs.
May we come here in hope, the kind of hope
that makes you courageous,
like Martin Luther King’s hope, or the first day
in a second career.
May we not bring our baggage with us.
I know we are always traveling,
but may we not bring our resentment,
or the sharp-edged pieces of our broken loves.
There is a theory that nature is perfect as it is;
may we at least look up from time to time,
as Whitman said, “in perfect wonder.”
May we wonder if what we’ve done so far is enough.
May we respect the land, which is to say, ourselves.
May we respect ourselves enough to be honest with ourselves—
to be honest about what this is, and isn’t.
It isn’t ours, for one thing.
Disneyland is ours.
Monticello is ours.
The Constitution is ours.
May we trust what we feel when we are here.
It is almost seditious, it runs so deep,
but may we trust it.
May we trust ourselves
against the common rhetoric that land is to be “used.”
That we, in the end, are primarily users.
You can’t crest Sargent from the East Cliffs’ clamor
to see that bay and islands, and Mansell Mountain
risen from its chair to face you
and think that’s what we are.
May we leave, eventually, as we all must—
after a long weekend
or a brief fifty years—
with this place inside us—
or rather, with this place firmly inside itself.
I know we are always traveling.
May we remember, today,
and also the today of tomorrow,
what it took to keep this place for us:
an athlete’s single-minded concentration
sustained for decades;
a number of fortunes;
that what had been done so far—
and in 1916 it must have seemed like a lot
had been done: the war to restore the Union,
the railroads, Yellowstone, Yosemite—
was not enough,
that “enough” is a misnomer,
the kind of white lie you tell children—
and let us not forget luck—
that maybe one of a thousand of this kind of venture
in the way that the venture
of Acadia National Park
in going on being what it was;
in changing—I’m guessing nearly always for the better—
the lives of millions of people;
in showing us something that matters too deeply for words.
Which is a reminder that I have probably said enough,
except to add that the venture isn’t over—
that part really does belong to us
in the way of a family home,
or a promise made to a life-long friend,
or The Constitution.
Dawn Potter’s new book, Chestnut Ridge, traces the history of her birthplace in western Pennsylvania through three centuries and various voices. The poems change in style as the age changes, beginning with formal and moving toward free verse. These poems are a history lesson for us all, letting us overhear many voices from early missionaries when the area was the western front of the country, through the civil war and into the 21st century when men and women begin to shift roles. Like Maine, areas of rural Pennsylvania have a distinct character that is slowly being eroded by mass culture. These poems remind us to look and honor the roots of where we come from. It is a feat of skill to move through so many shifts in form and voice. Betsy Sholl
Dawn Potter is a poet, writer, blogger and teacher who recently moved from rural Maine to Portland.
In this year
two men were lost in the caverns for three days.
they were locked in each other’s arms
waiting for the end—
two travelers, eyes wide in the blackness,
ears pinned to the whisper of wings,
the seep of water.
When found, they were locked in each other’s arms.
Breath by shallow breath,
they had fabricated life.
Blind touch bound them.
They stole heat from the brush of a cheek,
the cup of a calloused hand.
And so they survived the ordeal
of never embracing again.
Standards of the Pennsylvania State Board of Censors
“Nothing is censored in Pennsylvania but the poor mans amusement, Why?” —Anti-censorship banner, Pittsburgh Screen Club
The Board will condemn
any motion picture portraying
prostitutes, houses of ill-fame
a girl’s seduction, her confinement
for immoral purposes, or assaults upon women,
with lewd intent. Refrain from showing
childbed scenes and subtitles that describe them.
Pictures revealing the modus operandi of criminals
are suggestive and incite the weak to evil action.
We disapprove all murder, poisoning,
house-breaking, safe-robbery, pocket-picking,
the lighting and throwing of bombs,
the use of chloroform to render men
and women unconscious, also binding and gagging.
Do not illustrate the traffic in cocaine.
Gruesome and distressing scenes
are likewise forbidden. These include shootings,
stabbings, profuse bleeding, prolonged views
of corpses, lashings and whippings,
lynchings, electrocutions, surgical operations,
and views of persons in delirium.
Avoid scenes in which the human form
is shown in the nude. Do not undertake
the topics of abortion or malpractice,
eugenics, birth control, or race suicide.
The materialization of the figure of Christ
may be disapproved. We forbid
the brutal treatment of animals,
and objectionable language in subtitles.
Depictions of burning and wrecking
may degrade the morals of the young.
Gross and offensive drunkenness,
will never be tolerated
if women are present.
Do not exhibit pictures which deal at length
with gun play, and the use of knives,
and are set in the underworld.
Vulgarities of a gross kind,
such as often appear in slapstick
and may burlesque morgues, funerals,
hospitals, or insane asylums,
are disapproved, as are sensual kissing
and other indelicate situations.
Bathing scenes may pass the limits of propriety.
Avoid immodest dancing
and the needless exhibition
of women in their night dresses.
Do not show women in suggestive positions
while smoking. The argument that your story
is adapted from the finest literature or art
is not a sufficient reason for approval.
The Miner Who Loved Dante
But after I had reached a mountain’s foot,
At that point where the valley terminated,
Which had with consternation pierced my heart,
Upward I looked, and I beheld its shoulders,
Vested already with that planet’s rays
Which leadeth others right by every road. –Dante, the inferno, translated by H. W. Longfellow
I haven’t wandered your way lately, Nell,
not since the police clapped me up
and I lost my shift at Number 2.
But I remember the porch of our borrowed house
and the pigeons that fluttered up from the roof
when the old lady banged her pail.
And Sue . . . remember Sue, who sang alto to your mezzo?
In those ragged evenings, how stillness would sift
over the men, old and young, listening from their steps
or squatting outside the canteen, half-full bottles of wine
balanced on the ground between their knees.
Night opened her arms to us like a favorite aunt,
like Lena—plump, smiling, one hand at rest on my damp hair
as a hundred pigeons dipped over the river.
And all the while, Nell, you and Sue sang
of hearts, of summer, of fleeting secrets,
and we listeners believed that the songs were ours.
For no one, no one in the world, was as alive then as we were.
Their work boots were filmed with grease,
and their faces were weary.
They never showed up till the fourth inning.
Knees spread, they let themselves rest
on chairs beside the gravel-pocked ball field;
and when the women hollered, “Good eye, honey!”
at a tearful, trembling batter,
the men smiled like gentle but distracted strangers.
In their houses, a drawer slammed,
a kettle boiled, a hound twitched on the mat.
and the husbands pined for a secret world.
One drove six hours in dense fog
to a motel in Mississauga
instead of sitting down to supper.
Another stayed up till dawn
picking out “Night of the Johnstown Flood”
on his mother-in-law’s old guitar.
They fumbled with their sadness,
but nothing changed.
Women still clustered along the ball field
sharing packs of licorice, cat-calling the ump,
cheering at bloop singles and horrible throws to first.
The women behaved as if they had front-row tickets
to something magnificent and vital,
but the husbands couldn’t see, couldn’t quite see.
They raised their eyes toward the blackening sky
where swallows wheeled among the mosquitoes.
A child hacked at a pitch,
and the men’s thoughts clung to emptiness.
No one cried, “Cross out this life
that batters you down, and down, and down!”
Like chairs left in the rain for twenty years,
Then one day their knees snapped
and they toppled into the flood.
After an earlier 25 year career as a textile artist, selling nationally a line of one-of-a-kind jackets and doing commissioned wall work, I returned to school to get a masters in public policy and started working full-time at the Muskie School at USM. My studio, on the second floor of the barn attached to our house in Portland, was no longer where I went to work. Although there was always something on the loom, I no longer “lived” there.
Even when I worked in planning and development, I still thought of myself as a weaver. I considered my job to use the same sensibilities, same end result: weaving together multiple ideas, people and circumstances to move an institution (or an idea) forward to fruition. But after 20 years in university administration, I am thrilled to now be back in my studio weaving full–time. And weaving has been augmented and informed by painting and drawing.
I began painting while I still had a full-time job. I wanted something more immediate and transportable than weaving. Inspired by my love of casein paint and a class at Haystack with Alan Bray, I have continued painting from nature as an antidote, an opposite starting point from weaving – although I seem to often end up in the same place. When I find a view – through the woods, over the water, or out my window – there is invariably some indiscernible pattern, some underlying structure that I can’t see, but want to find. That is what drives the painting. I try to replicate what I see, but at some point, it becomes about the pattern. And I can layer and evolve a painting in a very different way from weaving.
The loom requires an end vision, and then multiple decisions, all of which have a consequence. So it’s an ongoing process of trying to stay true, decision upon decision, about color and thread and pattern. I get glimpses along the way, but truly don’t know what I have until it is finished and off the loom. I love the constraints of the loom – that both inspire and limit me. I like to work at the edge of possibilities – to see how far I can push the loom in the way it orders and structures the threads. I’ve been exploring pleating, layering and tension changes in making a surface. My husband, Jamie Johnston, has a wood studio below me in our barn, and the dialogue between us continues to play a role in my creative process.
I bought my first loom in 1974, when I moved to the Maine woods, and built a home without power or running water. I still use the same loom. When I recently did a weaving on a new loom, only then did I realize how well I know my loom, and what a relationship we have. We are good friends.
Returning to my studio two and a half years ago, I had only begun to find my weaving rhythm when I became ill with a virus that lasted four months and left me with no energy for the physical work of weaving. While recovering, I began a drawing series “Stilled Life”, as an exploration of a grid structure that has long occupied my mind. I continue to love this simple process of making lines, the sense of hand, and the absolute attention it requires.
After drawing for six months, I began to see the relation between the drawings and weaving and how I could move from lines to threads. Now that I am healthy, I’ve shifted my weaving focus to take what I learned from the drawing process and translate that into weavings, where the loom places its own parameters and opportunities.
In these recent weavings, as in the drawings, each square in the grid is made up of four colors. Two colors alternate changing right to left across the grid, while the other two colors alternate changing top to bottom. The result is that every square is one color different from the squares surrounding it. In a block of 9 squares there is a complete change of colors from the top left, to the bottom right, repeated multiple times. Each weaving/drawing uses 20 – 40 different colors.
I’m consistently awed (infatuated) by how much energy and light is captured in a process that requires such calm concentration. And how the difference between individual threads used as lines and the same threads in a weave can look so completely different.
My practice is in simply working – everyday. I’m acutely aware of the cost of not weaving consistently for so many years. Although I have no regrets, I do feel committed to regaining the mental flexibility and comfort I had during my earlier career as a weaver, hopefully bringing a little more wisdom and ease to the process.
I am totally immersed in this journey at this point – grateful that I have the privilege of time and energy to go wherever this exploration takes me.
