Maine Arts Journal Introduction:
This essay was originally commissioned to appear in Maine Art New, a selection of essays and artist profiles edited by Edgar Allen Beem and Andres Verzosa and to have been published by the University of Maine Press. After a long, difficult history, the press cancelled the book in February of this year, freeing us to publish the essay here.
In August of 2010, Roxanne Quimby’s Quimby Family Foundation awarded a grant to the University of Maine Press for Edgar Beem and Andy Verzosa to co-edit a new book on contemporary art in Maine, one meant to update Beem’s 1990 Maine Art Now and to be written by a dozen contributing writers. When Ed Beem asked Lucy Lippard to write an essay on Art as Activism, she told him she would be happy to do so, but that, because she did not know the terrain of political art in Maine, she would like to collaborate with Natasha Mayers, an artist who did. Beem agreed.
In February of 2013 a disagreement occurred over how the art activism essay would be credited. Andy Verzosa and University of Maine Press publisher Michael Alpert felt that it would be awkward and unprofessional for Natasha Mayers to have a byline in an essay in which her work is discussed. Ed Beem agreed with Lucy Lippard and Natasha Mayers, who wanted a dual byline, that it would be enough to explain in a footnote that Lippard was the primary author and Mayers was the primary source. In the end, that is what we have decided to do.
The authors wish to thank the Quimby Family Foundation for underwriting this essay.
Toga-clad fiddlers (one in a George W. Bush mask) perform in front of a painting of a burning planet to bring global warming home to Kennebunkport, Maine, near the Bush summer estate; Women in Black silently present black and white paintings of the war in Iraq in Augusta, the state capitol; a poster that almost imperceptibly merges the faces of Bush and Obama brags “I Was Groomed by International Banksters”; Homeland Insecurity Blankets are paraded past a cheering crowd in Whitefield …. You had to be there.
Activist artists are there, and their work is dependent on immediate effect, as well as long-lasting revelation, both ideally leading to action. Activist art at best is issue-based, grass-rooted, and participatory. It does not originate in some artist’s bright idea taken into a neighborhood as kind of well-intended gift. It’s an artist’s collaboration with those who are living within the issues. Activist art is based in subversion on the one hand and empowerment on the other… as well as empathy and respectful dialogue on the other two hands (this is, after all, a collective endeavor). It can take any form, but it usually operates both within and beyond the beleaguered fortress that is high culture or the mainstream art world. Activist art isn’t a new formalist or faddish art form; it’s a massing of energies, suggesting new ways for artists to connect with and inform diverse audiences.
In Maine, as elsewhere, such work primarily exists beneath the radar of the various art worlds. While many of the artists discussed here are highly respected, they often reject the mechanisms of the commercial art markets, and their penchant for naming names and speaking out on political issues can put them in jeopardy for much in the way of conventional “success.” They are a small but vocal group, unafraid of insulting the powers that be. (The state’s newly elected Tea Party Governor Paul LePage is a favorite target – as in “LePlague” or “Time to turn LePage.”) Their “principled dissent” makes their art more vital than many of the avant gardisms that dominate the global markets or the ubiquitous seascapes and lighthouses that are the conventional image of “Maine art.” Maine activist artists prove that the either/or approach to social issues (“good art can’t be political”; “political art can’t be good art”) can (and should) be replaced by a more open and even joyful approach to social issues and (belated) recognition by the mainstream.
There is nothing cut and dried about who is and who isn’t an “activist artist,” and the choices for inclusion here are inevitably subjective and dictated by limited space. For the most part, these artists have worked and shown regularly in Maine for years. They don’t separate their activism from their art, disagreeing with Ad Reinhardt, abstract painter (and activist) par excellence, who said famously, “art is art and everything else is everything else.” Consistency and persistence have been among our criteria for inclusion here. We have nothing against flash-in-the pan activism — the more the merrier– but a serious look at activist art in Maine demands a certain commitment to the idea that art can be socially effective as a powerful eye-opener.
