Introduction to the Winter Issue 2020
Welcome to the Winter issue of the Maine Arts Journal: UMVA Quarterly. This issue is weighty with Maine art history. We are featuring the noteworthy story of the iconoclastic Concept, a school of visual arts in Portland, 50 years after its founding, with essays by some of its notable alumni and interviews (compiled by Don Voisine and Maury Colton). Also a wide-ranging, thoughtful essay on the roots of modernism in Maine by William David Barry, and an insightful and comprehensive essay by Edgar Allen Beem on figurative art in Maine.
After these historical essays, you will encounter the issue’s theme: What do you think is the role of the POLITICAL in your art? We asked our featured artists, Peter Buotte, Michel Droge, Al Farrow, Whitetrashcoon, and UMVA members to share their ideas about how political concerns play a role in the art they produce and how they present it to the world. Eloquent essays by Alan Magee, Robert Shetterly, and Chris Hedges also address the theme.
This issue’s theme highlights the work of those who make political issues and awareness a large part of their life and art, who have the willingness to shine a light on injustice in its many forms, the willingness to take it on, using their talents and energies to keep difficult and troubling issues in the public eye.
We hope you will be inspired by the art and essays in this thought-provoking issue.
We asked artists to reflect on the role and impact of politics on their work—whether their practice is shaped by political concerns, intended as a call to action, or, on the contrary, represents an escape from present day’s dire realities. In this last case, even when art is an escape, it can still contain a political message, albeit not an overt one. Let’s also keep in mind that a political meaning can be applied to art despite the artists’ intent—we only need think how Abstract Expressionism became, in the words of Matthew Gale, “exemplary of Western freedom of individual expression—a cultural weapon in the Cold War.”
The fact remains, as the enthusiastic response to our call for submissions for this issue makes clear, artists in Maine are profoundly concerned about politics. It might not have been the case in the first decades surveyed by William David Barry in his essay on “The Roots of the Modern: Maine Arts Scenes, 1945–1979,” but later, an important contribution to the shaping of the Maine artistic landscape was the important contingent of “back-to-the-landers,” who left cities, moved by political and counter-cultural ideals. The same holds true for the ideals behind the creation fifty years ago of Concept, a school of visual arts. We are pleased to have its history recounted here. Similarly, Edgar Allen Beem, in his survey of “Contemporary Figurative Art in Maine” includes Carlo Pittore, “a supremely social painter” (and UMVA founder), as well as artists for whom a political message is at the core of their work, such as Robert Shetterly, Natasha Mayers, and Lesia Sochor. We might go as far as to consider that Beem’s narrative of the choice to paint the figure in the face of the modernist doctrine of abstraction is a political act in itself—at least, within the art world: a statement of freedom from the dictates of an artistic orthodoxy.
Robert Shetterly contributes a piece in which he considers the motivations for his Americans Who Tell the Truth project. For Shetterly, “the art is the activism.” We learn about the “investment of critical and loving energy” that art-making represents and what it means to paint a portrait, how creating the likenesses of these “Truth tellers” brought solace in troubled times, the portraits creating for him “a community of trust.” We are struck by the almost-religious nature of these portraits that invites the viewer to spend a moment of contemplation. An efficacious and honest tool of communication, they are also a means of reflection that starts with himself. Shetterly talks about what the project has taught him, how it has made him think and make connections, indeed understand the intersectionality of the issues at stake, while also reflect about himself and take responsibility for his privilege. Shetterly and Americans Who Tell the Truth is the object of a new film in the Maine Masters series. Richard Kane reports on its progress (and seizes the opportunity to issue a call for support).
The contributors to this issue demonstrate that conveying a political message can take a myriad of forms, not only in terms of medium and style or content, but they also adopt various modes in expressing their ideas, and of course aim at fulfilling different political functions. For Alan Magee, art equals social criticism, and Magee invokes all kinds of influences—from visual artists such as Goya and Kollwitz, filmmakers such as Murnau, playwrights such as Brecht, songwriters such as Guthrie, street artists like Banksy—all working in troubled times, whether the French occupation of Spain, the Weimar Republic, the Vietnam war, or today.
Answering the questions MAJ asked its contributors, Al Farrow explains that he sees his art as social commentary meant to make the viewer think. Farrow does not care about the direction this reflection might take for he does not try to hammer a specific, personal message. Although he establishes an interesting difference between political art and propaganda, his motivation is fundamentally a moral one. His works explore the disturbing connection between religion and violence, appropriating weapons to build devotional objects and models of places of worship. Alan Magee recounts his own reaction upon discovering Farrow’s assemblages, trenchantly characterizing the “inescapable double-take” and “visceral jolt” they provoke. Magee was instrumental in facilitating a show of Farrow’s works at Forum Gallery in New York City, and we present excerpts from the essay Chris Hedges wrote for the catalogue.
Featured artist Michel Droge uses her art to “reflect back to the world what it is and what it can become,” an act she believes is fundamentally political. In her work on the opioid crisis, she shows how making art opens up a space of dialogue, one that brings awareness, builds community, and provides support. Droge discusses several other projects that deal with the environment and are the result of collaboration: with a naturalist, an archaeologist, small farmers, students at the University of Maine at Farmington, and the Maine Huts & Trails. In the course she’ll be teaching at UMF next semester, students will “learn how the arts can be used to support an activist and community concern.”
Peter Buotte, another artist featured in this issue, responds to the questions MAJ posed and reflects upon the role of the political in his work as artist, art teacher, and art therapist, in particular his work with active duty service members suffering from PTSD. First an escape from difficult family circumstances, his own art-making evolved into, as he puts it, “full-on engagement.” For him, the intersection of art with the political is one rooted in his personal experience in the military and the belief that his work as art therapist represents a political act—an “invisible activism” able to effect profound change.