The crossroads where you make the turn towards Port Clyde is landmarked by the General Henry Knox Museum, a 1929 re-creation of the original 1794 Federal mansion. Its monumental façade comes into view almost simultaneously with the Dragon Cement Company, a large construction of chutes and appendages of the last functioning cement manufacturer in New England. The historic and the industrial languages blend to form an architectural hybrid landscape, suggestive of a Hieronymus Bosch painting or an assemblage constructed of disparate parts. What brought me to this juncture, and through the coastal villages past Tenants Harbor, to Port Clyde, was an invitation from Ron Crusan to visit his studio.
Upon my arrival we began by looking at a stack of paintings on heavily- textured watercolor paper that at first glance resembled etchings. The paintings are built up layers of dark washes with specks of brilliant color revealed in the intertwined black and gray marks. Ron is reading about Richard Serra’s drawing process and thinking about the marks as language. Perhaps it is Crusan’s experience as a museum director that also has him thinking about how to display the paintings. He considers hanging them low and paired towards each other in a corner. He hopes this will encourage an interaction with the viewer, questioning the placement, creating a dialogue, getting people thinking about how an object occupies space. He is thinking about how a work of art becomes a part of the architecture and defines the space around it.
Crusan has more time now to devote to making, thinking and talking about his artwork. For more than 25 years he was director at several regional museums, most recently the Ogunquit Museum. His move to Port Clyde from Southern Maine last year coincided with his current position as director of Linda Bean’s Maine Wyeth Gallery and collections.
Inside his home, Crusan’s sculptures and assemblages line the walls of the living room and dining room. He makes freestanding sculpture, and shadow box assemblages from old wood, rough wood, and driftwood, some from old furniture, some painted, and some cut and reassembled. The associations that come to mind are some of the familiar names of 20thcentury modernism. But those are not the first associations that Crusan wants you to have.
In 1953—the year that Ron Crusan was born—Joseph Cornell made a series of shadow boxes in homage to a collage work, “The Man at the Café,” by the cubist master, Juan Gris. A recent show at the Metropolitan Museum united those works. A pair of west Coast artists, Wallace Berman and George Herms, both contemporaries of Joseph Cornell, worked in a similar vein, as assemblage artists. Cornell feels like a figure from history, his work evokes an earlier era, but he traversed the 20thcentury, spanning the years from 1903-1972, he is on a continuum with George Herms, born in 1935, and who still lives and works in Los Angeles.
One of Crusan’s wall assemblages includes a door handle, another a rusty hinge, a key is inserted into one, while another has a small tin box inset into the wood. They evoke a sense of place. We talk a bit about realism, and what does it actually mean. Crusan pulls a book on Andrew Wyeth off his shelf. He flips through to the painting “Brown Swiss” and talks about the composition. A barn is on the left side with a partial reflection in a pond below, and the sloping horizontal lines of fields intersect in a myriad of textures in grays and browns. There are concentrated areas of activity that balance the space. There were windows in the original structure, Crusan said, but Wyeth left them out and so the wall becomes a slab of white. The painting is as much an observational assemblage with an underpinning of abstraction composed by Wyeth, as Crusan’s pieces are abstractions made of actual elements salvaged from a real place and composed in the studio.
Leaving the more formal rooms in Crusan’s home we enter into his workshop, which resembles a raw materials library. Piles of scrap wood are neatly organized, some are textured, or some with carving and joinery betray a previous function as chair, table, or banister. Stacks of clear storage boxes hold parts and potential projects, sorted by like items, or color. One drawer reveals stacks of old Bingo cards, another is full of Monopoly paraphernalia. One box is filled with yellow pieces of wood, another, orange. Stacks of toy blocks with cowboys, and the corresponding Indians are set up in a still life on the shelf. A ray of sun moved into the upper story window and illuminated the inside of an old doll’s head that sat with a cluster of other dolls on a high perch. “Did you catch that?” asks Ron, and I nod, holding my camera. Lids of Port Clyde sardines tins are stacked like a deck of playing cards, some rusty, some with the logo bright and fresh.
The worn blocks and iconic relics say something about the passage of cultural time: like toy diplomats they present a window into what an American childhood once was.
We walk through the snow to the two storage sheds behind Crusan’s house. There is evidence of a squirrel that sees the space as a refuge. Nature is at work on the materials, even as Crusan has plans for them as well. The aura of possibilities lingers in the space, open- ended by collecting, and arrangement, bounded only by the limits of the imagination and the changes within the culture itself.
As I prepare to leave I ask Ron if he knew of the Waldo County sculptor, and welder David McLaughlin. McLaughlin bought, and moved into a defunct factory, known as “The Cannery” in Liberty Maine, in 1972. McLaughlin was an avid salvage collector of scrap materials on an industrial scale, including the eight-foot tall pressure cookers that once processed vegetables in the Cannery, 500 gallons of steel rings, and as a delicate counterpoint, shelves filled with birds’ nests.
His assemblages of rusty and rustic constructions evoke a sense of nostalgia, fabricated from articles from the recent past which have never fully become a part of our own times. His estate includes 100 tons of assorted steel, iron and other materials, and is now in the care of Waterfall Arts in Belfast and the Town of Liberty.
Ron is eager to talk about art and to delve beneath the surface. He mentions some of the artists in the area, Jamie Wyeth, Wilder Oakes, and the late Richard Hamilton. Ron talks of future ideas involving all of his Monopoly pieces, arranged, or scattered perhaps, the boards set out on a gallery floor, an invitation to play or to reflect on the game itself.
Ron sees me to the door, and then calls me back in with another book in hand to show me an artist in his neighborhood, accomplished painter, and amateur astronomer, Greg Mort. Thumbing through the book, we enter Mort’s world of exquisite still life—delicate arrangements of shells and planets—assemblages of sorts.
Driving away I feel the potential from all those raw materials, seeds of the mind that might come to grow on fertile soil. I think about Ron Crusan reading, and working from the ideas of Richard Serra, making his own response to those works, his steady and patient collecting of objects, and the absorption of culture and ideas—incorporating the past through its marks and materials.
The search for ephemera through the chance findings of flea markets perhaps now joins the realm of beat poetry, part of an America that is closer to the world of pre-Interstate highway. Jack Kerouac’s novel, On the Road was written in the era of the two-lane highway, and published in 1951, two years before Ron Crusan was born, and five years before the Federal Highway Act of 1956. As I drive home through the networks of coastal and back roads, I think about how this landscape still has much in common with the roads that Kerouac traveled.
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.
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!!
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.
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.
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.
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.)
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.
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.
I grew up in a house made of books: children’s books, classics, detective stories, forbidden publications that escaped communist censorship being passed down by generations of writers. Books lined the walls of our house, a parish established by my minister grandparents who had moved to my small hometown near the Czech-German border after the Second World War.
Books filled the bags my mother brought home from her job at the library. They shaped the quiet moments I spent with my father, an archivist who at times would bring home a rare treat, an old book as big as his desk, that I was not allowed to touch, only admire the yellowed pages and elaborate images that formed the first letters of every chapter.
On the weekends, I would spend long dreamlike hours at work with my parents, run in the hallways and between the tall stacks of the library and the archive, both buildings becoming my playground. The infinite wealth of stories they held offered a safe refuge from the confusing world around, from school that represented the communist establishment which was so at odds with home, with my intellectual anti-communist parents and my grandparents who dedicated their lives to Church, an increasing oddity in the secular domain of the regime.
The never-ending tales on the pages intertwined with the stories I heard about my family; humorous anecdotes exchanged at dinner about the absurdities of communism or eerie accounts of time gone that were only hushed and whispered when the women in the family gathered on Sunday afternoons. Over yarn and needles I listened to the life story of my great-grandmother who became a political prisoner in the early days of communism. Always an excellent cook, perhaps she had learned in the ration days of the war to make something out of nothing, she improved the conditions of her incarceration by offering the jail her cooking skills.
I heard stories of my grandfather who had been taken to a labor camp for his involvement with the Church. I listened to accounts of my grandmother who left alone with two young children took over the ministry, fighting hard to keep a Church presence under a regime that persecuted its members. Decades later when, unbeknown to all of us, the gray days of communism were coming to an end, my mother, too, became the breadwinner when my father, suffering from depression, was taken away to a mental institution. To supplement her librarian income, she would sell the handknits she crafted in the evenings.
Just as my grandfather’s landscape paintings that brightened our days with their vivid greens and yellows, the lives of my parents and grandparents inspired me with the every-day creativity of those who time and time again had to reinvent themselves in order to survive.
The Haitian-American writer Edwidge Danticat believes that every immigrant is an artist, that “the experience of touching down in a totally foreign place is like having a blank canvas.” In the August 2013 issue of the Atlantic, Danticat suggests that “You begin with nothing, but stroke by stroke you build a life. This process requires everything great art requires—risk-tasking, hope, a great deal of imagination, all the qualities that are the building blocks of art. You must be able to dream something nearly impossible and toil to bring it into existence.”
Like many others who have moved across the world to create the work of art that is a life well lived, I have adjusted to my new home, and like the women in my family, I have crafted a livelihood out of eggs and flour, at times yarn and fiber.
And when words were not enough to give me the answers I needed, where is home and who am I, I reached for the camera, dove into visual language where boundaries are blurred, worlds co-exist and time is but an idea, where in the landscapes taken over here you can hear the echo of the stories whispered over there, where the glossy cobblestones of the streets in my hometown reflect the dreams I spun in my new home, dreams I write down in silver.
above: Cynthia J. Ahlstrin, 38 Special – A Bullet Bra, Repurposed book pages, repurposed binder’s board, 6.5” x 38” x 11”
My most cohesive origin stories can be found within my artist’s books – in both the traditional book forms as well as in the altered books. My stories include lessons handed down from past generations, tales of memory, of love, of abuse, and of hope. They express views of childhood and the process of growing up and viewpoints based on life experience and maturity.
When I started making artist’s books, I found it very easy to begin by telling the stories of my forward-thinking, teetotaling English grandmother and the influence she lovingly placed on my young life. It started by growing up in a seemingly “proper” middle class home in Connecticut, the roof of which barely kept the lid on the three generations of independent individuals contained within. The youngest of the family, I found myself in need of an anchor. Fortunately, my grandmother scooped me up into her life and became my staunchest ally. Born into this world prior to 1900, she was from a distant generation that endured the many hardships of World Wars, deadly flu epidemics, and the Great Depression. But she also enjoyed women gaining the right to vote, the beginnings of women’s healthcare, and the ability of some women to start their own careers. She was always industrious with her thoughts and with her time.
One of the places she chose to teach life’s lessons was in the warmth of her kitchen where cooking was one of her grand talents. To her, food equated to love and happiness. My story starts here by investigating the age old tradition of cooks measuring out dry ingredients by their hand. Amounts were gauged and valued by how they looked and felt in the palm of the cook. Recipes were rarely written in full (if at all), adding to the mystery of cooking and to the guarding of “treasured” family recipes and secrets. To this day there are still a few recipes that even I guard, only to be passed on to those “within the family”. I collaged sugar, salt and flour sacks with recipe cards to detail the potential of sweet things to come. On the front side of my accordion book are the illustrations of the lessons of love, patience, meditation, healing remedies and self awareness – all of the life lessons passed on to me in-between the mechanics of making a great meal. Those keys to self-happiness are illuminated with colors as saturated as the memories and feelings they invoke inside of me.