Activism tends to start at home, on local issues with a degree of self-interest. Artists’ rights and institutional critique frequently spark broader political activism. Artists’ rights was the opening volley of the Art Workers Coalition in New York in the 1960s, and of the Union of Maine Visual Artists in 1975. UMVA was instigated by the late painter and mail-art provocateur Carlo Pittore (aka Charles Stanley); while he was more of a contrarian than a consistent political activist, in 1991 Pittore came up with a “Broccoli Forest” on the march (a la MacBeth) –protestors with 10’ stalks who took President Bush I’s least favorite vegetable to the environs of his summer estate in 1991 to emphasize their distaste for his policies.
The UMVA’s first major achievement was the passage of two State laws that have made the lives of Maine artists easier: estate taxes can be paid with artworks (Maine was first in the nation to remedy the way families of deceased artists are often forced to sell works at a discount to pay off death taxes) and a percent-for- art program (1% of the construction cost of state buildings goes to an art project). UMVA has also regulated artists’ proceeds from charitable auctions and stopped the practice at some institutions of making artists pay to enter juried shows. It is a volunteer organization, a statewide advocate for artists’ rights, a non-profit umbrella for projects and community revitalization through the arts (such as the 1990 “Home” installations in storefront windows on Congress Street – Portland’s main drag – to call attention to homelessness), and the 2009 Lubec Arts Alive (an isolated and struggling northern community coming together to make art). UMVA publishes a newsletter, advertises art activities across the state, and funds a series of films devoted to Maine’s distinguished artists. Not coincidentally, many of UMVA’s members stand to the left of center, since artists on the right tend to crouch smugly on the status quo. “Our mission is to uphold the dignity of artists and to support a vital contemporary Maine art community….UMVA artists value what can be achieved through collective efforts. As artists we recognize that our connection with the world forms the core of all art-making processes.”
UMVA took the lead in 2011 when Governor LePage accentuated his campaign to slash workers’ rights with an esthetic sidebar. Because he perceived it as “one-sided décor” and likely to discourage business, he directed the removal from the lobby of the state’s labor department of an 11-panel mural by Judy Taylor showing a workers’ history –men, women and children, picketing, being arrested, and lined up in friendly solidarity. Maine artists united in outrage and protests exploded nationally, sometimes joined by the AFL-CIO. But the mural no longer graces the Labor Department. A court case is pending. The federal government, which had funded the painting, requested reimbursement from the state, but no action was taken because of potential effect on other badly needed programs. Activist art often benefits from such censorship, which brings added attention to its causes. In 2007, an exhibition at the Kennebunk Free Library of Gerald “Bud” Swenson’s Portraits in a Time of War, made from cloth cut from American flags, was abruptly canceled. Then it was rescheduled, opening to far more discussion than it might otherwise have garnered.
Activist art anywhere is usually collaborative, perhaps even more so in Maine, where artists are so dispersed; coming together to plan campaigns or actions or to share individual projects creates a broader, stronger community. At the same time, artists working collectively know that they run the risk of losing their individual “brand names” in the mainstream. Maine, which has claimed more artists per capita than any other state in the union, is primarily rural, with a relatively small population. (Portland, the largest city, is 64,000 and Augusta only 18,560. Artists in Maine are not concentrated in Portland, though it is certainly the art capital, home of a major museum, art school, and art galleries. Coastal Maine has been a mecca for artists from away for well over a century, and many well-known artists regularly summer here. The activists tend to live in small towns, year round, and are fiercely proud of their “regionalism.” As Greta Bank, known for her “dissident décor” (an antique chair upholstered with massacre images) has put it: “Living in Maine is the serious part of my life, not the art.”
A good deal of the art discussed in this essay is defined by its public context – like murals, demonstrations, and especially local Fourth of July parades. Natasha Mayers, who has been on the front lines of Maine art activism for decades and shows no sign of flagging, says her favorite art has been made in her hometown of Whitefield. For at least 20 years the Mayers family and friends (both of her now grown children are activist artists out of state) have made a float for the Whitefield Fourth of July parade about “potentially divisive issues,” including global warming (featuring L.L. Bean winter beach fashions and protests from furloughed snow plowers), clear cutting (featuring a working chipper), the Gulf oil spill, and tax cuts for the wealthy. In 2011 they presented the wedding of the Maiden Maine to Big Business. “We find that humor and creativity disarm people and get them to pay attention,” says Mayers, “like having grown men in diapers trying to lift the national debt, or a gas-guzzling SUV that eats protestors, and life-sized camels dancing through the eye of a 17’ needle.”
