Véronique Plesch – Introduction
O melhor lugar do mundo / é aqui e agora (the best place in the world is here and now).
—Gilberto Gil, “Aqui e agora”
Here we are, over a year since COVID-19 reached Maine and we were forced to retreat into our homes, the exterior world having become threateningly inhospitable. Despite the facts that scientists and authorities have gained a better understanding of the virus, effective measures were defined and implemented (although with a vicious politicization that betrayed the profound division affecting the country), vaccines were developed, and vaccination is underway, the end is still not in clear sight. While at first we bid our time, optimistically waiting for the end of the outbreak while adjusting to a temporary “new normal,” we are now starting to contemplate the possibility that there might not be a return to where we were before it all started and that our world might be changed forever. Indeed, we have settled into a liminal and unsettling here and now, poised between the loss of life as we knew it and a future that is yet to be defined. But wobbly as our current situation might feel, it offers a unique perspective, which leads many of our contributors to reflect upon the past and to consider the future. Although the pandemic might have offered an opportunity to focus on one’s work and to reconnect with the quotidian, what could have been a productive artist residency right at home became colored with more than a tinge of doubt and anxiety. New challenges emerged, such as facing an intensified sense of isolation (our contributors often report that the technologies we were forced to embrace, like Zoom, are a source for both frustration and unexpected benefits). Many note how the circumstances brought shifts in subject matter and/or medium to their work, endowing the old adage that “necessity is the mother of invention” with a renewed and graver significance.
Phoebe Adams reflects on art’s function in this “suspended time” of “collective dread.” It is clear that although challenging, our current situation opens up a space for creative dialogue. Her essay is replete with opposites that enter in conversation: first and foremost, abstraction and figuration, but also beauty and terror, the past and the present (“Nothing will ever be the same”), change and “non-change,” movement and stasis, action and reflection, the outside natural world and the studio, what’s visible and what’s hidden (see the painting titled Hidden in Plain Sight, or, as her title suggests, memory and exploration).
For Dozier Bell, a year marked by silence, sadness, loss, and grief has also been the occasion for unfettered time to focus on her work, “free of the stresses and obligations of social life” during which her train of thought would not be “derailed” by the demands of the outside world. In that sense, it turned out to be “a dream come true”: a paring down that brought contemplative and creative stillness and a deeper engagement with the “concrete things” around her. What Bell describes is also a silencing of extraneous noises that allows for a revitalized vision.
That “this past year of chaos and deprivation” opened up space for reflection, is illustrated by Richard Brown Lethem and Sean Hasey, who reminisce about their meeting a quarter of a century ago and their subsequent collaboration and friendship. In the course of their conversation, they address all kinds of issues, from the responsibility of the artist (with a reference to French Thomist philosopher Jacques Maritain), to the challenges of abstraction, and, of course, to how the “new normal” has affected their life and work. Discussing how the pandemic has altered the way we experience art, they lament the loss of physical interaction and of touch, in particular, brought by the forced virtual turn.
Rose Marasco recounts what at first was a frustrating experience: how the pandemic prevented the processing of photos she had shot and how, when a couple of months later she finally got the prints, it was to find that they had not been done according to her directions. Marasco’s anecdote is one of silver linings as the mix-up revealed (pun intended!) a new vision. Her story is one of transformation—perhaps even of transmutation. At first, her project of photographing tree shadows in her neighborhood was formal in nature (for instance, her switch to a square format was meant to make the images “read as more abstract”). We see how her own conscious decisions as well as involuntary ones endow the photographs with an entirely novel dimension, in the end leading to an exciting new avenue for her work.
The pandemic didn’t change much in Gail Spaien’s life and work. She stresses how solitude is fundamental to her practice and how her paintings strike the viewer by their silent quality. Carl Little writes that Spaien’s art “is about the love of place”: she didn’t need being forced to shelter in place to experience a deep awareness of her surroundings. As Little compellingly shows, Spaien’s quotidian domestic vistas negotiate the dichotomy between interior/exterior (he calls them “hybrid still life/interior/landscape images”). So even though Spaien had already embarked on this type of images before COVID, it’s for the viewer that her paintings acquire a new and acute resonance.