Another story I tell involves the lessons learned about sewing. A professional seamstress, my grandmother had some very concrete ideas about how things were to be done. She created clothing for her regular clients and made costumes for actors on Hartford and New York City stages. My use of color speaks to the memories of our trips to the fabric store searching amongst bolts and bolts of beautiful fabrics to find the right cloth to make a creation sing. My story tells of the lessons of patience while laying and pinning pattern pieces so accurately that the leftover scrap cloth was miniscule. “Waste not, want not” was a common refrain. My grandmother worked her magic at the sewing machine in a beelike dance, moving back and forth from machine to table and back again. Her lessons of thrift, craftsmanship, energy and individual expression have swirled into memories of admiration for her mastery of the many parts of a woman’s life.
The last story of lessons learned while growing up materialized in a humorous piece titled Isn’t It Fitting? The happy recipient of lovely handmade bras, it was hard for me to wear commercially produced foundation ones, but once I decided that this was “what all the girls wear”, there was no turning back.
So my story here delves into the spreading of wings in an attempt to try something new, move away from an old tradition and perhaps take the first steps towards growing up. It is also a story about the ability to fail, admit a mistake and still be loved.
My story reveals that all the instructions and diagrams in the world were not going to correct the fit of ill made garments. Measurements and cups sizes were designed for the “average woman’s breast size”…and who has those? The beautiful bras I was searching for ended up being the ones made out of paper and ink. The craziness of the looping measuring tapes equates to my young self throwing up my hands in frustration and realizing that no matter how much we yank and we pull, those damn bras were just never meant to fit. And that some lessons you learn cannot be improved upon until we are ready to mature.
My approach to creating altered books originally began as a way to solve a creative challenge. I was given a stack of National Geographic magazines. Who doesn’t have difficulty parting with these? My task was to look through all of them, find a story that resonated with me and then make a piece in response to it. My found story was one that included luscious images of shoes throughout the history of humankind and what information could be gathered from them about the person who wore them. I was inspired to make my book based on the premise that every shoe really does have a story to tell about us. My shoe story investigates the use of color and the recycling of discarded objects. Through the placement of specific words and images, my book also tells a story to the viewer asking her to consider the impact of excesses of human choices and the use of genetically modified seeds on our environment.
As my experience in making altered books has grown, my approach to my story telling has changed as well. My newer work began to tell stories of a different part of my life, a crossing over from the lessons of childhood to those from a more mature perspective and garnered from some unfortunate personal experiences.
I need a great deal of paper for each piece. I began sourcing book pages from discarded books and romance novels I found at the library or in the book box at the transfer station. I chose my materials randomly based on the weight, color and feel of the paper. During the process of cutting the pages from the book block, I naturally began to read passages from various pages of the found books. This is where I began to notice the large amount of violence perpetrated against one or more of the female characters within each novel. Often times, the violence was not even remotely connected to the main plot – basically it was just gratuitous. My thoughts on this unnerving occurrence demanded that the individual stories needed to be identified, those of verbal and physical abuse, prostitution, murder, rape and in some cases mutilation. My own personal experience with certain types of abuse causes me to empathize with all the female victims.
My stories have manifested themselves in the form of 1950’s women’s foundation wear and boudoir apparel. Style-wise they are beautiful as well as cage-like and constricting. This era of fashion is from a time when women in our society were dressed immaculately within the confines of society’s concept of perfection. Each piece invites the viewer to read selected sentences or word phrases which are meant to illuminate this troubling pattern of violence. My hope is that the beauty of the structures creates an interesting juxtaposition to the violence expressed in the printed words and causes the viewer to consider the stories that women continue to experience in our current society.
In the spring of 1996, Gigi Aea designed and produced his first hand-painted jacket that was featured in the Metropolitan Museum Fashion Gala, and is still housed in its permanent collection. But the Gigi Aea story begins far away, in a land that juxtaposes European and Asian influences – Georgia, an ancient land formed in 13th century BC.
Gigi was born into a family of three generations of artists. His great-grandfather Alexander Ronishvili was the first pioneer of photography in Georgia and one of the great benefactors of his time, opening multiple schools, hospitals and universities. He photographed everyone from kings to paupers. The astonishing and distinctive life that he led ended dramatically, murdered at the age of 50, poisoned by his rival who also burned down his studio, destroying much of Ronishvilli’s work. The remaining works are housed in the Georgian National Museum and the family collection.
Gigi’s grandfather Giorgi “Gogi” Ronishvili was Gigi’s first and most important teacher and his guide into the world of art. An accomplished cubist painter and creative director of the Georgian children’s magazine “Dila”, he taught Gigi the essentials of drawing and color relationships, while also encouraging experimentation and the development of a unique style. Gigi’s memories of his grandfather are that he was very gentle but very resolute.
European art training starts at the earliest age. Being an artist was never a conscious decision for Gigi, it was more like an end result to the life he led. Having no choice in the matter was like having to breathe to stay alive. There was art created everywhere he looked. Monica, Gigi’s grandmother, was a ballerina and a dance teacher at the Theatrical University. She often danced in the house. Her every act was a performance, her every step a dance. Gogi and Gigi often painted together in the loft studio and Gigi observed and learned every one of his grandfather’s masterful strokes of the brush whether in the colorful city rooftops or intricate cubist paintings unique to his style that appeared as if looking through the angled prism of glass.
In his grandfather’s studio Gigi learned valuable lessons in the way that perspective is built, from masters like Vermeer, and the way it is destroyed, from masters like Matisse. He studied the color palettes of the Impressionists and the colorless Zenga paintings of Japanese masters that influenced the Abstract Expressionists so much. But through all his study and all his work he approached each painting with the fresh, wondrous eyes of a marveled child experiencing the world for the first time, perhaps because becoming a painter was never a decision or a choice, but rather a condition of floating full of sensations and imagery.
In 2014 Gigi’s homage to his grandfather was to organize and co-curate a posthumous show of most of his work at the Georgian National Museum of Art. It was an extremely successful, well-attended and televised event.
Gigi’s father, Nodar Gaprindashvilli was a well-respected portrait painter and a theater stage designer for a number of premier theaters in the Soviet Union. In his father’s studio Gigi learned the harshness of the life of an artist and prepared for the Academy of Arts exams. Gigi was expected to dutifully accept his student responsibilities as an apprentice in his father’s studio. His tasks ranged from cleaning the floors to repairing the skylight and cooking for his father and his friends.
In his grandfather’s studio he was a protégé. In his father’s studio he was a servant. Both lessons have served him well.
Gigi was deeply influenced by American culture from his introduction to the Blues and Rock’n’Roll to Abstract Expressionism, and always dreamed of coming to New York, to experience the hub of raw creative energy.
After attending and graduating art schools in Tbilisi, Georgia and Bremen, Germany, Gigi embarked on his long-awaited journey to New York City with $500 in his pocket and his portfolio of paintings. The paintings, unfortunately, were stolen in the Berlin airport right before his flight. He arrived in New York without any English language skills, job prospects, or work visa. His $500 dollars were stolen from him by a street hustler in an apartment deal that didn’t exist.
Broke and hungry, Gigi relied on the kindness of his childhood friend from Georgia, Agassi, who lent him some money to get a basement apartment in the furthest corner of “bumfuck” Queens. Agassi had emigrated 5 years before and was employed as a fashion designer for Mary McFadden Haute Couture. Gigi’s apartment consisted of a mattress and an ugly metal filing closet. Depressed by the hideous environment, Gigi painted the filing cabinet to look like a grained walnut wood closet. His landlord made it his habit to invasively check on what Gigi was up to every day. When he saw the cabinet that Gigi had painted, he liked it so much that he confiscated it right away and took it out of the apartment. Gigi had to carry it out.
Now Gigi only had a mattress. Still without work, Gigi often went hungry for days, relying sometimes on a local pizzeria to give him scraps of unfinished crusts and an occasional lunch from his friend. He needed to find a job, any job. At the end of his options, he applied for work at Moishe’s Movers in Brooklyn, where he was an outcast and only given an opportunity to work on occasion if nobody else showed up. He had two such opportunities. And the last was pivotal.
Down to his last quarter, Gigi called Moishe’s to inquire if there was work the next day and was told to come in at 7am. He was happy to hear this news. However, not having eaten for three days, he doubted his ability to move furniture for eight hours. Gigi then went into a local Korean grocery store and stole a loaf of bread and a small ham with the full intention of repaying the store owner when he got paid. But he was caught in the act and put in the walk-in meat freezer with a 6’5” security guard. Gigi pleaded, in his broken English, with the store owner not to call police, but to no avail. The store owner went to call the police and Gigi thought that would be the end of his American adventure and he’d be deported. Twenty minutes went by and nothing happened. He was still in the meat locker, but the guard had since left. Gigi was in the locker for another twenty minutes. Unable to stand the cold and humiliation any longer he busted out and walked calmly down the aisle past the guard and the store owner onto the street, where to his surprise and delight, there was no police waiting for him. Gigi remembers that in that instant he was overfilled with a love for New York and understood that everyone there, to some degree or another, has been in the same predicament. The generosity of the Korean store owner was but a proof of this.
Now free, he no longer felt hungry but ready to face the next challenge.
The next day he got up early and went to work using his last subway token. It was a long ride from the end of Queens to the end of Brooklyn. He arrived there with full confidence and strength to work and make money, but alas, he was told that he was not needed after all.
Completely destitute and despondent he called his friend Agassi to help him get back home to Queens, to the basement apartment with the tyrannical landlord. What Gigi didn’t know was that fate had something else in mind for him.
All throughout his stay in Queens he kept working on a textile design for the new Mary McFadden collection inspired by Japan. This effort was a test run that Agassi suggested he should try. Gigi was always fascinated and influenced by Asian art, Japanese art in particular. He used Ogata Korin’s screen, The Great Waves of Matsushima, as his inspiration for the jacket he was creating. Without any prior knowledge of the particulars of textile design and Haute Couture, he simply painted as he would paint any original painting, but with restrictions on the dimensions, material’s borders, design arrangement, and location, since the most challenging and fascinating thing about textile design is its transformation of two-dimensional art into three-dimensional applied art. Every one of the waves, drops and color juxtapositions mattered in the final concept of the piece, the way it would sit on the model and appear on the runway.
Gigi was working with borrowed art materials and painting on MaryMcFadden’s luxurious silk organza, with borrowed money and on borrowed time. He gave his hand-painted textile for Mary’s review to Agassi shortly before his work day at Moishe’s in Brooklyn.