A veteran of the Peace Corps in Nigeria, Mayers has worked as a muralist in El Salvador, Nicaragua, and the USSR, as well as all over Maine, supervising over 500 murals since 1975. In 1993-94, she painted utility poles in Whitefield (alone and with students) to tell the town’s history and local life stories. As a teacher and community arts organizer, Mayers has worked with immigrants, refugees, prisoners, the homeless, and the “psychiatrically labeled.” As an advocate for these diverse talents, she combined their works with anonymous pieces by professional artists in a show called “Inside/Outside; Private Art” (1987). When she put together the “House of Real [Central American] Horrors” at the Maine Festival in the 1980s, she persuaded the National Guard to lend her their largest tent. Mayers has ignored esthetic boundaries in and out of her art projects, having shown her modernist paintings in galleries as well as in endless activist contexts such as Women in Black, where she learned that signs with only visual images encourage more dialogue than those with slogans. “State of War” at a Portland gallery brought war home by superimposing military images on “Vacationland” townscapes. “Signs of the Times,” an eccentrically installed painting series in Lewiston, told “our collective story of the past year” with stoplights, arrows and caution signs. This paved the way for her stint as artist in residence for the Internet news site Common Dreams, based in Portland, commenting daily on the news as it happened. In a 2006 convocation speech at the University of Southern Maine Lewiston-Auburn, fellow art activist Rob Shetterly* has said of Mayers that she “has always recognized that the house was on fire, because she has always had the imagination and courage to identify with the disadvantaged and outcast whose world is always in flames.” 
Another major player is In Spite of Life Players, based in Athens, where every Fourth of July, the group presents a political satire performed outdoors at mid-day. The painted sets can be over 50’ long and 10’ high. Printmaker Tamar Ettingen is the set designer and her local crew has ranged in age from 6 to 80. In 2006, the play was part of a successful local effort to block a construction debris incinerator, shown spewing trash and ruining the environment; Lisa Savage played “Senator Susan Snowe” (a combination of Susan Collins and Olympia Snowe, Maine’s two Republican senators). Another collaborative venture was Three Monkeys, formed in 2003 after the invasion of Iraq. The group (Ettingen, Mayers, Abby Shahn, Jim Fangboner, and Paul Lebrun) made a “homey” installation in the window of an abandoned department store in Waterville, complete with hand-stamped thematic wallpaper, on the theme of “domestic insecurity,” pointing out the absurdity of Homeland Security policies. It went on to the New England Biennial.
A real lollapalooza in this genre was “For the Love of Herring: The Sardine Extravaganza” in Belfast, in 2010, in aid of sustainability for the herring fishery; it combined parade, spectacle, music (Belfast Bay Fiddlers, Belfast Drum and Rabble Corps), a juggler, poems, dialogues, photos by Ken Johnson, and a video by Eleanor Goldberg and Karen Saum about women working at the Stinson Sardine Factory. Karen Spitfire attended the July 2010 Herring of the Atlantic Herring Fishery Management Plan dressed as a fishmonger and reading the” Sardine Manifesto.” Attendees signed postcards demanding better monitoring of bycatch by mid-waters trawlers. The Penobscot Marine Museum, Port Clyde Fisherman’s Coop, and other organizations were involved. At the end over 300 people, some carrying silver fish effigies and wearing shimmering fish costumes, paraded past the old sardine factory and sent energy out into the herring in the bay. The Herring Board responded with better regulations.
