When Susan Groce studied printmaking in the mid-70s, printmaking materials were basically the same as in Rembrandt’s time, nitric acid and all. In 1979, when she came to teach at the University of Maine and found no ventilation in the print studio, she realized that something had to change. The first step was to manage the toxicity, and Groce took critical steps to improve safety by introducing both ventilation and less toxic materials. Since then, knowledge about hazardous materials has increased, and environmental concerns have moved beyond the safety of artists into the realm of the broader community and the real impacts climate change has on our planet. Now, forty years later, Groce is still an advocate for safer materials and ecological conditions throughout the world; artists across Midcoast Maine are working at the intersection of art and the environment, finding ways to balance their artistic visions with a concern for the disturbing changes taking place.

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Susan Groce, Invasive Species, 216 photopolymer etchings (photo credit: Royal Botanic Garden of Edinburgh).

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Susan Groce, Invasive Species, 216 photopolymer etchings (photo credit: Royal Botanic Garden of Edinburgh).

Living so close to the limits of our visual perception, change–even great change–becomes invisible in the here and now. It is often only by reaching beyond what is immediately appreciable to the eye that the effects of change come into focus. This installation of photopolymer etchings, based on macroscopic views from above (hurricanes and cold war military airfields) juxtaposed with electron microscope images (leaf surfaces and seed pods), the view from within, explores how natural and human worlds intersect through the simultaneous constructive and destructive forces of nature and human endeavor. Seed pods are genetic warehouses of nature, lifted and carried in the wind to new environments, the DNA of new life but often at the cost of mutating homeostatic species. Similarly, military airfields are the macro genetic warehouses of human endeavor aimed towards the cost of war, the ultimate invasive act. Hurricanes, great climatic mixers of wind, water, driven by ever globally warmer ocean currents are increasing in numbers and volatility, simultaneously bringing destruction and new life to the environments they traverse.

How are artists in Maine—and organizations that support them—reacting to the environmental disruptions we see around us? How does the imbalance we are witnessing daily impact their work, their process, their materials? How does it affect the balance of the analytic self with the intuitive self? Does it foster creativity or create paralysis? Answers to those questions are as diverse as the artists themselves. There is no one universally “right response” for an artist, and reactions range from processes that inform but are not visible in their work, to clearly political pieces about endangered species, to the stress these issues bring to infuse or upset the artist’s energy flow. This article will show the diversity and intensity of those responses through the stories of two groups, and two artists, in Mid Coast Maine.

An Artists’ Gathering: Mid Coast Salon

For two sessions this winter, the Mid Coast Salon (many of whose work has been seen in this publication) discussed these very issues. With ten to twelve artists on Zoom each time, they shared their concerns and approaches. Kris Engman spoke of the efforts in her studio to avoid toxic materials and find alternatives, sometimes compromising to maintain the color palette that is part of her work (using barium instead of cadmium, for instance). It was thanks to Engman that Groce participated and described her experiences in Orono as well as the UK and Australia. Groce spoke about the conflict between what her art is about and how it is made—constantly striving to find new, clean ways to create her large-scale prints and installations without compromising the quality and character of her work. A balancing act, to be sure, that is not unique to Groce.

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David Estey, Hell, No! (Politics), acrylic on canvas, 50 x 60 in., 2015. A rare blend of Estey’s passions for improvisational abstraction and politics.

Several artists felt the greatest impact had to do with stress and how that impacts their creative balance. For David Estey, the imbalance in our politics and our culture creates an anxiety that affects his ability to work and his ability to see and appreciate the beauty around him. The dystopian undertones that might paralyze some cause a stress that supports Greg Mason Burns’s ability to create, affecting his emotional wellbeing by exciting simultaneously two parts of his brain: the fight or flight side, and the caring/spiritual side, which come together in his public murals and other work.

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Greg Mason Burns, Bushy Park Church, photography on archival paper, 35 x 66 cm, 2020.

