How many reading this article came to Mid-coast Maine in the 1970s as part of the “Back to the Land” migration? How many are the children of those travelers? Or young artists today looking for inspiration and guidance from the past?
In the 1970s, Richard Norton and Denise Remy, Randy Fein, Dennis and Megan Pinette, Lesia Sochor, and so many other artists and visionaries descended on Waldo County, called by a simpler life, cheap land, a place to farm and raise their children. It became a movement that no one had envisioned, and its impact continues to this day.
According to Sochor, Waldo County
was an artistic wasteland. Conversations and ideas began fermenting around the concept of creating a space for exhibiting and gathering, and hence the birth of ArtFellows. I was one of the early co-founders and in 1980, along with Richard Norton, Michael and David Hurley, Marika Kuzma, Margot Balboni, and Michael Reece, we put together the very first exhibit: ARTFELLOWS at the ODD FELLOWS. It was a marvelous show. It served as an expression of the pioneer spirit so prominent and heartfelt in those days.
The space became a hub of creativity and fun, and in its heyday, a respected venue for contemporary art. It had over 50 members, and included many known guest artists, such as Alex Katz, Yvonne Jacquette, Neil Welliver, Rudy Burckhardt, and others. It was truly a catalyst for Belfast’s creative community, which exists to this day, and which I can happily say I am still a part of.
The ArtFellows cooperative was a place where photographer Liv Kristin Robinson, who moved to Belfast from New York City in the spring of 1986, and others could “learn from other artists, exhibit new work while developing (their) skills and eventually show in commercial galleries and museums . . . [then] when Richard decided it was time to close and disband this artist cooperative, a small group of newer members (including Randy Fein, Lucy Carver, Lois Anne, and Liv), took over the administration of the organization and space. [They] still saw the need for local artists to get together, share their work and continue to build creative community.” Robinson had been attracted by the architecture, sense of community and creativity in the air, and that spirit lives on today throughout Waldo County and across the state of Maine.
Sochor was driving in her car one day in 2019, when it occurred to her that in 2020, forty years had passed since the founding of ArtFellows. An idea began to ferment. She proposed to Waterfall Arts that “we honor this historic moment by having an exhibit of as many members as we could gather to celebrate and remember this extraordinary time in Belfast.”
Because of COVID, the show was put off a year and was exhibited this past summer at Waterfall, the Community Art Center in Belfast, by co-curators Sochor, Robinson, and Lorna Crichton. It presented works by forty-five of the ArtFellows artists.
Memories abounded, but so did thoughts about today—today’s youthful artists, today’s culture—and tomorrow’s opportunities and challenges. As the show closed in early November, we realized that this moment needed to be captured, so we reached out to the artists to share their thoughts.
We asked the ArtFellows artists two questions and found their responses not only full of memories, but full of inspiration. One thing we learned is that those days created the lasting friendships that only youth provides us—and the memories to go along with those friendships. These were formative years for so many artists, and as those men and women have evolved as artists, as parents and grandparents, as contributing members of our society, the heady days of ArtFellows have continued to inform them.
So—here are the questions and the answers, in the artists’ words:
Is there one thing you learned from your early ArtFellows experience that still applies today? How does it still resonate in your life?
Alison Rector: Artists working together with other artists strengthens all of us. Visual thinkers are creative in all aspects of life—a shared superpower.
Mike Hurley: Helping to start and continue ArtFellows was a part of my expanding view and entrée into community organizing. It helped build a foundation of success and led, in so many ways, to similar and dissimilar events and endeavors, but all had cooperative community-shared experiences at the center. And still do today.
Lesia Sochor: The creative spirit cannot be deflated. Individuals with vision and vigor have the unique ability to inspire and lift the imaginative and collective energy in a community.
Sandy Olson: What I loved about ArtFellows [was] community and a sense of collective purpose. . . . So many artists with different and unique sensibilities were bonded by their desire to show their art . . . to share and explore that experience together. One’s art-making…is such a lone undertaking and showing the resulting art to others is an act of courage. . . . I miss that connected feeling.
David Hurley: I remember . . . how the notion of a gallery just arose so naturally . . . I think how it applies now is to recognize how new moments arise in my life regarding creativity and how to work and have fun at the same time. There are many small tasks . . . which require lots of attention but I’m seeing how the creation of art can also be a part of the practical way I make a living in the world.