Any number of Maine artists have espoused environmental causes, though primarily through paintings and photographs of the places they hope to protect. There are exceptions. In the early 1990s, Ron Leax and Peter Woodruff collected prehistoric, historic, ecological, and industrial flotsam from a Georgetown beach and exhibited it anonymously in Portland as a “cornucopia.” Aviva Rahmani, whose Ghost Nets series began with the restoration of a former quarry on the Maine island of Vinalhaven, has worked internationally with scientists on her main focus, climate change, but also on the BP Gulf oil spill. (Given Maine’s economic dependence on clean ocean and inland waters, oil spills even when not taking place at home are all too close to home.) A collective of young artists and activists called Instamatic Polyforce Hayday made a Petrofied installation at a Belfast gallery, centered on a 50’ paper tanker modeled on the largest ship ever built — over a quarter of a mile long, its 4.2 million gallon capacity representing only a fifth of the average daily appetite for oil in the US. “The environment. The economy. Health. Foreign policy. Our oil habit touches it all, and the news isn’t good.”
Although local issues continue to inspire activism, Maine artists’ major target in the last decade has been the two misguided wars being waged in the Middle East, and their ramifications for everyone. One of the most effective art weapons are the Draw-a-thons, or Draw-ins (an attractive pun) organized by Mayers and Kenny Cole of UMVA, several of which took place in 2010-11 in coalition with Code Pink and Peace Action Maine as part of a timely campaign to “Bring Our War Dollars Home.” Artists gathered to visualize “wiser and healthier uses for our tax dollars,” while the public drew or offered ideas to the artists. Draw-a-thons took place In Bath, Portland, and at the State House in Augusta, where four brightly colored “zines” were delivered to each state legislator. The booklets were introduced by artist Robert Shetterly, current chairman of UMVA, stating that “One truth we’ve learned is that we can’t have guns and butter… Maine taxpayers have paid 2.5 billion dollars for the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and lost security abroad, security at home, and faith in their governments.”
The Draw-a-thon’s theme echoed “Warflowers: From Swords to Plowshares” –a 2004-05 exhibition (including a parade – “Fools No More”) organized by Mayers and shown in 12 locations across the state. Artists transformed war and weapons into more beneficent objects, such as the Bath Iron Works (BIW) making swan boats instead of Aegis destroyers. BIW, owned by General Dynamics, turns out a massive number of military vessels under contract to the Navy (it was once the target of a Plowshares action by Philip Berrigan, who poured blood on a guided missile.) BIW has not been a target of Maine’s art activists, (though peace groups hold frequent vigils at launchings); perhaps too many friends and families depend on it as the biggest private employer in the state. Oddly enough the only major artwork about BIW is strictly avant garde rather than activist. Los Angeles artist Sharon Lockhart, whose family is from Maine, spent two years with workers at “the yard” to film “Lunch Break”, ten minutes in a factory corridor stretched out into eighty minutes, with a disjunctive sound track in real time. Stark photographic still lifes of individual lunch boxes, of workers’ entrepreneurial food stands, and a shorter film called “Exit” (workers leaving the yard) were part of the project. When it was completed, and shown at the Colby College Museum in Waterville in 2010 (with “Maine related” objects added to the installation) Lockhart also presented the work at informal community events, gave workers their portraits, and made a newspaper of oral histories from around the state for BIW.
Art at Work (AAW), based in Portland since 2007, is a national initiative directed by performance artist Marty Pottenger that aims to “put creativity to work” in municipal agencies to enhance communication with the public. It builds on groundwork laid by James Bau Graves and Phyllis O’Neill of the now defunct Center for Cultural Exchange. Pottenger created home land security, a performance of testimonies by a diverse collection of Mainers (including the African American female mayor, a Micmac woman, a Sudanese refugee, a French Canadian, a Hispanic woman, and an African American woman who was a 7th -generation Mainer, descendant of a slave). Through a variety of AAW programs, city employees have made artworks, posters, photos, prints and poems that now hang in city parking garages, lunchrooms, recycling centers, police stations, and libraries.
Painter Abby Shahn is often inspired by political events. Although she considers herself more of a witness than an activist in her art, her commitment to community has led her to participate in many of the actions discussed here. “Often I’m just putting my body on the line and adding to the numbers,” she says. “In those cases I could as easily be a plumber and have the same impact.” Yet after the first Gulf War Shahn produced a striking series of paintings of the fires raging in Iraqi oilfields and more recently has made poignant serpentine car magnets of the yellow ribbon syndrome with cautionary slogans added (“Unintended Consequences,” “Big Mess” “Caution: Quagmire Ahead”). In the summer of 2011 she organized “Worlds, Seen and Foreseen”in storefronts in Skowhegan, the former milltown on the Kennebec.