On that day while he was stranded and close to tears somewhere in Brooklyn, somewhere in Manhattan Mary wanted him as her next textile designer for the Haute Couture house. Upon returning home to Queens he found out that he was hired for the exclusive position. The next night he made his great escape from the clutches of his oppressive landlord, fitting everything he had in an old lady’s grocery cart and wheeled it down to the Jamaica Van Wyck subway station where he got on the train that took him to Manhattan’s Upper West Side where he spent most of his New York years.
Gigi continued to create for Mary McFadden, finally designing the “Desert Jacket” which was her all-time best seller and featured in the Saks Fifth Avenue book “Obras de Moda.” On the side, Gigi designed for Oscar de la Renta and Donna Karan in New York until his move to London where he worked on a collection with Alexander McQueen.
Today Gigi Aea is running his own Haute Couture textile design company where he takes great care and pride to create hand-painted designs which are printed in Como, Italy. His textiles are used for both interior décor and fashion and are known for their dramatic design and color juxtapositions. The designs are larger than what is commonly done, which creates the sense of being enveloped by the textile and by the world that particular design depicts.
Gigi Aea is represented by the design house of Studio Sofield in N.Y.C. and Leslie Curtis in Camden, Maine.
TRACES, TRACKS, and PATHWAYS: Making Migration Visible Upcoming Exhibition co-curated by Julie Poitras Santos and Catherine Besteman Institute of Contemporary Art, Portland, Maine Accompanied by statewide connected programming 5 October – 14 December 2018
JULIE POITRAS SANTOS Around this time of year, in the 1930s, my Franco-Canadian grandparents migrated, walking across our northern border into Maine in search of work. They crossed the St John River on foot through spring melt and ice flows that reached the height of their knees. I imagine there were times when, from the middle of the vast river, they questioned their decision and their safety. My father relates that they were “running away from their lives” and toward the possibility of work. And as Lucinda Bliss relates, in her Tracking the Border project,
“There were many Canadian immigrants coming to the United States in the early 20th century, largely because of a complex mix of economic and social factors, and the difficult balance of agriculture and industry in the two countries that lasted through the two World Wars and depression, until the explosion of new industry in the mid-twentieth century. The tense post-war relationship between Canada and Great Britain also contributed to a period of instability and high unemployment, and affected the emigration numbers.”
Ultimately, my grandparents settled in the Caribou area, farming the potato fields and contributing productively to the Maine economy. My father, born in Caribou, has worked as an organic farmer, and a town and city planner, making connections in early farm-to-table movements and often fighting to retain what is unique and special about Maine.
As an artist, writer and curator, my work focuses on pathways and nomadic translations of space, using walking as a means to perform field research, and encouraging community through collective walking practices and site-specific storytelling. Moved by recent political conversations and challenges to international movement inspired by xenophobic and nationalistic discourse, and contemplating the vast numbers of people engaged in long walks and journeys across our planet, I wondered about the challenges and narratives inscribed in those passages.
CATHERINE BESTEMAN As a child I loved to hear the immigrant stories of my ancestors, who arrived in the U.S. from Holland, Wales, and Scotland. They became farmers and miners: tough men and women whom I imagined as adventurous journeyers in pursuit of a good life. Only when I married an immigrant did I begin thinking about political borders. Because his Colombian passport flagged him as a ‘security concern’ our border crossings were interrupted by searches by border guards. Borders became an annoyance, an interruption, an opportunity for petty power plays by men empowered by the government to harass travelers.
Later I began working with Somali immigrants in Lewiston, some of whom were refugees from a small village in southern Somalia where I had lived as an ethnographer during 1988-9. To get to the U.S., they had fled genocidal violence across a vast desert on foot to Kenya, where they spent over a decade negotiating safe passage across other borders in search of a permanent home. From them I learned how borders kill, incarcerate, and interrupt not just journeys but also lives. I have spent the past decade interrogating borders, asking whose interests they serve and who they empower, and trying to make the borders visible to those for whom they are merely an annoyance.
EXHIBITION The United Nations Population Fund estimates that 258 million people, 3.4 percent of the world’s population, lived outside of their country of origin in 2017. The U.N. calculated there were 10.3 million people displaced from Syria alone by the end of 2017. Worldwide, an estimated 65.6 million people are displaced from their homes. Whether migrants in search of better economic and social opportunities, climate refugees, or refugees fleeing violence, wars, or other inhumane conditions, millions and millions of people are currently on the move, seeking refuge and setting up lives in entirely new and foreign locations.
In light of the global refugee crisis, the presence of new immigrants in Maine and a vibrant national dialogue about immigration, our curated exhibition TRACES, TRACKS and PATHWAYS: Making Migration Visible seeks to make connections between local communities and illuminate the ways in which we might further understand displacement, exile, mobility and the pathways and stories occurring between loss of home and the invention of a new home in a new place and culture. TRACES, TRACKS and PATHWAYS brings artists together to create forms that provoke community conversations about migration and mobility, and the artists included share an interest in creating work that evokes stories about displacement, exile, mobility, identity, and community.
In addition to the exhibition in the ICA, nearly 50 organizations and institutions throughout the state of Maine are planning related programming in the form of public talks, panels, exhibitions, films, community workshops, and poetry readings during the time frame of the exhibition. A calendar of all associated events will be published in efforts to foster connections between community partners and to inspire public engagement. A symposium will be held in the ICA and an accompanying catalogue will include visual material and essays engaging the works on view. Artists in the exhibition include: Caroline Bergvall, Edwidge Charlot, Jason De Leon + Mike Wells, Eric Gottesman, Mohamad Hafez, Romuald Hazoume, Ranu Mukherjee, Daniel Quintanilla + United Yes, Patricia Tinajero
above: Christopher Cart, “I Fear What You Fear”, oil on canvas, 24” x 30”, 2018
Throughout the month of February Camden Public Library and the Jonathan Frost Gallery presented a large joint art show titled People on the Move – A Human Crisis: Refugees, Asylum Seekers, and the Internally Displaced.
The artwork varied widely. It included portraits, scenes of fleeing refugees, scenes of repression and brutality, symbolic evocations of displacement, detainment, and death, and symbolic evocations of the ideals of ethnic and political harmony.
The show was organized by Kit Harrison, Jonathan Frost, and Susan Beebe in concert with Cayla Miller, of the Camden Library. The purpose was to bring attention in our local community to the fact that across the world over 65 million people are on the move, driven from their homes by political repression, war, famine, and environmental devastation.
“I was thinking, what can I do, as an artist? I had this nebulous idea that maybe we could do a show on refugees,” said Beebe. Then, running into Kit Harrison at Rock City Café one day last summer, she discovered that she and Kit shared the same dismay and vision.
Twenty-four artists eventually responded to their Call to Artists, and showed, in their work, what moved them about this human crisis.
Three of the artists included in the show are themselves newcomers to Maine. One, Titi de Baccarat, is from Gabon and has been working and making quite a name for himself as an artist since arriving here in Maine two years ago. He spoke eloquently at the Artists’ Talk about the importance of local Mainers opening their hearts to newcomers – the importance of trying to feel the loneliness of what it is like to be a displaced person, living here out of necessity.
Orson Horchler, another newcomer, who goes by his artist name Pigeon, described the challenges of trying to find community in a new land. Here for a number of years, he works long hours running a contracting business, while also pursuing his artwork. In addition, he travels the state, visiting in schools and other community centers to share his message of tolerance.
Veronica, the third immigrant artist in the show, is a very articulate fourteen year-old, who is a refugee from the DR Congo. One year ago she spoke no English. During the run of People on the Move she delivered two moving talks in English about her life as a refugee – a young, living reminder for those in attendance of human resilience.
There were three special events associated with the show: an opening reception at the Jonathan Frost Gallery where individual artists spoke briefly about their work; an Artists’ Talk at the Camden Public Library where Titi De Baccarat, Orson Horchler, Veronica Kaluta, and Wendy Newbold Patterson spoke about their work and experiences; a reception at the Camden Public Library timed to coincide with the Camden Conference. All the events were very well attended.
Asked to reflect on the show, Harrison said, “I’m really just hoping that people will look at others with new eyes.”
“It gives you encouragement to feel something about this and express it,” Beebe said. “I hope we start a conversation, and people will look and think and talk and act.”
Participating artists were Lois Anne, Susan Beebe, Christopher Cart, Gregory Chilenski, Clarity, Titi De Beccarat, Alan Fishman, Jonathan Frost, Nancy Glassman, Lucy Goulet, Nan Haid, Orson Horchler, Mwandja Kaluta, Salima Kalute, Veronica Kaluta, Renate Klein, Jeannette Martin, Cynthia McGuirl, James Murdock, Wendy Newbold Patterson, Emeline Russell, Marjorie Strauss, and Hannah Wells.
My current work is a response to the Maine woods. It’s work that describes an experience of “being” in a more direct way than any art I have made in years. The parts of Maine that deeply move me visually and spiritually – the unique beauty, the stillness, the magic, the microscopic as well as vast views of varied landscapes – inspire and encourage me to be present.
After having been a painter for many years depicting figures (people, objects, landscapes and fantasy worlds in a broad range of styles and techniques), I took a stitching workshop at Haystack in 2015. Deer Isle is to me the most exquisite spot in Maine.
At Haystack, through stitching, I began to depict what for years on Deer Isle has blown me away – the mosses and lichen. Working with threads, floss and fiber did something to circumvent my “what I paint” brain and freed me to work with my imagination to describe what I was seeing in the forest in a way I could never have imagined. I experimented with various techniques and ideas, expanding on these first lichen pieces and then the following summer I took a second fiber workshop at Haystack that focused on sculpture. I had always felt intimidated by the concept of making anything 3D (I was a painter after all, right!?)
For the past year and a half I have been making large and small 3D sculptures of lichen-covered rocks, minerals and gems, and am now exploring further into the realm of sculpture.
A new start. Although of course not brand new. All my years of painting inform my stitching. I couldn’t do one without the other. My grandparents, my mother (age three) and her younger brother (my uncle) made a new start in America after fleeing Nazi Germany in 1935. My maternal Grandfather (Hans Levi) was Jewish and my grandmother Bridget Marqvart was not (although she later converted). My grandfather was studying to become a doctor and being inexplicably turned down for residences. My grandmother had two older brothers and one was in the Nazi party, quite high up, Goring’s right hand man, to be precise. He advised my grandparents to leave Germany immediately. They tried to convince my grandfather’s mother to join them and go to America but she refused, choosing instead to remain, in a small town close to Stuttgart called Muensignen, where she lived and where my grandfather had grown up. She eventually went into hiding in Muensingen where a young girl from the town brought her provisions. In return, with heartfelt gratitude, my great grandmother bestowed upon this girl items of her clothing, jewelry, cutlery and other valuable objects.