The meditative aspect of creating is important to Andrea Assael, especially when in her New York City studio she hears the honking and street noises. Jack Silverio, whose work Estey described as “calming to the viewer,” finds that painting takes him out of the analytical and into another realm of simply “looking”—perhaps the reason for the calm. While each reacts individually, the imbalance in our society clearly influences their work, their process, or their emotions, though the personal way in which it is experienced may or may not be visible to the viewer.

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Jack Silverio, Secret Door, flashe vinyl paint on aluminum composite panel, 2023.

An Institution: Waterfall Arts

When Waterfall Arts first came to life at Kingdom Falls in Montville, the environment was a key partner with Al and Lorna Crichton, Martha Piscuskas, and others in their mission and programming. There was an innate balance between indoors and out, manmade and nature. That philosophical balance continues to this day at Waterfall’s home in Belfast, as they endeavor to weigh the goals of artists with the greater good. Director of Programming, Amy Tingle, says that the environment is really part of everything they do, an undercurrent in exhibits, public studios, and teaching.

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Nina Elder Presentation at Waterfall Arts.

Artists Nina Elder and Pippin Frisbie-Calder have been the most recent participants in Waterfall’s residency program. Nina Elder is an artist and researcher whose work focuses on changing cultures and ecologies. She came to Waterfall during the summer of 2021 and during that time she created a series of drawings titled UPLIFT. As a counterbalance to the exclusivity she witnessed in the care, collaboration, technology, and resources that are used to move yachts from water to land in Belfast harbor, Nina made drawings while considering what else is carried in more private realms. Created using marine motor lubricant and industrial pulp mill waste—materials that point to certain non-recreational realities in Maine—her drawings abstract what is uplifted and are meditations on the kinds of invisible emotional lifting we all do.

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Pippin Frisbie-Calder instalation at Waterfall Arts.

Frisbie-Calder was artist-in-residence in 2022. In 2023, she returned with her Welcome to Egg Rock: 50 Years of Seabird Conservation exhibit (with Terrie Frisbie), which is up throughout the summer, and celebrates the successful effort to restore puffins, once endangered, to the coast of Maine. Frisbie-Calder works with environmental scientists on both her processes and her subjects, always thinking about how humans might reduce our impact on the planet, using recyclable materials, educating the viewer, and creating artwork that visitors can remove from the gallery (if you visit the exhibit, you will find out what that means). Frisbie-Calder explores ecosystems and seeks to demystify science through her artwork and master classes. Working primarily with biologists and ornithologists, she addresses man’s complicated relationship to the natural environment, all the while creating extraordinary prints with nontoxic inks and papers— creating beauty out of despair.

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Pippin Frisbie-Calder exhibit at Waterfall Arts on opening night.

Waterfall is also committed to reducing their facility’s environmental footprint. Using green cleaning materials, heat pumps (no fossil fuels), and planning a solar array, Waterfall continues to find new ways to address the issue of carbon usage. Waterfall Glassworks uses recycled vegetable oil and has an electric rather than propane furnace; the Kennedy Press uses safer inks, no toxins down the drain, recycled newsprint; and of course, the Kids and Family Outreach program’s beloved Cardboard Boxes are Fun (CBARF) is the star of Waterfall’s commitment to reuse, recycle—with an introduction to thinking about the built environment thrown into the mix. There is still more to do, but as an established organization with broad responsibilities, there are multiple components that need to be in balance, including staff work/life balance and a balanced budget. According to Tingle, the goal is to lead by example with public studios, teaching, and the artists engaged, to be an influential part of culture rather than preaching; to demonstrate by example how we should live in the world.

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Waterfall Arts Glassworks.

An Artist: Kitty Wales

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Kitty Wales, Bonebreaker (Lammergeier), steel, stainless kitchen utensils, 27 x 25 x 15 in., 1995.

