There is a ledge on the side of Mt. Megunticook in Camden Hills State Park. It can be seen from Camden’s Main Street, a sheer granite face that drops and disappears into the woods below. A face of rock that people forget about; after all it has been there forever. It is not as spectacular as El Capitan, or the kind of sheer faces that draw world class rock climbers. Nevertheless, it is part of the landscape that is Camden. For a brief period in 1981 the balance of this landscape changed.

Art viewed in public places can come as a surprise. Sculpture in parks or along a city street holds the possibility of enhancing the immediate surroundings. Artists who make work in these environments attempt to make sense of the place. They try to add an element of the unseen, the hidden, or they extract the obvious, the very thing that has been there all along.

umvaArchive pat tony owen camden hills exhibition 1981 copy

Camden Hills exhibition flyer, 1981

In 1981, David Brooks working closely with Darrah Cole of Vision Publications (now defunct) and the UMVA, curated a site-specific exhibition at Camden Hills State Park. They convinced Herb Hartman of the Bureau of Parks and Recreation to allow 19 Union artists to install temporary art works throughout the park. Artists were given complimentary park passes for the purpose of installation. Little or no restrictions were imposed as to the sites. The only proviso was that what went in was to be taken out, removed completely. The exhibition showed respect for the environment and the natural beauty of the place.

Art has the ability to change one’s opinion of the everyday, and that change is not always looked upon favorably. As a result one work was singled out for removal: a very large felt banner by artist Bill Coyne. Drawing, an enormous white felt hand, was unfurled over a ledge on Mt. Megunticook Ocean Overlook. That big white hand seemed to say, that people will do their best to organize nature, to leave their mark and make it their own. Some residents in Camden were convinced it had been painted on the ledge, amounting to graffiti that you could see all the way down to Main Street. So down came Bill Coyne’s work.

umva archives camden0003

Phyllis Janto, Camden Hills exhibition, 1981

Site-specific art, produced in the natural world, allows the artist ways to change what nature changes on a daily basis. The artist finds a way to strike a balance between themselves and how they view themselves in this natural world. Nature, when left alone, pretty much strikes its own perfect balance. Site-specific work acts like that big white hand on the cliff face. It asks the viewer to see promise in a place, while at the same time it asks us to look hard at mistakes that might be made there.

Given the size and varied topography of Camden Hills State Park, many artists chose sites that were remote and accessible only by picking your way up a long trail. There was no policing of sites, or of the exhibition in general. As a result I remember two works being vandalized. A piece called Islands, by Gretchen Luchesi, was destroyed only days after installation and prior to the opening. As a result no one got a chance to see it.  Another work, Sundial, by David Brooks, was also destroyed, making it useless as a natural time piece. Both of these works were constructed using found materials on site, stones, fallen branches etc. It was odd to think that installations using natural objects were vandalized, while works using man-made materials and or traditional construction methods were left unharmed. Just luck? The question is anyone’s guess, but we see it as some perverse statement, that the natural world is there to be messed with. Dig it up, cut it down, it’s only earth!

umva archives camden0002

Henry Nigl, Camden Hills exhibition, 1981

Not far from our house, a river empties into the sea. We take our dogs there to swim. There is no sand beach, only smooth stone shingle. People who find their way here for the first time, knowing they may never return, pile these stones on top of one another, making miniature cairns. They build these anonymous towers and mark their territory. In this primordial act of construction we find a way to balance ourselves in the natural world.

The Camden Hills Site Show, was organized by UMVA and Vision Publications (now defunct), with a grant from the Maine Arts Commission,  and closed on October 4, 1981. A review by Edgar Allen Beem appeared in the Maine Times (also defunct) dated September 4, 1981. (The complete review appeared in Edgar Allen Beem’s book Maine Art Now, 1990, by Dog Ear Press.

All photographs by David Hingston. Sculpture at top by Pat and Tony Owen

All the Best From the West (of Ireland)

Pat and Tony Owen