Patricia Wheeler’s mixed media work often combines women’s traditional fabric arts with her longstanding activism around issues of peace and human rights. Empty Dress of 2008 was a memorial to Rachel Corrie, the young activist who was crushed by an Israeli bulldozer while trying to halt the destruction of yet another Palestinian home in Gaza. Her Embedded Quilts from the Iraq war traveled around the state. War Cloths was created as names of the war dead were read in Congressional offices and an X was marked on the cloths for each one. Wheeler also makes artists’ books, street theater, and video projections, lectures to peace studies classes, and started the Maine Urban Projection Project with Richard Paget and others. Portraits of activists and the occupations of Congressional offices were beamed onto buildings in Bangor at night. After their arrests, several of the artists including Wheeler, Shetterly, Maureen Block and Doug Rawlings, performed community service by painting a mural for children called The War Inside Me.
Photographer Olive Pierce, a lifelong Maine resident now in her eighties, has a long history of shooting political events, from Auschwitz in the 1940s, to Iraqi citizens under US economic sanctions in 1999, and Maine citizens demonstrating for and against the war in 2003, connecting local and global communities. She is best known for her documentary images of Maine fishing communities. Martha Piscuskas describes herself as a “rural working mother and maker of social art installations.” Her Dearly Kept exhibition in various sites around the town of Liberty collected residents’ favorite objects and audio recordings about each of them, a project she describes as “a combination of high tech, historical preservation, cultural anthropology and just down-home visiting neighbors.” Piscuskas also worked with Asherah Cinnamon, Stefanie Loeb, and Nina Petrochko at the Maine College of Art to make “Jump: War Collaborative asks Public to Jump In” — public performances where the artists “jump rope while addressing questions around the Iraq war to each other in traditional call and response format.” Viewers turned the rope, jumped rope, asked questions, or watched. The physical act of jumping was intended to counteract “the lethargy of powerlessness that people often feel in the face of war and large social issues.”
Most artists would agree that art can’t change the world alone, but that it is a unique means of raising awareness of what’s going down in the world around us. The art activist’s real challenge in the U.S. was neatly put by South African poet Breyton Breytenbach: “Americans have mastered the art of living with the unacceptable.” Similarly Arthur Miller: “… the job of the artist is to remind people of what they have chosen to forget.” Rob Shetterly, who moved to Brooksville, Maine in 1970 after graduation from Harvard, has taken this to heart. An eloquent speaker and writer, he is best known for his ongoing series of straightforward painted portraits of Americans Who Tell the Truth, ranging from Frederick Douglass and John Muir to Margaret Chase Smith and Rachel Carson to Jim Hightower and fellow activist Natasha Mayers. Disarmingly unpretentious, set against plain-colored backgrounds, and accompanied by inspirational quotations, they are deliberately “positive.” Shetterly’s original plan was to paint fifty portraits, but the project expanded as he learned about more and more Americans who told and tell the truth: His images appeal across the board to those who care about art (and don’t) and those who can take these role models to their heart (and even, perhaps, some who can’t). Distributed through national exhibitions (at venues ranging from Saint John the Divine to city halls) and reproductions, notecards, posters, lectures and school visits, the portraits are not for sale, and will eventually be donated as a group. Of his visionary subjects, Shetterly urges that “we must embrace their lives and spirits if we would have life and spirit…These people form the well from which we must draw our future.”