Eventually my great grandmother was discovered and then, like thousands of others, was killed at the concentration camp Theresienstadt. Meanwhile my grandparents and their two young children safely made it across the seas and eventually settled in Lindenhurst, Long Island where my grandfather developed a thriving practice as a GP doctor, and where my grandmother (despite having had her dreams dashed about going to art school in Germany) became a successful commercial artist. Fast forward seventy years to 2005. My mother received a letter from a woman in Germany saying:
“I have been looking for you for many years. I was the little girl (now elderly lady) who brought your grandmother provisions while she was in isolation. We are having a museum exhibition in the town of Laupheim which commemorates the victims of the Holocaust and we are displaying some of the items your great grandmother gave to me. We hope you can attend the reception.”
My mother and brother were thrilled, went to the reception and had an incredibly rich, moving and welcoming experience in the town that had turned our family away.
Two years later my mother, daughter (then seven years old) and I went back to Muensignen. We visited our new friends, the old house where my grandfather had grown up, the graveyard where my great grandmother had a stone, the museum at Laupheim, as well as art museums in Munich. It was beyond memorable and meaningful and felt like a timely gift to be with my mother and young daughter visiting our family history. Two weeks after we returned to the states my mother was diagnosed with a brain tumor and died two months later. We all marveled at the timing of our trip. Some of her ashes are buried in a plot in the small and charming cemetery in Muensignen and the young girl (now elderly lady) is to this day the one who tends my mother’s grave. Several years before attending graduate school at The Art Institute of Chicago, I began painting psychological self- portraits. This was the focus of my work for many years and saw me through my graduate studies, pregnancy, post pregnancy and more.
The work I made during 2013-2015 (before beginning my lichens and mosses) is entitled “The Apartment.” It is the work that most directly connects to my family and where we come from. Symbolic and metaphorical, the work represents my grappling with the loss of the apartment I called home for fifty years. I grew up in this apartment in New York City’s Upper West Side and remained connected to it throughout my adulthood, the early years of my daughter’s visits there, through my mother’s death and then through my elderly father’s life until he died in 2013.
I loved the apartment tremendously and was very attached to it and when it came time to clear it out to sell, I took on the job. My sister was living in Los Angeles with young children and it was difficult for her to get to NYC, but truth be told, I wanted to lay my hands on every item there.
As I sorted through things, the baby shoes, the pots and pans and plates and cutlery and silver and vases and tea sets, the broken blenders, the whisks and wooden spoons, the books and LPs, the once white now yellow linen tablecloths that belonged to my grandmother from Germany, the porcelain figurines, the paintings, the sheets and towels, the photo albums, the black socks my father wore when he worked as a lawyer, the old toothbrushes and pill bottles and unused Depends, the sweat pants and red fleece jackets my father wore the last few of his eighty six years, the candles, the hammers and screwdrivers, the saved toys for the grandchildren, the art projects my sister and I made as kids, the “important” papers and old bills, my dad’s framed diplomas and NYC Law BAR certification, my old diaries, my mother’s journals and stories she had written for her writing class at The New School, the saved newspaper clippings and black and white head shot photos of my mother as an actress, the Christmas ornaments and VCR tapes and on and on and on and on.
I took note of the items that resonated with me and either kept them, or took a photo of them. The pieces in the body of work entitled The Apartment are responses to these objects using various mediums. It was a powerful body of work for me to make and it truly helped me to let go.
Maybe it even allowed me the psychic space to make a new start with stitching, with making work that has no blatant psychological content, that is about translating what I see and experience when I go into the woods, that often doesn’t have a plan when I start out. As my teacher from Haystack said “You either make a picture, or you make a field.” After making pictures all my life as a painter, with fiber I am making fields. I am sure I will return to making pictures at some point, but for now I am enjoying being in the fields and forests.
There are many things I love about Maine – the woods, the coasts, the mountains, the wildlife, the small towns, a certain scruffiness in the landscape (that you don’t see in Vermont for example and is a different kind of scruffiness from the kind in NH), the resourcefulness of Mainers and their ability to understand irony (I have found, living in various states in America, that not everyone does!).
I have been here on and off (mostly on) for twenty seven years and yet I sometimes still feel like an outsider. From away. It may be that I am one of those people who always feels a bit out of place no matter where I am. I think the combination of my NYC roots (my father’s side of the family is fifth generation from New York City and my father, grandfather and great grandfather attended the same school I did and my great great grandfather helped start it). My maternal European ancestry, and the Jewish culture that surrounded me growing up have all contributed to a feeling that I am different from most Mainers – at least in Farmington where I live most of the time.
The Sandy River Players (the community theater group in Farmington) put on The Sound of Music a few years back. My daughter played one of the Von Trapp children and I played a nun. A dream come true as I had been (like many) obsessed with the movie for my entire life. Besides the wonderfulness of playing a nun, I also had the amazing opportunity to paint a 14′ x15′ backdrop painting for the show. I made a translation of an Oskar Kokoshcka painting that depicts a mountain, the sun partially hidden by clouds, and heavenly rays of light that stream down onto the dramatic landscape. It fit the spirit of the play – hopeful, spiritual, inspiring and grand. Like the Von Trapps and my own family, Kokoschka fled Nazi Germany and escaped to a safe land. While sitting with my fellow cast members in rehearsal I started to wonder whether there was anyone else sitting there (besides my daughter) who had a familial connection to the Holocaust and thus to the story of the Sound of Music. No one did. I ended up telling my story to the cast who were very appreciative and responsive.
Later that same year I had a show at The Jewish Museum in Portland, another experience that allowed me to connect with my roots but this time within a larger community with shared histories.
Although at times I do feel like an outsider living in Maine, I also find a deep connection to those around me who treasure the beauty and quality of life (the way it should be!) that a place with fewer people, fewer strip malls and less corporate contamination offers. I knew even as a child growing up in New York City that I didn’t want to live in the city.
I remember a summer when I was about eight years old and my family had rented a house on Cape Cod. I would go out into the scrub oak forests and find trees whose trunks had hollowed out and fill them with moss carpets and acorn bowls and construct miniature worlds made of sticks and pine cones and whatever I could find. I was alone there in a way that I was never permitted to be alone as a child in the parks of New York City.
And I remember feeling how I was so NOT alone while there in the woods. That there was a kind of company, a silent, greater company that was with me. I encounter that company daily in the forests and on the coasts of Maine.
Art lovers tend to focus, understandably, on art and its makers. Yet one of Maine’s most powerful arts’ leaders is not an artist. A career exceeding 60 years has made the beloved Nancy Davidson, art curator at the Maine Jewish Museum, in Portland, one of her profession’s heavy hitters, with influence extending well beyond New England.
A Maine native, she’s pioneered cosmopolitan, contemporary taste in a region which long favored landscapes and provincial traditions. Approaching 80, she has become a quiet legend by backing obscure artists who’ve gone on to win national fame. She’s an inextricable part of the origin stories of many creators throughout the US.
When I interviewed Davidson, a fading henna pattern twirled around her hand and up her wrist. “My granddaughter’s a tattoo artist,” she explained. “I’m thinking of getting her to give me a tattoo next. I have to support the arts, you know.”
Supporting the arts is what she does. Even great art needs advocates to show it under credible auspices, taking on the managerial challenges many artists find distracting, even distasteful. Artists live in imagination. Curators make exhibitions happen, using executive skill, dealmaking savvy, an eye for talent and formidable social prowess.
How did Davidson get all this right?
In looking for words to express Davidson’s success, MJM volunteer Marilyn Sherry momentarily forgot we were in the museum’s sanctuary.. “Nancy,” she explained with unintended irreverence, “has more contacts than God.”
It didn’t come easily. Before joining the non-profit MJM, Davidson spent decades advising commercial galleries plus years as a gallery owner. She learned the business of art. Even with sublime art, she points out, “you still have to pay the light bill.” But she also believes art involves values that transcend money. Artist William Irvine, who has known Davidson over 30 years, says: “Art was never just a business deal with her. Even during the bad times, nothing put her off. Art is her life.”
Robert Shetterly exhibited with Davidson in the 80’s and 90’s. “I’ll always be extremely grateful. Most of my work at the time was surreal. Not everyone would show it. It was baffling, mysterious, ambiguous, even to myself sometimes.” Davidson didn’t always understand either, but she had faith in him. “She sold quite a few of my pieces. I knew she went through difficult times when she could barely pay the rent. A lot of people would’ve given up. It’s a testament to her love of art that she stuck it out.” To Shetterly, Davidson was out to provoke and educate public taste as much as any artist.
When painter Harold Garde, now in his 95th year, moved to Maine from New York in his sixties, everybody assumed he knew of her growing stature. “It was: Of course, you know Nancy?” Davidson exhibited Garde’s early strappo works. In New York he’d known people who were interested in art and people who were interested in sales. “They weren’t necessarily the same people. But Nancy had a real respect for exploring and discovering.”
Davidson also exhibited landscape and color field painters who were easier to sell, seeing them as neither less nor more deserving of her energies but as a necessary part of the art spectrum. She’d learned that people differ vastly in what they want from art.
Her parents were antique collectors and jewelry store owners; in their home a love of pleasing objects was unquestioned. “Being surrounded by antiques heightened my awareness of beautiful things,” she remembers. The Davidsons traveled widely, showing their daughter art of many kinds. In European museums she found that contemporary art’sclean, pared-down lines excited her.
Her father’s business triggered life-altering experiences. The Longines watch company annually sent him a gift of a signed, limited-edition print by a famous artist of the 40’s or 50’s. These prints acquainted Davidson with artists like Leonard Baskin and Ben Shahn, and with the thrill of collecting.
On a seagoing business trip Sidney Davidson mentioned his child’s precocious fascination with art to a fellow passenger who happened to live near a Maine summer camp, Camp Truda. One evening, at her father’s invitation, he stopped by to meet Davidson. It was a remarkable opportunity to learn from a towering cultural figure: Martin Dibner, who, when he died at 80 in 1992, left a substantial legacy as first director of California’s Arts Commission, first head of the Joan Whitney Payson Art Gallery (now the University of New England Gallery), and bestselling novelist (The Deep Six).
“He sat me down,” Davidson says, “and began explaining what to look for in contemporary art.” Over several visits Dibner gave her a course in art appreciation. It was the first step toward her career. She was nine.
Another formative presence was her art-collecting cousin, philanthropist Bernard Osher. In 2007, Businessweek reported that Osher had donated $805 million to arts, education and social services. Davidson derived a unique benefit from being related to a wealthy art patron. “For years, when Barney bought an original painting, he’d take me along with him.” She met many artists, including sculptor-printmaker Chaim Gross, and was inspired to build her own collection of signed prints.
Becoming increasingly interested in how culture both reflects and shapes humanity, she considered becoming a psychotherapist and enrolled at Boston University. A sociology course required a study of modern artists including genre-busting painter Ben Shahn. Davidson’s family already had that signed Shahn print. Studying him now re-ignited her passion for art. Shahn’s desire to democratize art, bringing art and the public closer, resonated with Davidson’s emerging ideas. “I became friendly with him and other prominent artists of the time,” she recalls. Her collection of prints grew.
