Since 2015 on the last Saturday in October, UMF students, artists, and performers take over the unloved alleys (and sometimes the splendid woods) of Farmington for the Water Bear Confabulum. Students in drawing classes create a huge mural on the wall of the Homestead Restaurant, students in the CRAPP (Creative Relationship of Art and the Personal Politic) class parade their wearable manifestos, UMF Art Gallery interns help kids wheatpaste an alley wall, and the Art and Environment class works with guest artists to install work. Arts administration and sound-art students activate the alleys with all kinds of sound and performance. The annual Water Bear Confabulum alternative arts festival is the most recent of a series of projects to bring contemporary art to this rural region and to build a dialogue between traditional and new art.
UMF’s art program focuses on conceptual, socially engaged artwork. As a liberal arts college, all our art classes, except the capstone semesters of senior thesis and senior exhibition, are open to students of all majors. While we have a contemporary art program and a contemporary art gallery on campus, the university itself is nestled in the foothills of a region known for its history of landscape painting and fine craftsmanship and a community that celebrates traditional values in the arts.
One of the inspirations for the Confabulum was an ambitious project of UMF alum Sarah Bouchard (Art 2003). As an undergraduate gallery intern she won a large grant from the Western Maine Mountains Association to rehabilitate an empty building on Church Street and set up a gallery and workspaces for community artists, students, and art faculty. The NOW Gallery and Studios ran for two splendid years (until the building was sold) and created a dynamic and supportive social environment that hosted some crazy-wonderful exhibitions juxtaposing traditional and contemporary art. Most memorable were painter/art-teacher Joyce Dubay’s soulful farm-animal portraits shown together with an art student’s uncanny collection of local roadkill victims suspended in huge canning jars. Later, UMF’s Media and Materials class filled the entire gallery space with installations of fibers that defied their traditional uses. The NOW Gallery was the first project to bring together the contemporary arts and local arts community.
The Confabulum celebrates diverse artistic voices, including the traditional. The gathering invites the re-imaginings of everyday places in Farmington in surprising ways through art and performance. By subverting traditional functions and expectations of familiar places and by artistically invading overlooked spaces, artmakers and community members bring fresh attention to the physical and social fabric of our town.
Students chose the Water Bear (tardigrade) to represent the lively and resilient community of rural Western Maine. The Water Bear is enduring and tenacious—it adapts to extreme environments, even to the extreme farscape of outer space. Confabulum conflates two meanings of confabulation–to engage in conversation, and the brain’s compulsion to create fictions to fill gaps in memory.
Image at top of page: Drawing students work on a mural on the alley wall of the Homestead Restaurant