Kitty Wales’s art has long been connected to the natural world, from her 1999 reef sharks made from kitchen appliance parts hanging from trees at the DeCordova Museum, to her lammergeiers (bearded vultures) in the Spanish Pyrenees crafted from silverware, to her 2013 steel and mixed media sculptures of the lionfish at the Mystic Aquarium. Then there were the Road Rhuminant sculptures made from exploded tire treads and other remnants found on the highway—detritus clearly not of the natural world, but sculpted into a statement about that world and the impact humans have on it. Her frequently large-scale pieces create environments and include animals, whether her own beloved dogs, or longhorn cattle, or packs of feral pigs; she intensively researches the animals’ characteristics and environments, traveling to locations to experience them in person, swimming in their waters and walking in their fields.

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Kitty Wales, Broken Sleep, steel, expanded metal installation, 2004.

Her work took a natural turn in 2014 when she was invited to a two-week residency in Azerbaijan by an organization in Baku that promotes recycling of solid waste. Azerbaijan became independent in the 1990s, and the capital city itself is magical, but during the transition to independence a lot of trash was dumped in the desert just outside the city. Walls along the road hid the trash (which Wales could see, however, from the top of a double-decker bus). They brought artists from around the world to create art from this waste, making a clear statement about the imbalance of the controlled vision and the reality. This was an important step for the country and, for Wales, the start of using recycled materials in a more intentional way that speaks to the imbalance between man and nature.

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Kitty Wales, Call Waiting, found chair parts, paper, paper pulp, cinefoil, acrylic, gouache, 50 x 26 x 7 in., 2021.

If you visit Wales’s studio in Belfast, you will see the evolution and continuum of her work. Her hauntingly beautiful Migration greets you as you walk in the door, and upstairs you see both two- and three-dimensional works, some representative of pieces that are part of museum collections, some studies, and many you just want to take home with you. Moving away from her large-scale environments that directly address the natural world (and man’s impact on it), Wales is currently working on wall sculptures with paper pulp for sculpting and joining objects in her three-dimensional collages. She needed to find a non-toxic material that met her technical requirements: allowing for strength, connection, and the ability to draw on it, as well as being environmentally responsible. Such practical issues call on artists to research as well as create—a balancing act between the analytic and the intuitive. Through her current explorations she is casting a series of humanistic objects, often connected by found chair parts (a recurring element in her work) that become the unifying structure for narratives of household objects. Each element has a personal history, so it becomes much more than a way to recycle or reclaim; it is a way to capture the past in a new construct. It’s a long way from dogs and pigs and cows, but there is a clear continuum through her exploration of materials and cultural disruptions. Wales’s work symbolizes her concern about our environment and cultural times; in her words, “chaos, but with an element of stability,” and I would add, beauty.

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Kitty Wales, Migration, steel, found chair parts, epoxy, mixed media installation, 2019.

An Artist and Educator: Kim Bernard

Kim Bernard is an inveterate upcycler, currently working with plastic waste, secondhand fabrics, and a big bag of those blue rubber bands that hold broccoli together. She is both an artist and an educator, committed to sharing knowledge not just of art, but of ecological concerns and solutions. Her pieces can be political, in-your-face, and fun, designed to raise environmental awareness among the public and her students. Her studio in Rockland is joyous and energizing.

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Kim Bernard, Coral Calamity and Catastrophic Contamination, plastic waste, two columns, 8 x 5 ft. circumference, 2023. In January, Bernard taught a Jan Plan course at Colby College titled “Trash to Art: Upcycled Sculpture Installation”. As a collective, the group identified social and environmental issues that they then addressed through the medium of a sculpture. Those issues were “ocean contamination” and “coral bleaching.”

Bernard has evolved as an artist through several mediums and ethical dilemmas, each informing the next, each focusing more on environmental issues. She started as a potter but, worried about the electrical demands and power consumption in the process, she gravitated towards encaustics. That also consumed energy, so she made another shift and began to focus on recycled and found resources. This helped her to reduce her energy consumption as well as her use of raw materials. She is now at about ninety-nine percent recycle/reuse of materials, though she still uses some electricity in her transformation of plastics into art.