At 21 Davidson was pregnant with her first daughter when Rabbi Harry Sky, at Portland’s Temple Beth El, asked her to organize a fundraising art show. Working with Peggy Osher and Millie Nelson, older collectors and experienced networkers, she developed a show combining loaned works by “name” artists with for-sale work by contemporary artists, and limited-edition prints. It was hugely successful and ran annually for seven years. “It was a big deal,” Davidson reflects. “It was the 60’s. Contemporary art in Portland was virtually non-existent.”
The show launched Davidson as an art consultant to galleries throughout Maine. In the 70’s she joined Barridoff Galleries, now a Maine auction house specializing in art, where she created their signed limited-edition print department and managed print exhibitions. One day a humanities high school teacher came by, wanting to learn more about art to help his teaching, and about collecting.
It was a transformative encounter for the teacher, Bruce Brown, and the start of a lifelong friendship that would leave a lasting impression on Maine art. Brown’s interest in art, particularly prints and later photography, blossomed. From 1987 he served two decades as curator of Maine Coast Artists (now the CMCA) .
The 80s took Davidson to Santa Fe, where artist Joe Novak asked her to represent him. She worked with him almost eight years. In the 90s, back in Maine, she opened her gallery Davidson & Daughters. A partnership conflict led to closure after four and a half years, but she still treasures the relationships with artists she exhibited then, like Peyton Higginson, Charlie Hewitt, Susan Amons, Deborah Klotz, Diane Zaitlin, Rush Brown, Ted Arnold and Kate Gilmore. She later showed many at the MJM and other venues.
Wanting a fresh start, Davidson moved to Florida. In a population some 15 times that of Maine’s she prospered as a consultant: “I made a lot of money.” The gallery Studio E, in Palm Beach Gardens, had a contemporary focus that impressed her. She sent them her resume but heard nothing. About a year later she took a friend there. The owner overheard her explaining the art and hired her. She worked for Studio E seven years from late September through May, her clients mostly retirees wanting art for their winter homes. Davidson became the gallery’s star seller.
During her summer returns to Maine she curated for the Susan Maasch and 3 Fish galleries, created a sculpture garden at Maine Art, Kennebunkport, featuring then-new talents Elizabeth Ostrander, Patrick Plourde, Andreas von Hueme, Constance Rush, Roy Patterson and Peter Beerits, and attracted attention with her Critters exhibitions of animal-related art by William Wegman, Bernard Langlais, Dahlov Ipcar and others. The popular series included a 176-piece show in 2011 at the UNE Gallery. She explains: “Everybody loves animals in art, no matter what one’s level of art appreciation.” Bill Irvine, whose work Davidson showed in various galleries, says “she was moving around so much one never knew where she was.”
Around this time Davidson volunteered at the MJM for a year. MJM Director Ani Helmick endorsed her appointment as acting Resident Curator, a job which became permanent and full-time. As of this writing she has shows planned through 2019.
What’s it like to helm the art agenda of an institution like the MJM?
While her position has freed Davidson from some constraints of commercial galleries, she can’t ignore budget realities. She brings in annual grants to cover her salary.
Artists appreciate the prestige of showing at MJM but they need sales, so Davidson works hard to attract buyers as well as browsers. Her chief goal, though, is to show unconventional contemporary art that engages viewers and provokes intellectual and emotional response. She picks the artists but her board wants her to exhibit work with not only artistic merit but also both Maine and Jewish associations. Perhaps her biggest accomplishment has been managing to expand the MJM’s prestige significantly despite these limitations.
Davidson admits her choices aren’t always unreservedly approved. Eyebrows were raised when she recently showed the work of Richard Brown Lethem. But public reaction supported her judgment. Unsolicited comments included one from a visitor who’d just discovered both the MJM and Brown: “I had previously been unaware of your institution’s role in championing cutting-edge art …Thank you for doing this. I hope you will continue to choose to show art that makes this level of cultural contribution.”
Davidson has an unwavering confidence in her mission. She has, she states as a simple matter of fact, “put the MJM on the map as an exciting venue to view contemporary art.”
Bruce Brown agrees: “I like the diversity of her shows.” He singles out her decision to exhibit Rich Entel’s witty show of inventive animals constructed with musical instruments and cardboard cutouts, and the imaginative works of Nanci Kahn, Lin Lisberger and Deborah Klotz.
Continuing to channel her mentor, Martin Dibner, from that summer seven decades past, Davidson encourages MJM visitors to move away from obvious art narratives and connect with what lies beneath the visual surface. “Use the sum total of your life’s experience. Art is subjective. Look into your own life for meaning.”
The Martin Wong retrospective “Human Instamatic” — a road trip to the Bronx, and a family story.
by Kathy Weinberg
Driving along I95 you cross a bridge to get in and out of Maine. You cross a line that separates “here” and “from away,” in a State that declares on its Welcome sign, that it is “The way life should be.” On this sign, a local artists group (ARRT!) temporarily mounted their own sign depicting lobster buoys adorned with the insignias of national flags, and stating, “Maine welcomes our new residents.” A state, a culture, and history move forward — often in increments. Just as crossing bridges takes us from one place—or state of mind—into another, a work of art, or even a simple meal can transport us into another world, or make our own new again.
On one trip, “away,” I was fortunate to see the art and legacy created by Martin Wong who was representative of, yet on the edges of his times. Wong was not a part of a mainstream culture in his day, but is now moving into a broader appreciation.
Wong worked within the European canon, did not feel he had to throw it away, but made it his own. Martin Wong continued to make paintings at a time when painting was falling out of fashion, and became overshadowed by the rise of ironic and then predominantly formalist American art. By tying his personal American scene back to a European tradition that includes and embraces Van Gogh and Goya, Wong tells us that history is alive and available for artists of all times.
It is a five-mile walk to the Bronx Museum from where my husband and I met up with an old friend for lunch before going to see the Martin Wong Retrospective: Human Instamatic. We had spicy cumin lamb burgers at Xi’an, a new chain of North Chinese noodle shops featuring hand-pulled noodles in spicy sauces. Blocks later we stopped in at Patsy’s — the original 118th Street location — for a slice. Our friend knew the history of this oldest coal fired oven pizza in New York, and pointed to where Frank Sinatra once had his own reserved table. This part of Harlem was once an Italian neighborhood, but now Patsy’s, one bakery, and a “red sauce” restaurant were all that remained as evidence. Walking straight up 1st Avenue, we made a jog to reach the Third Avenue Bridge that took us out of Manhattan, into the Bronx, past Yankee Stadium then along the Grand Concourse. The Third Avenue Bridge offers a view of the canal-like, industrial landscape of Old Dutch, upper Manhattan. It is pedestrian scale, and feels more like a continuation than a grand crossing.
We were going on what felt like a Pilgrimage — not only to see the Martin Wong retrospective, but to see it in a neighborhood once famous for its having burned, like ancient Rome. I had often heard stories from my husband’s family about the destruction of the Bronx, the landlords burning buildings to get money from insurance. It was years before I heard the story of how their Uncle burnt down the family house, a house with three generations all living together. He carried a shovel full of coals from the basement furnace to the back yard, dropping some on his way to roast potatoes in a small fire in the backyard with his friends. They called this depression-era pastime “roasting Mickies.”
My husband’s family had moved to the Bronx at a time when Europe was burning and Jews were no longer safe — or welcome — in their home countries. His father and grandmother escaped just six months before WWII officiallybroke out, but the invasion had already begun and villages were burning as they departed in an ox cart. His mother was born in the Bronx and her parents arrived during WWI.
The paintings of Martin Wong’s life, friends and neighborhood are remarkable for the quality of the painting alone. But Wong’s body of work also chronicles both an area and era. The gentrification and expansion of the Lower East Side neighborhood began in Wong’s (too brief) lifetime, continues today, and makes his work an ever stronger, and not too distant, mirror.
Martin Wong moved from San Francisco’s Chinatown to New York in 1978 and eventually settled in the Lower East Side. He made paintings set in, and of, the urban decay in the 1980’s-90’s — after the urban decline of the 1970’s. He paints his adopted neighborhood and his times. His canvases contain detailed brick walls, graffiti, razor wire, paint-scumbled surfaces, but still offer a human tenderness. There is love among the ruins. Love between the firemen — who appear like friendly gladiators or awkward angels in Big Heat. These Romeos are seemingly oblivious to the vacant and rubble-filled lots they occupy. Love appears as a heart built out of bricks, bulletproof, and a visual pun on a heart of stone, capable of surviving in the ashes.
A wit and poetry is written through Wong’s paintings; words make appearances as a narrator’s voice, a poet’s oration. Graffiti words cover buildings, words frame the images; words are written on the walls, appear as headlines or epithets. Words are implied in the hand signs, the alphabet, for the hearing impaired. These signs are a visual language that can be deciphered, like a metaphor for painting itself. A section of the Lower East Side is known as “Alphabet City,” due to lettered rather than numbered streets, so it is fitting that the art of that area should have a written/visual component. Wong’s hand painted sign language for the deaf form hieroglyphs out of stylized symbols; disembodied hands emerge — with pearl buttons — from cuffed sleeves. Throughout art history hands have pointed famously; God’s hand reaches out to a languid Adam on the Sistine Chapel ceiling, and the Angel points Adam and Eve out of The Garden of Eden.
Wong’s paintings are filled with books, celestial charts, and cartoons articulated in a hyper-realistic style of trompe l’oeil. Wong’s focus on the details of his art alleviates any didactic or straight political, polemic reading. In The Flood, the hand of the Statue of Liberty, painted as if built from bricks, rises like a chimney in a vacant lot. My immediate association was of the final scene in Planet of the Apes. Actor Charlton Heston sees Liberty’s head and hand buried in the sand, realizes that the statue is beneath; Earth and America as he knows it has been destroyed. He asks of the sky, “What have they done?” That question certainly hovers in the smoky skies of Wong’s world.
The portraits and characters that appear in his paintings are mostly of men, often partially dressed. A giant “brick” phallus rises, like a statue, in a gilded frame, in My Vida Loca. Wong found in the melting pot culture of the Lower East Side, a home and a community, and he walks us through his life there; an exterior window view of his bedroom is seen, perhaps from several stories up, as if we are suspended in air looking in. In Rapture, a painting of a brick wall entirely fills three panels that are surrounded, engulfed even, by a gilded frame. The intertwining oval frames — filled with the bricks — terminate in leaf and filigree so that the rectangle pattern, the weight of the wall, is lightened and relieved. Wong’s scenes of a destroyed neighborhood are not freighted with bitterness. His love of detail and decoration bring a joy to the subject and to a sympathetic viewer. Wong’s paintings are a valentine to the citizens of urban blight.