For Edgar Allen Beem, Emily Trenholm’s paintings offer a “creative balance between observation and gesture, description and abstraction, emotional response to nature and deft application of materials.” For her too, the pandemic had a positive impact on her creative output, which had been slowed down by her duties as mother of two young boys. Beem notes that “the mayhem we have all had to deal with over the past year” was for Trenholm the “provocation for getting serious about her art again,” and she explains that it made her aware that family life and work are not “separate things.”
Recapping our response to the forced confinement brought by the pandemic, Véronique Plesch considers what she calls the “comforts of domesticity”: from nesting, to baking, to gardening, she finds examples in art (from the 15th through the 21st century) that embody these impulses. Here too, we find instances in which the interior is opposed to the exterior—a distinction that has taken up heightened significance for us today but, as the essay concludes, echoing what many of this issue’s contributors note, “what if stopping and staying in place opened up a space for creativity?”
Poets Adrian Blevins and Cate Marvin talk about work and distractions (deciding that there are good and bad ones), about obstacles and creativity, about their relationship to the world and to other people, about truth and authenticity. They too take stock of their lives, perhaps thanks to the pause the pandemic has afforded. They talk about motherhood and life choices, art and life, their dedication to poetry and its true meaning for them. Echoing other contributors, Marvin recognizes that “interruption and distraction” (in her case, motherhood) turned out to be “an enormous gift” to her work as poet, and Blevins agrees, declaring that “it’s life that fuels art.” Their conversation is followed by a selection of their poems, introduced insightfully by our poetry editor Betsy Sholl.
Stuart Kestenbaum thinks about predictions—projections into the future that are so persistently tempting in this time of uncertainty—and how writing is a way of “making sense of the world.” As he tackles the question of where to begin, there’s the beginning of life with a new-born grandson, a link to the past and to the future.
Alan Crichton remembers when, on the verge of the new millennium, he paid a visit to Bern Porter. Now, two decades later, he bemoans the loss of Porter’s hopefulness. Crichton too thinks about predictions as he considers our post-pandemic world; for him, art is the answer to this uncertainty. And while Kestenbaum asked where to begin, Crichton declares his belief that given the values art embodies, “one can start anywhere and forge ahead.”
When Robert Shetterly declares that the artist’s role “to bear witness . . . is harder and harder to manage,” he might not appear as confidently hopeful as Crichton. For Shetterly, the feckless human behavior that has brought the environment to the brink of an apocalypse has resulted in an unmanageable acceleration of time. Shetterly does conclude his essay by asserting the need for and the importance of art, but with a renewed mission.
Linda Buckmaster’s project about following the cods ’journey was put on hold by the pandemic and planned trips to the Hebrides and Nova Scotia were cancelled. At first, she kept busy and reveled in what felt like “a great time to get uninterrupted writing done,” but soon she experienced “doubt and fear,” questioning the relevancy of artistic activity during such times. Despite her finding new ways to pursue her project from afar, eventually the continuing crisis and the fall events led to lassitude. In a poem, she imbues the word outbreak with a new meaning (“a breaking out of justice and beauty / and more than a token of love”) and uses pandemic-derived imagery as a metaphor for hope.
Veronica Cross, writing from New Orleans, also concerns herself with artists’ function, and, as she reflects on societal inequalities and in particular the pandemic’s impact on the opioid crisis, she shows how Nan Goldin, Michel Droge, and the team formed by Tan Kanh Cao and Anthony Dalton Jones (Children of War) address addiction. For Cross these artists work “from perspectives of experience or empathy” and “create space for the humanity behind statistics and news reports.”
Creating a space for the community through the arts is central to the mission of recent initiatives at Colby College and a fundamental concern that runs through the careers of Teresa McKinney, Diamond Family Director of the Arts, and Jacqueline Terrassa, Carolyn Muzzy Director of the Colby College Museum of Art. McKinney and Terrassa, who both arrived at Colby in recent months, discuss their careers and their vision with Véronique Plesch. They also comment on the challenges of starting new positions during a pandemic, especially implementing projects that are all about connecting with the community.
