In a bleak, empty American Legion hall on the edge of downtown Waterville, an unseen rock band is rehearsing. It is a rather uninspiring space, but printmaker Elizabeth Jabar and photographer Sean Alonzo Harris are busy setting up their studios here. Two of the most socially engaged artists in the state, the couple are part of the resurgence of life in the depressed downtown.
For Jabar, the move to Waterville means leaving behind the Portland art community where she has been an active member of the Peregrine Press print cooperative, chair of the Maine College of Art printmaking department and creator of MECA’s public engagement minor, “a four-year curricular pathway that integrates art, real world problems and community partners into its teaching curriculum.”
But taking a new appointment as director of civic engagement and community partnerships at Colby College is also a homecoming for Jabar, who grew up in a prominent local family in Waterville’s Lebanese community.
For her husband Sean Harris, the move to Waterville means exploring a new city and leaving behind both the Portland art scene and Portland’s African-American community, of which he has been one of its most important image makers.
Elizabeth Jabar did not experience the town-gown separation that has long existed between downtown Waterville on the Kennebec River and Colby College up on Mayflower Hill. Several members of her family are Colby alumni, and she and her sisters saw the campus, especially the Colby College Museum of Art, as a childhood playground. That makes Jabar an ideal person to pioneer a civic engagement initiative between the college and the city.
“Sean and I,” she explains, “are living in Alfond Commons on Main St. with 196 students who have chosen to live downtown and pursue civic engagement.”
At MECA, most of the public engagement projects used art as a way to explore issues of racism, social justice and identity, but civic engagement at Colby will be less art-centric.
“Artists bring different ways of looking at a problem that is a benefit in civic engagement work,” says Jabar, “but the vision is to make civic engagement integrated into all spheres of academic life at Colby.”
On the job only since August 2018, Jabar has been spending much of her time at Colby listening. She has also been trying to carve out time to do her own art.
“I have two stances as an artist,” she says. “One is a contemplative stance in the studio. The other is a more public, activist stance. Now I don’t make that many distinctions between the aspects of my practice.
The focus of her own art making in recent years has been the Future Mothers (futuremothers.org) collaborative with Portland artist Colleen Kinsella. Future Mothers is about “using art as a form of being in community, being together and making art.”
The first Future Mothers project in 2014 took the form of a Bedouin tent at MECA’s Institute for Contemporary Art. The tent, which has subsequently been used in other Future Mothers events, is lavishly decorated with printed imagery on fabric panels.
Jabar seized upon an image of a Bedouin woman, the Bedouins being nomadic people throughout the Middle East and North Africa, and has used it repeatedly as a kind of talisman, surrounding and embellishing it with symbolic imagery like sacred plants, belts and sashes, textile patterns, and paper dyed blood red or heavenly blue. Waterville’s Lebanese community is historically Maronite Catholic, so those colors can be read as early Christian referents as Jabar reconnects with her childhood faith.
The tent is a work of art unto itself, but it has also been used as a space for communal art making and dialogue. In common with many contemporary artists, Jabar has become less object-oriented in her art practice.
“I do find myself drifting farther and farther away from being a gallery artist,” Jabar says. “There are just so many issues in the world that need our attention. I am making visual art now with no show in mind. It’s very liberating to make art without all that chatter.”
Sean Alonzo Harris is well known for portrait series of groups ranging from vintage baseball teams and the last Shakers to people of color in Maine. His elegant photographs of African immigrant youths playing basketball on the outdoor courts of Portland’s Kennedy Park public housing project were featured both in the 2018 Portland Museum of Art Biennial and in one of the last exhibitions at PhoPa Gallery, the Portland photography and works on paper gallery that closed in September 2018 after five years and 50 shows.
Entitled Voices in Our Midst, Harris’s hoop photographs came about serendipitously while he was working on another photo project. In 2017, Harris received a Kindling Fund grant from the Andy Warhol Foundation for the Visual Arts Regional Regranting Network, administered by Portland’s Space Gallery, in order to create Visual Tensions, a series of portraits of people of color paired with Portland Police Department officers.
Harris had begun to lay the groundwork for the Visual Tensions portraits when a controversy surrounding arrests at a Black Lives Matter protest in Portland led local law enforcement officers to have second thoughts about participating. In hopes of reconnecting with police, Harris attended the National Night Out events in Portland’s East Bayside neighborhood. When he was unable to make progress on the Visual Tensions front, he wandered over to the basketball courts where he began the Voices in Our Midst basketball photo series instead.
When several of his basketball street portraits were selected for the PMA Biennial, Harris chanced to meet a gentleman at the exhibition opening who put him in touch with Portland Police Chief Michael Sauschuck.
“He just made it happen,” says Harris of Sauschuck, now Maine’s Commissioner of Public Safety.
Sauschuck sat for a portrait himself and arranged for other PPD officers to participate. The police officers were a bit suspicious of the title Visual Tensions, however, and were not comfortable posing with people of color, so Harris photographed nine police officers and nine community members and then combined them in nine large-format photographs which will be exhibited at MECA’s Institute of Contemporary Art, April 5 to April 26.
“That’s the state where we are now,” says Harris of his inability to get Portland police and people of color together. “The whole point of what I’m doing is that we can’t communicate in a way that is comfortable.”
While Harris says that as a black man he well understood the discomfort people of color have with police officers, what his Visual Tensions project, which also includes taped interviews with all 18 participants, taught him was greater empathy for the police.
“Every day when they go out, it could be their last,” says Harris. “There’s a wall they have to put up between themselves and the community. These people are incredibly stressed. There is a lot of trauma in what they do.”
“How healing that could be,” observes Elizabeth Jabar, “for others to have the opportunity Sean had to be in an extended dialogue with police officers.”
“A lot of people of color were angry at the time,” says Harris of the Black Lives Matter protests, “but it’s not healthy. When you’re angry, you’re not learning. You’re not moving forward.”
Seeking to use his art to make a positive difference, Harris has now embarked on a project he calls I Am Not a Stranger. Inspired by Irving Penn’s 1948 Corner Portraits in which Penn photographed celebrities wedged into an acute corner, Harris’s I Am Not a Stranger portraits are designed to introduce the new Waterville to the old Waterville. One wall of the American Legion hall studio is lined with four wooden wall segments Harris built to create the sharp corner where he will ask a diverse selection of Waterville people to pose.
Sean Alonzo Harris and Elizabeth Jabar share a love of community that inspires them to use their arts to explore the ties of humanity, ethnicity and geography that bind people together. In Waterville, they are in the early stages of searching for the artistic, academic and ethnic community to which they now belong. No doubt if they don’t find it, they will help create it.
Featured image above top: Elizabeth Jabar, Sanctuary