Wong — as a highly original artist who painted a world that he made his own — worked outside of the dominant art historical canon of his contemporaries. His style recalls other artists, now or at one time, on the borders of that canon: late Philip Guston, De Chirico’s brother Alberto Savinio, and the cartoonist R.Crumb. Wong was familiar with Renaissance art and other historic styles, which manifests in a crucifixion scene set in a basketball court, in the use of the circular or Tondo form, or in Top Cat, a portrait of a Hispanic reclining male, semi-nude in white briefs (tighty-whitey) — a nod to Goya’s clothed and unclothed Maja.
Holland Cotter’s essay/review on Wong (New York Times, November, 2015) refers — in passing — to Wong as an “exotic outsider.” Cotter met Wong many times at the Metropolitan Museum, where Wong worked in the gift shop and looked at art. Cotter’s perception, shared by others, was partly based on Wong’s cowboy clothing — boot to hat — persona, and not having the “correct” art world credentials. Wong had studied ceramics, but was considered “self-taught” as a painter, though he started teaching himself from an early age. He was considered, by some, as a folk artist, although he had showed in East Village Galleries, including Semaphore. He had a retrospective in 1998 at the New Museum, and the director Dan Cameron said that Wong entered the broader picture of art history as: “…one of the more prominent examples of a constructed multinational cultural identity” and, was “Probably the essential painter of the American scene of the second half of the twentieth century.” Wong’s work is now included in the Whitney and Museum of Modern Art collections.
This show in its Bronx location ties in to Wong’s close association to graffiti artists in the area — artists that Wong knew personally and collected. He donated his collection to the Museum of the City of New York before his death in 1998, and it was recently on display there, in 2015. Wong’s is an unquestionable, yet still developing historic niche. Despite having lived for twenty years in New York City, this was my first visit to the Bronx Museum. Crossing bridges is slow work.
You cross bridges to get to Manhattan, a physical construction that is also a mental obstruction. There isn’t one fixed “Real New York,” “True American,” or “Mainer,” it is as evolving and as difficult to keep up with as what is or isn’t out of fashion. It can all change in a New York minute — defined by Johnnie Carson as the interval between a Manhattan traffic light turning green and the guy behind you honking his horn. Parallel histories flourish often unnoticed inside, and outside, its own walls. Sometimes, over time, recognition, appreciation and public opinion converge.
Driving home on highway 95, I thought about the density, diversity and sheer numbers of people living in America’s largest urban area, just a day’s drive down the road. One person’s life and life’s work can reach through time and transcend our differences. I thought about Maine Governor LePage’s remarks about drug dealers from New York coming to Maine with heroin and impregnating white women before leaving . He defended his racist stereotypes by pointing to a 2010 survey that showed that the population in Maine is 95% white. This fact makes Maine the whitest state in the Union. The state is also 83% forested, making it one of the most sparsely populated states as well.
You enter the State of Maine on the Piscataqua River Bridge, high above the river, and rising into the air. Whether you have been away for a short trip, for a long time, are “from away”, or are arriving for the first time, that crossing feels symbolic; especially at the summit where all that is past can fade away, the future is open, and neither is visible for that moment.
And then, with the descent, it all comes rushing back, where we have been, as individuals, and where we — as a culture — are heading.
In April, the creative voices and talents of more than a dozen immigrant artists living in greater Portland will be exhibited at the Union of Maine Visual Artists Gallery. Seventeen artists collaborated with curators Kifah Abdulla (poet and painter from Iraq), Titi de Baccarat (sculptor and painter from Gabon) and John Ripton (photographer, writer and historian) to create work that expresses their experience as Maine immigrant artists. Each artist – painter, sculptor, photographer, poet and performance artist – will exhibit work that they have completed since arriving in Maine.
Greater Portland is home to thousands of immigrants whose life stories demonstrate the will to overcome lack of opportunity and education, political repression, violence and poverty. Some of the artists in the exhibit are fortunate to have escaped such violations of human rights and other artists have not. All of them have nevertheless distinguished themselves as artists and in many other endeavors. Their collective stories are part of the story of the United States. They inspire us in ways our great grandparents’ and their grandparents’ lives do.
As with earlier immigrants, the newer immigrants are building their lives here and revitalizing Greater Portland, its economy and its culture. The artists will share their desires and dreams as well as their reflections on how they arrived in Maine and the challenges they continue to face. The exhibition of their work will speak directly to the world in which we live, without the spin of manufactured news.
In a time when differences among peoples are being exploited at the highest levels of government, this creative project strives to cross the borders and walls separating brothers, sisters, mothers and fathers. The exhibited work speaks to our common humanity. Guided tours of the exhibit for students and teachers of Portland area schools, colleges and universities are also planned.
my people dying
I’m feeling like a product of war
here I stand while they laugh
cause my people left poor
my childhood memories
had me begging for more
got away from the war
but now I’m worst than before
came here to represent for
my Africans all around the world
gotta stay on my grind though
like poverty right at my door
for all the people out in this world
that got no home
cause they families poor
for all the people
that will never know
what it feels like to be cared for
pray to god
and let it flow
it ain’t all about that money bro
now let us go
look at me
I represent like Rambo
how many people here gotta die
how many mothers here gotta cry
how much more do we sacrifice
before we get to see paradise
It is quiet in Darfur
by Ekhlas Ahmad
It’s quiet in Darfur. It’s not the silence of peace, but it’s the silence of death.
My homes that once carried histories of generations are now burned ashes on the
ground waiting for the wind to blow them to their final destination.
My mothers that were once Leaders of their communities are now used as war
My sisters that once had chances to be future leaders are now afraid to see the sun.
So I speak for them.
I speak for the thousand mothers who have been speaking forever but there is no-one
I speak for the thousand girls who want to speak but don’t have a voice.
I speak for the thousand children of Darfur because they can only speak in silence.
I speak so they can be heard.
Because I feel their pain.
When I was a little girl I used to cry
but only in silence
never showing my parents my tears
not even my siblings, or peers
because they told us if you showed people your tears, it meant you were afraid
it meant you were weak, it meant you were powerless
Yes I was young, but I knew I wasn’t weak, and I knew I wasn’t powerless
I had and still have a weapon
A voice that once it’s heard, demands attention
A voice that doesn’t only speak, but repeats
So I will speak so they can be heard.
Titi de Baccarat
Titi de Baccarat is a painter, sculptor, clothing designer, jeweler, and writer. Dedicated to justice in a hostile political context, he was forced to flee his country, Gabon, with only the wealth of his artistic ability. He has lived in Portland since February 2015, where he works through his African identity and artistic expertise to contribute to the culture of the city. He believes that art rehabilitates love, bringing together people of all countries, backgrounds, cultures and ethnicities.
Kifah Abdulla is an artist, poet, writer, teacher and activist, born and raised in Baghdad, Iraq. The real beginning for Abdulla as an artist started after he returned from eight years as a prisoner of war in Iran from1982-1991. Art became his main professional career. He worked to express his experience of time spent in prison, a theme that is still present in his work. In his current work started in Portland, he uses abstract Arabic letters as an essential element in his work. He is developing his style in the vast space of contemporary art in America. Abdulla has exhibited in Iraq, Jordan, Holland, and Portland, where he lives and works.. He published his first book of poetry in 2016.
List of Participating Artists*
Kifah Abdulla (Iraq) Poet & Painter
Titi De Baccarat (Gabon) Sculptor & Poet
Anna Mikuskova (Czech Republic) Photographer
Afshin Mahmoudi (Iran) Photographer & Musician
Ekhlas Ismail Ahmad (Darfur, Sudan) Poet
African Dundada (South Sudan) Musician & Composer
Mei Selvage (China) Painter
Burcin Kirik (Turkey) Painter
Akad Hamed (Iraq) Painter
Sofia Aldinio (Argentina) Photographer
Ebenezer Akakpo (Ghana) Jeweler/Designer
Christian Muhunde (Rwanda) Painter
Makumbundo Franciso (Congo) Painter
Edward Mbikiayi (DRC) Painter
Rabee Kiwan (Lebanon) Painter
Yelena Fiske (Russia) Painter
Sahro Abrahim (Somalia) Designer
Damir Porobic (Former Yugoslavia) Interdisciplinary Artist
Jean Medard Zulu (Congo) Painter
Aymen Khaleel (Iraq) Painter
Performing Artists at April 6th OPENING/Artists’ Reception
Ekhlas Ismail Ahmad (Darfur, Sudan) Poet
Kifah Abdulla (Iraq) Poet
AFRiCAN DUNDADA (South Sudan) Rap Musician/Composer
Jawad Alfatlawi (Iraq) Musician
Mei Selvage (China) Traditional Chinese Ink Block Brushwork
Yves Karubu (Burundi) Drummers/Dancers
Community Resource Leaders Represented
Zoe Sahloul (Lebanon) Activist/Organizer N.E. Arab American Organization
Bereket Bairu (Eritrea) Emergency Teacher/Tutor
above: Francis Hamabe William Kienbusch Rowing, Stonington, late 1960s Black-and-white photograph Collection Little family
My uncle, the painter William Kienbusch (1914-1980) spent most his life in two places, New York City and Maine. Just about every May from the mid-1940s on, he would make his way north from the city. Late in life, he compared the stops he made to the stages in an ascent of Everest, his favorite mountain.
Bill’s relationship to Maine began in the 1930s when he attended Eliot O’Hara’s watercolor class at Goose Rocks Beach in Kennebunkport. After serving in the Army during World War II, he returned to Maine, staying in Stonington where his hero John Marin had spent time in the 1920s. He was soon making annual seasonal pilgrimages, exploring the islands and developing a repertoire of coastal subjects.
For a number of years Bill’s base of Maine operations was Trevett near Boothbay Harbor where his friend and fellow painter Dorothy Andrews (1918-2008) and her family lived. After he bought a house on Great Cranberry Island, he became a part of a remarkable group of modern artists, among them, John Heliker, Dorothy Eisner, Gretna Campbell, Robert LaHotan, and Charles Wadsworth, who found their muse there.
Bill established personal connections with a number of individuals in the Maine art world. He visited fellow painter Reuben Tam and his wife, Gerry, on Monhegan. He went on painting trips with Leni Mancuso and Tom Barrett from Castine (their correspondence with him is in the Archives of American Art).
Francis Hamabe (1917-2002) was like a brother; he and his first wife Sidney would host Bill for weeks on end at their home in Blue Hill. From there, he would make excursions to Stonington where he kept his rowboat EPO BID. The boat—its prow—served as the model for several paintings. (The children’s book author Robert McCloskey once referred to Bill as “the rowingest man in Maine.”)
Bill also became friends with Vincent Hartgen (1914-2002), painter and bravado art professor at the University of Maine. Sometime in the 1960s Hartgen invited his friend to spend a semester at the university, teaching and painting. The Northeast Film Archives collection includes an interview with Kienbusch conducted by Hartgen for Maine Public Television.
Uncle Bill once stated, “When I arrive in Maine, I start seeing again.” What he saw were subjects and places that set him to painting. He explored Hurricane Island quarries, wandered among Cranberry Island gardens after everyone was gone for the summer and hired a lobsterman to circle a bell buoy while he took pictures with his Brownie camera.