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Kim Bernard, Tree Hugger, upcycled #2 plastic, height 72 in, circumference 165 in., Highfield Hall, Falmouth, MA, 2022. This was an outdoor sculptural installation, composed of 100 sustainability words, wrapped around a giant beech tree.

Now she uses number two plastic, which she cuts, shreds, mixes with pigments, extrudes, and shapes. The results of this process are pieces like Tree Hugger, a series of one hundred words about sustainability. Bernard is also weaving small bowls from the extrusions that occur when she switches pigments, and something that began as a way to utilize the leavings is starting to take hold in her imagination. Bernard is now looking at utilizing armature wire so she can shape much larger and more sculptural forms from her plastic extrusions. As she evolves a new art form, she must come to terms with conflicting goals, accepting the use of that wire, and confronting another balance between the analytic and intuitive.

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Kim Bernard, Students at the Northwood Elementary School with Bernard’s PopUpCycler, a mobile makerspace Bernard built.

An important aspect of Bernard’s work is education. She visits schools with her PopUpCycler, a mobile makerspace, and teaches students, while making art, about environmental issues and solutions. This summer she will exhibit at the Farnsworth Museum, through Arts@TheIntersection, showing the project she did with a group of Vinalhaven seventh graders who created a giant lobster claw while they talked about climate impacts on the lobster industry, local history, and how plastics don’t biodegrade and what that does to the ocean. They discussed sustainable solutions, renewable resources, offering hope and answering “what can I do” in the face of major environmental impacts on the oceans and lobstering industry.

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Kim Bernard, The Claw: Fragile Family Lines, plastic trash, 60 x 90 x 8 in., 2023. Project with the Vinalhaven 7th grade students, through the Farnsworth Art Museum’s Arts@theIntersection program, to create this giant lobster claw out of plastic trash. ‘The Claw: Fragile Family Lines’ will be on exhibit at the Farnsworth through the fall.

In all her work, Bernard strives to bring hope to the participants and the viewers. She doesn’t want to depress people about the environment, but rather show them color and joy before they realize her art is made from trash—and that joy, followed by realization, inspires conversations. Art is the medium she uses to get people thinking.


Beauty. Calm. Joy. Stability. Hope. Dystopia. Disruption. Despair. Chaos. Balance. Imbalance. While we live in a place of unparalleled beauty, we also live in a time of great disruption and despair—culturally, economically, environmentally.

The artist’s responsibility is primarily to his or her own vision, and for some the imbalance with which we live provides inspiration, stimulus, motivation—or paralysis. For institutions the role is different, for they are community resources with a public mission, but it is apparent that the times in which we live have an abiding impact on processes and products. Of course, that was also true of the Dadaists, the Futurists, Pablo Picasso, and Hieronymus Bosch. Perhaps it just seems more immediate today, with more rapid changes and the constant flood of media.

Despite all the noise around us, the labor of the artist is solitary. Each story is a personal journey of individual experiences and perceptions. What threads through all, however, is a desire to create pieces that are lasting and evocative, some joyous, some pensive, some challenging, some calming—but all speak to an indomitable human spirit of searching, finding a way to explore and share thoughts, dreams, or doubts through a visual medium, and maybe challenging the viewer to take action. Sometimes despair begets beauty; sometimes chaos begets stability; sometimes joy begets contemplation—and the viewer sees the world in a new light.


Image at top: Kim Bernard, I Will Not Use Plastic, #2 HDPE plastic, 32 x 40 x 2 in., 2023. On view at the Farnsworth Art Museum through fall. In addition to the irony at play by using plastic to make I will not use plastic, this piece is inspired by John Baldessari’s I will not make any more boring art.