In 2010, Brian Reeves (aka Slop Art) made “Special Dispensation” cards for any artist at the Draw-a-thon who wanted to be a “non-apathetic expression supplier.” “YOU ARE HEREBY EXEMPT,” the card proclaims, “from any perceived obligation due to Peer group Think or Hypnotic Suggestion to keep your art apolitical (It’s true that you’ll alienate potential audiences, but so does paying to make bombs and drop them on people….”) Reeves makes clear the absurdity of stating that it is impossible to make important art if there is a message. “Good art” can be made of flowers, nudes, and the kitchen sink, so long as it bears no reference to war, poverty, bigotry, corruption, and so forth. He says he is working to escape from just that “detachment for which I was trained,” moving toward “raising awareness,” which he does with gusto. His raucous style is a refreshing jolt to conventional sloganeering. For example, Verbal Defecation Retaliation Enabler — a porous tissue toilet bowl cover with Rush Limbaugh’s portrait –is offered as “purgative therapy” for what the rightwing talk show host has been feeding us. Reeves has dealt with a number of issues, including contrail pollution, airport body scanners, and proposals to privatize military drone testing at the former Brunswick Naval Air Station.
Kenny Cole also tackles many of today’s most burning issues with image/text diatribes. His monthly books of drawings – non-narrative graphics about current events—offer unpopular information ignored by the media, proffered in an energetic style that lies somewhere between concrete poetry and so-called “outsider art,” or Robert Crumb and late Philip Guston. Recurrent among his ebulliently apocalyptic images is one of several rubbery, striped Uncle Sam-like arms reaching in from the margins, grabbing money, gesticulating, stretching, with texts including ludicrous quotes from US presidents. The Hellfire Story involved an installation of biblical texts on protruding book forms, the reverse sides listing drone attacks and the number of civilians killed. Lasantha Wickramatunge’s Letter from the Grave Drawings refers to an assassinated Sri Lankan journalist who wrote a letter to be published at his death implicating the government in his murder. Message in a Bottle, in collaboration with poet Karen Spitfire, was a plastic barrel filled with plastic bottles, each containing a booklet commemorating women soldiers, girls, and female infants who died in Afghanistan. In 2007 they made Operation 21 Prayer Salute, critiquing the role of religion in war and politics since 911. A Portland show of Cole’s gouaches in November 2011 – “Darfur at Our Doorstep”—explores why the U.S.’s largest community of refugees from Darfur landed in Maine. Cole’s “overarching theory” is that the military industrial complex touches on all parts of our lives. Like most of these artists, he exhibits at local libraries, schools, and community centers.
Finally, the Beehive Collective, based since 2000 in the century-old Machias Valley Grange in Washington County, has worked all over the western hemisphere. Its mission: “To cross-pollinate the grassroots by creating collaborative, anti-copyright images that can be used as educational and organizing tools.” Their stunningly intricate black and white posters – diametric opposites of the more commonly plainspoken polemics — are based on stories and facts, investigative travel, community dialogues, and interviews. The artists in the Hive are anonymous; there is no queen; a core of perhaps fourteen artists, some part-time “bees,” plus “many other autonomous pollinators scattered throughout the Americas.” It operates by consensus. No one gets paid, but room and board are covered during projects. Despite the posters’ distinctive graphic style, they are collectively executed. “Sometimes our illustrators can only stay for a night and then they’re gone, leaving behind a starry sky or cluster of trees.” Some 75,000 posters have been distributed through grassroots groups. Beehive gives “narrative picture lectures,” participates in demonstrations, does free events at local schools or parks. Among the projects that have kept the bees so busy: Mountaintop Removal: The True Costs of Coal, and Dismantling Monoculture: ants and economies in the Americas.
And Maine art activism doesn’t stop there. We should mention Carolyn Coe, a non-artist who founded “Art Activism, “ “A Company of Girls” in Portland, founded by Odelle Bowman, and Spiral Arts, also in Portland, a community arts organization modeled on liberation movements from the Third World that has become a model for organizations around the country. Portland Paste is a new young group –“an anonymous collective of artists, activists and troublemakers, nonviolently fighting a war of ideas in your head and on your walls”– dedicated to guerrilla wheatpasting of posters in Portland and disseminating them on the Internet. And coming up as we write: the first Maine Grassroots Media Conference at Unity College, co- sponsored by Beehive, Code Pink Maine, and WERU Community Radio. Maine activism is here, it’s not going away, and the next generation is making itself heard.
“The opposite for courage is not cowardice, it is conformity. Even a dead fish can go with the flow.” — Jim Hightower
 Lippard did most of the writing, Mayers did most of the research, and we take equal responsibility for the outcome.