I was thinking of Bill’s love of buoys when I gave him a copy of W.S. Merwin’s book The Drunk in the Furnace for his birthday in 1978. As he had done with me, I marked several poems that I thought he’d especially like, including “Bell Buoy” with its stunning evocation of that sailor’s guide in fog and storm:
The dreaming bronze clangs over the lifting
Swell, through the fog-drift, clangs, not
On the sea-stroke but on the fifth second clangs,
Recalling something, out of some absence
We cannot fathom, with itself communing.
Among Bill’s last great subjects was goldenrod, fitting image for the final years of his life. In an elegy inspired by the painting Sea Gate and Goldenrod, poet Rosanna Warren, who had visited Bill on Great Cranberry Island on several occasions, describes the painter lying in his bed with “a patchwork map spread out” over his “failed legs.” She references “our island” where “alders shimmied in sunlight, deer/browsed through cranberry bogs,” but concludes:
other islands, and already, while we sat
here with you chatting of ours with its goldenrod
what you heard
was the other islands.
When Bill died in 1980, he left his home on Great Cranberry Island to my brother David and me. This gift shifted both of our lives. Up to then we had been oriented toward New York City and the South Fork of Long Island. Our parents’ home in Water Mill had been our refuge and retreat, but the landscape was changing drastically. Maine was a new world, a place where we might start seeing again. And that is where we are today, writing and painting.
Uncle Bill made us Mainers; he left us his home, his friends and his favorite landscape—not to mention the poetry of Abbie Huston Evans. I’ve told this story many times, and apologize if you’ve heard it before. Bill is the talisman and touchstone of my creative life. I owe him big time.
Carl Little is co-author with his brother David of the forthcoming Paintings of Portland (Down East Books). He has also contributed to monographs on Philip Frey and Joseph Fiore.
It begins, of course, with the fact that there is no beginning. There is no true origin or starting point. There are only circles and the stories we tell ourselves. The way we impute beginning, middle, and end, on snatches of our perceived reality.
If you walk behind a row of semi-detached houses in Blackburn, Lancashire, you’ll find the forest where I played every summer of my youth. I was born in this rural patch of northwest England and would have grown up here, if it were not for my father. One day while working as an architect for the local council, he spotted an advert for a job in the Architectural Services Division of the British Colonial Government of Hong Kong. My parents, then young and still adventurous had too many bills to pay, and they saw this as a promise of a better life. When I was two and my brother four, we boarded a plane to Hong Kong.
Every summer, we would return to this house in Blackburn and I would pretend to be English. In the mornings, I would wander down the road to find Sally and Jenny—daughters of an artist called David Schofield. We would disappear into the woods for endless summer days, crafting intricate stories with our imaginations. Today, when I visit that row of houses, a funny thing has occurred. Quietly and gradually, David has installed artworks throughout the woods, like magical walls that disappear into the ground and reappear elsewhere. There are bronze circles that look like portals into other universes and underground dens you can climb into. Being an artist, he kept the practice of transforming reality alive.
I grew up in Pokfulam, on the south side of Hong Kong Island where the sun sets over the Lamma Channel. After finishing high school here, and then college in England, I returned to Hong Kong in my early 20s and got a job writing about artists for HK Magazine. One of the first artists I interviewed was Sun-chang Lo (羅聖莊), a visiting professor in the architecture department of the University of Hong Kong. He was reaching back and animating millennia of Chinese painting through his own, modern, city experience. Born in Guangzhou, China, but raised in New York’s Chinatown, he would rove the city’s streets with his camera, looking for compositions in rusting doors and abandoned objects. He would find perfect shan shui landscapes caught within the peeling paint of walls. His works revealed both the artist and the spiritual seeker’s path.
Writing about Hong Kong artists in the early 2000s meant I was charting a society in a constant state of identity crisis. Hong Kong had been a British colony for 150 years until 1997, when it switched back to Mainland China under a 50-year period, known as “one country, two systems.” There was a schizophrenic dualism in Hong Kong that underpinned everything: international and local, Chinese and British, ancient and modern, fishing community and Asian financial center.
Having realized I wasn’t English while at college, I began to explore my British-Hong Kong hybrid nature. I studied tai chi and chi gung. I began mapping out the energy circuits on my body and tapping into the ancient geography of yin and yang that could be found in the rolling hills and Banyan trees of the ancient parts of the city, amid the vertical, futuristic maze of metal and glass. I met artists like Lam Tung-pang (林東鵬), whose large-scale paintings on plywood revealed the quiet spaces of the hundreds of islands that make up our home—and in the background, that modern, majestic, relentless city. I went into Mainland China on a tai chi retreat and saw the massive northern mountains for the first time. I felt like my Chinese self was meeting her larger self.
When I was 24, I bumped into Buddhism. As the saying goes, when you’re ready, the teacher will appear. I found a center in an old Chinese building in the busy district of Wan Chai. On the top floor lay the Kadampa Buddhist Meditation Center, a serene space with wooden floors, mats on the floor, and a shrine with Buddhas, flowers and water bowl offerings. I joined a Saturday afternoon study program where we dove into The Heart Sutra, Buddha’s central teaching on the nature of reality. We would recite the sutra at the start of every class: “Form is empty; emptiness is form.”
This is also when I found the works of Lui Shou-kwan (呂壽琨). He was born in Guangzhou and escaped to Hong Kong during the Chinese Communist Revolution in 1949. Like so many of our city’s greatest thinkers and artists, he arrived as a refugee from somewhere else. He was a classically trained painter and in Hong Kong during the 1960s he found an open port with libraries containing books about the Abstract Expressionists in New York City. His mind was radically opened by this collision of East and West. Hon Chi-fun (韓志勳), another great modernist artist of this generation, once said, “We all wanted to find a way to bridge the Chinese realist tradition with Western modernism and the American painters gave us a model.” Lui Shou-kwan led the New Ink Movement, which changed the direction of Chinese ink painting and inspired an entire generation of artists. His students included another one of my favorite artists, the great ink painter Wucius Wong (王无邪). Lui encouraged them all to create works in an individualized way, from the very depths of their hearts.
At the start of my third decade, my karma shifted again. I married a Mainer and we moved halfway around the world to the United States. For the first few years in Maine, I became like a hologram. I worked as a remote writer and editor for Hong Kong media and arts organizations. I wrote three chapters for a book about the history of Hong Kong art and continued to deeply hold onto my identity as a Hongkonger. I would meet Mainers who would project “English” upon me at the sound of my voice. This led to confusing moments, where I would launch into a five-minute monologue about my history.
I found people like Suzanne Fox who worked with the Chinese community in Maine and together with the artist Mei Selvage we formed an arts event called Yaji. It was a cultural lab held quarterly in Portland. In one event called ‘Migrations Stories’ during Chinese New Year 2015, we featured the New Hampshire-based artist Shiao-Ping Wang. She was creating beautiful, layered works works of her various homes, in Taipei, Taiwan, where she lived as a young girl, and her current home in New Hampshire, right on the state line with Berwick, Maine. Her paintings startlingly revealed the immigrant experience; how home is a layering effect in the mind. Where at any one time, depending on the particular scent that wafts in the wind, you could be sitting in a Hong Kong fishing village, on the hills in Lancashire, or in Casco Bay.
Eight years after moving to Maine, I can tell you that the layers are changing once more. I have begun to wonder if I should hold onto any sense of cultural identity. Am I a British writer, a Hong Kong writer, or an American writer? Or maybe who I am depends on who I am talking to, at any given moment in time.
In Buddhism, we learn that the self we normally see is, in fact, an illusion. The storyteller in our mind is continually creating narratives about who we are. Our minds project a permanent, fixed identity upon this shifting play of change and so much of our suffering arises from this habit. Buddha taught that we are all in fact migrators on an endless journey through cyclic existence (Sanskrit: samsara). This life is just one chapter in a very long and unwinding story. Unless that is, we are able to wake up from the dream, and realize the true nature of things.
above: Renu O’Connell, Past and Present, casein, 26 x 34
This year I found myself coming home both to myself and to my ‘homes’ that hold my past and present.
I will begin by by describing the journey back to the place that never felt like home but now does. I was born In Detroit, Michigan, lived there in my formative days, then moved to the suburbs that did not feel like home.
Months before this visit I had been asking myself what mattered the most to me in the political climate of 2018. The issue of immigration is central to our country. I started to look for images of immigrant farmers to paint and found many who were urban farmers in Detroit. So, excitedly, I began to read that there was enough land to feed the whole city which was considered a realistic goal.
There is an intimacy between decay and life and there is a contrast between what seems gone and what is actually growing life. What I saw were 1400 farms, many that have community connection; centers for education, places to gather and eat, all contained in an area that could fit San Francisco, Boston, and the borough of Manhattan within the city limits. I began to paint Detroit farmers, many of whom had roots in the great migration from the South. Many of these people’s children and grandchildren are coming home to their innate sense of nurturance of the land. Farmers see themselves as makers of history.
Other immigrants, like my ancestors from Ireland, came to Michigan to farm as a result of the great potato famine. For the first time in my life I considered the pure hopelessness and destitution they had to face. When they arrived in their new home on Mackinac Island, they tried to farm but the soil was too rocky.
How does this journey take anyone back to self? First off I believe until we mourn our ancestors’ losses, we will never be whole in ourselves. This is why it seems valuable to fill in the “holes” in our ancestral backgrounds. As we come closer to understanding their lives, we can see our selves belonging to a universal family. It is a human need to want to experience the “Phoenix rising from the ashes”. It is human to seek newness and hope. It is in all of us that we wish to plant seeds that germinate and offer nourishment on so many levels. For me there is something passionate within that wants to participate in the mending of this united fabric of states belonging to our immigrants and relatives and for this I give thanks to the pioneers past and present.
Excerpts from Origin Stories
by David Wade
For me, as with many artists, the sea is an inspiration, an eternal muse … it’s a font of creativity… it’s a call to play and make art and discover… and a trip to the shore is like a return to my beginnings, both ancient and modern … like going back home again… and it’s no coincidence that all of us have in our veins the same percentage of salt in our blood that is in our oceans…and that salt is also in our blood, in our sweat, and in our tears… so whenever we go back to the sea, we are going back to our very origins, to the source from which we came… these origins go back to before the dawn of history, when the first life began to bubble up from the primordial soup, where our original ancestors took their first breath and Life itself began…
These Maine shores draw me like a tide, which I cannot resist. At the shore, I hear the ocean sing its siren song… it seduces my eyes and ears, and serenades my soul… the sea speaks to me… and I answer… like a child, I put my ear up to a sea shell and listen… and I hear the distant sound of eternity.. … the sea’s cycles bring me back into tune with Mother Nature and the slow pulse of eternal time… always the seaside sets my spirit free….…and it is where I am most like a child, filled with inspiration, awe, and endless wonder……