Gianne P. Conard reports on the February virtual meeting of the Mid-Coast Salon, in which the members discussed what the “new normal” means to them. David Estey, Waterfall Arts, Greg Mason Burns, and Kerstin Engman consider the challenges and silver linings of the current situation, in what ways life has remained the same, and how it might be changed forever.
For this issue’s Insight/Incite feature, Kerstin Engman reports from the teaching trenches. She notes that “getting and giving a college education is undergoing a seismic shift.” She too finds redeeming features in the electronic tools that the “new normal” has forced us to start using.
That change can be liberating and a source for discovery is what Peter Herley, Nikki Millonzi, and Judy Schneider experienced when they decided to merge their work, taking turns painting on small square panels. They share with us the remarkably varied works that came out of their collaboration and discuss the experience and its take-aways.
In the Members’ Showcase we similarly read about the challenges and the gains brought by the pandemic. For Anita Loomis, COVID was the impetus to fulfill dreams, “to become the artist and gallerist” she always thought she should be. Marcie Bronstein started a new painting series called Still Point, “a place of peace, harmony, and clarity about the trajectory of our days and futures.” Photographer Eric Taubert found solace—and a source of inspiration for his photos—on the beach in Ogunquit, echoing Isak Dinesen’s belief that salt water is “a cure for everything.” Christine A. Morgan-Phillips (a.k.a. CAM the Artist) evokes working during this “emotional roller coaster,” both as an artist and curator. M.J. Benson starts her paintings of sky and sea with the horizon line, at once a steady presence and an in-between that resonates with our situation between past normalcy and uncertain future. Norajean Ferris’s drawings are heavily saturated with words, both exchanged between protagonists and addressed to the viewer. Her work engages with the many conflicts affecting the country, in hopes that awareness will lead to solutions. People are also central to Nikki Millonzi’s portraits of family members and friends, which offer “a source of comfort . . . during the long time of quarantine and limited stimulation.” Finally, for Christine Sullivan, artwork on “themes of contagion and blame” became an outlet to cope “through rising darkness.”
Work produced by the members of the Artists’ Rapid Response Team! is currently featured at the Portland Museum of Art in an exhibition that echoes this issue’s theme: Untitled 2020: Art From Maine in a _____ Time (on view through the end of May). For them too, the forced isolation has led to exploring and exploiting a new medium: decorated envelopes containing messages to legislators. You can also see a video and read about LumenARRT!’s February projection on the façade of Portland’s City Hall, supporting hazard pay for essential workers.
Despite the limitations, the UMVA is keeping busy with important work. The Union has been developing “a way to respond to institutional racism and be socially responsible as an arts organization and gallery.” You can also read about their robust program of virtual exhibitions held in the past quarter and the Mid-Coast Salon Exhibit scheduled for July.
Pat and Tony Owen start their exploration of the UMVA archives by wondering: “What if . . . it didn’t go away?” They cite anxieties that beset the ways we think about the future, in particular the fear of an endlessly mutating virus that would become a permanent presence. Exploring the Union’s past, the Owens reflect on collaboration and on online exhibitions. Ultimately, they voice their hopes and belief in artists’ resilience, as expressed by Pat Owen in the title of her work: Are We Screwed? . . . Hope Not.
That life is impermanent and the future unpredictable is a basic reality, not just during a deadly pandemic. The past year has certainly heightened this awareness, but, as the contributions in this issue suggest, it might also have revealed that artists are in a privileged position to help society negotiate difficult times, for creativity is grounded in our fundamental human resilience, while resilience feeds off the creative impulse. So yes, as Gilberto Gil sang, “the best place in the world is here and now.”
Image at top: MAJ Spring cover image: Gail Spaien, Still Life with Water #2, acrylic on linen, 34 x 30 in., 2020.