One of the things I miss about living in the great state of Maine are snowstorms—a good old Nor’easter—and waking up in the morning to discover that the leaden sky from the evening before opened and dropped a foot or more of white, the landscape leveled of all features save for the trees, proving that what lies below holds life. The shovel and you cut a trail to a half buried car and wait for the distant rumble of the plow that suggests you are not forgotten. There is comfort in knowing that somebody else is experiencing the same frozen inconvenience and with that, a certain contentment realizing we are not alone. These events bring us closer together; after all, we are part of the same fabric.
Here in the southwest of Ireland, we have no major snowstorms, only the occasional dusting on the higher elevations, gone in a day or so and adding vibrancy to the green hills. Of course there are strong winds and rain, which at times makes me wish for snow. This past winter, we had three major wind events; the third one toppled our old holly tree. The neighbors came by with a chainsaw and we all got to work clearing up. Late that night I thought about how people pull together in natural disasters and help each other. Stranger helping stranger, because intrinsically, we all know the only thing you’re going to gain from it is satisfaction and with that, a sense of belonging. I think the 17th-century poet John Donne said it best: “No Man is an Island.” How true that we have a default setting that suggests we need more than ourselves. In fact we are made of many components, the contents of which have been passed down to us for centuries.
Back in the early 1970s when the Union of Maine Visual Artists was founded, it had one goal in mind: to act as a support structure for all Maine artists—to listen to its membership’s needs, and in so doing give voice to those scattered around the state. It became evident early on that the Union needed to expand. It needed not only members, who primarily were sourced from within the state itself, but to look outward, and to talk with other like-minded organizations. In May of 1976, the Union sent a representative to St. Louis, Mo., to the American Artists Congress III, to discover what questions artists were asking themselves. What came out of that congress was the need for a collaborative approach, to harbor the strength of the artist and the organizations that represented them. A series of resolutions were passed, some of which dealt with issues of safety, equality, taxation, and censorship. It was hoped that these resolutions would become the foundation of a national working platform for artists’ rights. With the politics aside, a broad community for artists began to take shape.
Art and art-makers look at this world and see what many of us turn away from: ugly politics, the disadvantaged, the decimation of indigenous cultures, the destruction of our natural resources. By giving these topics voice, the artist adds something to the greater world view. This quote is from a UMVA newsletter dated February 1988: “Art is not the product of a single individual, but the product of communal awareness.” How this concept of communal awareness influences or informs the work can take many paths, the abstract or the realistic, and it can also demand the artist broaden their horizons and see for themselves how other communities engage with the day to day.
From the Union News, April/May 1989: artist and activist Natasha Mayers traveled to El Salvador on a twelve-day visit to the Salvadoran Association of Art and Cultural Workers (ASTAC). They were a community of artists, musicians, theater artists, poets etc., working with the marginal people of society in an attempt to “help them to make art out of and about their lives.” It was a tense and bloody time as the United States was supporting the Salvadoran Government against the people’s will. Natasha describes how a community in turmoil used art: “We didn’t just hear about culture, we saw it happening. We saw the role it can play in making people better understand their own place in society.”
Back here in Ireland, the government has taken in approximately 48,000 Ukrainian refugees; that figure is sure to rise with no end in sight to a senseless war. In our village, a local hostel which has in the past hosted backpackers, now is filled to capacity with Ukrainians. They will undoubtedly meld into the fabric of this small community and with their presence enrich our lives.
Art within a community brings about self-awareness. I see it in this small place we now call home: a poster in the little grocery shop announcing an exhibition of paintings in a cafe up the street; the local pub organizing a new music event; the coffee shop buying cushions for its chairs from a local felter. It all brings about an understanding of who we are and our possibilities. What we give to the place we inhabit will come back tenfold.
On a sad note: Ray Farrell, a good friend of thirty-five years recently passed away. Ray and his wife Marilyn are one of the reasons Pat and I find ourselves here in Ireland, in this community. Ray opened the O’Farrell Gallery in Brunswick, Maine on Valentine’s Day, 1985. He exhibited the work of recognizable names such as Alex Katz, Andy Warhol, Alice Neel, and Neil Welliver, and championed the work of Maine artists Marguerite Robichaux and Tom Hall, among others. Marguerite sums it up nicely when she says of Ray: “what he really believed in was the power of art and his artists.” Yes, Ray, we will miss you old friend.
All The Best From The West (of Ireland),
Tony and Pat Owen
The dream of art, like the dream of Union, requires great effort, great vision, and great labor. It is a labor of love.
—Union News, March 1989.
Image at top: Pat and Tony Owen, Our Village, Annascaul.