Mat O’Donnell: Making a painting requires an impetus to know . . . not necessarily to know truth, but to visually realize ideas that definitely cannot be mentally pictured.
Lorna Crichton: I learned that creativity is fun and healing and how important it is to keep creating.
Randy Fein: The big overall “thing” I learned from my ArtFellows experience, . . . is “Taking Artistic Risks.” Members [often] had the opportunity to show new work, [which] would be reviewed and viewed by [our] peers and the public.
The thing I learned . . . was how to withstand the emotional roller coaster ride of the artist. And keep taking those artistic risks. The artist must learn to persevere. It’s not all wine and roses. You make the work, you put it out there and let the bullets fly and hope they don’t wound your heart or creative soul. And the next day . . . you’re at it again . . . back in the studio.
Is there one specific memory of those days that the show brought to mind?
Alison Rector: My painting Self Portrait with Lucy Carver recalls hours Lucy and I spent in her studio painting together. Many ArtFellows colleagues shared time making work together in addition to running and staffing the gallery as a cooperative.
Mike Hurley: We were all so young. Even the ones we thought of as old, in retrospect, were not as old as we are today! I loved the wide and wild cast of artists and supporting characters and their collective creative fires burned bright.
Lesia Sochor: It was a new frontier of possibilities and ingenuity. Forty-one years is a long time. Youth may be gone, but we can open up new frontiers at any given moment.
Stew Henderson: Being part of the ArtFellows in the early 80s was an exciting time for us young artists new to the Belfast area. There was a sense of freedom to explore whatever you wanted to do. There were frustrating meetings, but things always worked out in the end. Some of our exhibitions could be provocative and were the brunt of nasty criticism in the local paper. All part of growing as an artist and I was fortunate to be part of it.
Janelle Delicata: A funny memory: at one of our openings, Bern Porter banging on the door, demanding entrance before we opened, so he could come in and chow down before anyone else got there! Bern wasn’t an ArtFellow but he was definitely a part of the Belfast scene for many years!
Mat O’Donnell: Richard Norton and Denise Remy were great accomplices in the Art-Making processes that took place in my eleven years living in the Belfast area . . . they were, in essence, my second family, my confessionals, cheerleaders, and beloved Art Spirits.
Lorna Crichton: At an ArtFellows opening, someone said that the Gang of Forty was in attendance. This was a reference to the Chinese Gang of Four that was in the news at the time, and I liked feeling an international connection.
Squidge Liljeblad Davis summed up Artfellows—and the Waterfall Arts exhibit—eloquently:
ArtFellows gathered and formed at a time of great social and artistic consciousness in Belfast. Cooperatives were created naturally with generous individual effort and fun. Artfellows was a shining example of this enormous energy and talent, with gallery space upstairs in the Odd Fellows building; the very steep steps not deterring anyone in the carrying up of work or gathering for the openings. What I remember most is how young and enthusiastic and positive everyone was; how hugely productive in our, often funky, individual studios spread throughout the county. That same lively consciousness and responsibility still resonates and drives my work. The opening was a rather mystical experience, with everyone both old and young at the same time. The brilliant hanging by the curators gave that same double delight to the work; past and present.
Dennis Pinette added these concluding thoughts about the era of ArtFellows:
When Megan and I moved to Belfast in 1983, it was raw in many ways. Within weeks we met Richard Norton. From there, a great friendship grew. Richard was a gateway, a compulsive introducer who took great delight in making connections for others beyond himself. It is impossible to understand the birth of Artfellows without acknowledging Richard. He knew Everyone! His death at 41 resonates forever in the hearts and minds of all who knew him. The ArtFellows gang was unaffected by commercial success (too young for that). We ran on pure young self-confidence, and we recognized in each other an authenticity, an innocence. There was never a hierarchy of superiority among the members. We shared the responsibilities (taking out the trash, bringing beer to the openings, etc.). When Bruce Brown and Edgar Beem took notice, we were thrilled. How interesting it was back then to live the “stigma” of living in Belfast. How fantastic! I was stunned at the breadth and scope of the Waterfall exhibit.
Alan Crichton, Founder, Waterfall Arts
Gianne Conard FAIA, Board Member, Waterfall Arts
Image at top: Mike Hurley, ArtFellows, wood, letters, paint, 8 x 17 in., 2021.