Carl Little discusses Avy Claire’s environmentally-conscious work. A New York transplant (she moved to Maine full-time in the 1980s), Claire expresses her environmental convictions—and indeed, worries—not only through museum installations but also through outdoor art projects and through teaching.
Kenny Cole interviewed New York City performance artist Whitetrashcoon, who compares herself to the French Revolutions’s guillotine and to a “cultural canary,” reacting to “what is wrong with society.” The artist evokes the “holy healing chaos of nature” and reveals how the violence inherent in her work is aimed at the “emotional-intellectual foundation upon which this inhuman system of thought and social order rests”. She seeks to dismantle power structures and inequality (whether they affect race, gender, social class, etc.).
One might wonder if art activism can be taught. Reporting from Colby College, Véronique Plesch visited a new course on Art Activism. She had the occasion to spend time chatting with several of the students, who, in a heartwarming take-away, expressed their belief that there can be no activism without art.
In our Focus On article, David Greenham writes about his work at the Holocaust and Human Rights Center of Maine, about the multi-faceted nature of their approach to encouraging visitors to reflect and act and “to confront prejudice, intolerance and discrimination.” To get this message across, the exhibitions and programming might at times act as “soap box or cultural canary,” adopt a satirical mode, or combine “a little of everything.”
In our Insight/Incite feature, we hear from Cheryl Novins and Michele Benoit, whose work focuses on raising awareness about ecological issues. As conservation photographers, they address “the destructive forces right below the surface of the grandeur of our surroundings.” In their work as educators, they hope to see a “sense of environmental justice” emerge in their classes.
In our poetry section, Jeri Theriault contributes two poems that are concerned about the status and lives of women. The poem by musician and composer Phil Carlsen addresses privilege, while Betsy Sholl goes back to the ancient story of the Cumaean Sibyl, in which she sees an example of resistance to authority.
In our Members’ Showcase, six UMVA members share their art and thoughts on the role of the political in their art.
Lin Lisberger believes that in “this divided and angry time,” we all feel somehow victimized. Her series of wooden sculptures directly engage the viewer and ask the question Who’s the Victim?—a question Lisberger hopes will constitute an encouragement “to find common ground.”
In the mixed-media works by Cynthia Motian McGuirl, past and present, the personal (the family trauma of the Armenian genocide) and the political, converge to open up a space for a conversation addressing issues of human rights and of the place of women in society.
The formal choice of close-up views for Laura Waller’s portraits is a meaningful one. Waller celebrates women, whom she imparts with heroic dimensions: her women burst out of the frame, which represents constricting “outdated rules and standards.”
Jean Noon contributed two ARRT! banners, a sculpture, and a painting—two facets of her activity: one political and one more private and personal, a means, as she explains, to reflect upon certain issues.
Lesley MacVane’s Endangered Species pays homage to the young people who are speaking up about climate change.
Leslie Woods acknowledges that her intent is political—a “nudge toward change”—but she explains that she prefers to depict role models, focusing on positive and inspiring examples drawn from the sports world rather than dwelling on negative images.
Exploring the UMVA Newsletter archives, Tony and Pat Owen found examples that show how difficult it is to determine whether art is political or not. They recount a couple of instances in which artists openly disagreed concerning the role of art—on whether it should be political or not, or even whether a political meaning can be assigned to a work or not—despite its maker’s intentions.
The Union of Maine Visual Artists declares in its mission statement that it will “uphold the dignity of artists.” More than just a moral issue, the way it is phrased indicates a profoundly political concern. The very aim to free art from the pressures of commerce and to facilitate artistic expression is a political choice, one that not only affirms the importance of art and artists for society but is also intended to advocate for artists. In his appeal to join the UMVA, president William Hessian remembers the first time he came across the Union at an event held on Veterans Day, which combined art and activism. Hessian gives a heartening account of all that has been accomplished by the UMVA, and, in particular the activities of ARRT!, the Artists Rapid Response Team (see the images included in this issue) and of LumenARRT!, which truly embody the spirit of activism.
Read and enjoy! We hope you will be inspired by the art and essays in this issue. Don’t forget to check out the Archives of past issues. PLEASE forward the journal far and wide, send us feedback, check out the theme for the Spring issue (Macro/Micro), and submit your work. We hope you will consider joining the Union of Maine Visual Artists.
From the editors,
Natasha Mayers, Nora Tryon, Kathy Weinberg, Véronique Plesch, and Betsy Sholl (poetry editor)
With this issue, Véronique Plesch joins our editorial board. Véronique Plesch is Professor of Art History at Colby College. Born in Argentina and raised in Switzerland, she holds advanced degrees from the University of Geneva in Art History and Medieval French Literature and from Princeton University, where she received her PhD in Art History in 1994, the year she joined Colby faculty. She is the author and editor of several books and has published over 50 articles in English, French, Italian, and Spanish, on subjects ranging from Passion iconography to art in the Duchy of Savoy, from Passion plays to early modern graffiti, and from artist books to contemporary art—many of them with a focus on word and image studies (Plesch served three terms as President of the International Association of Word and Image Studies, from 2008 to 2017, and is one of the senior editors of Brill’s series Word & Image Interactions). She has also curated several exhibitions.
In other news, Colby College president David Greene recently granted Véronique the funds to hire a student research assistant/intern to work under her supervision to help with MAJ (in his enthusiastic response, Greene declared this to be “a great opportunity”). We wish to thank president Greene for his generous support of our journal.
Image at top: MAJ cover Winter 2020; Political. Cover image: Seaver Leslie, War in the Middle Ages: The Poetess, oil on linen, 44 x 48 in., 2008–2018