To state the obvious: we live in unsettling times. Perhaps for this reason, “community” is a word that seems to be on everybody’s lips these days, something that is clearly much needed. The essays gathered in this fall issue of the Maine Arts Journal show the importance of community to artists, challenging the old myth of the lone artistic genius. These essays confirm that Maine is a place where human connections flourish, despite its low population density and distances. And yet—or perhaps because of the isolation—artists who reside in Maine, many of whom came from elsewhere and sought the state’s remote wilderness, long for community and have found myriad ways to foster it.
We start with our very own beginnings: the birth of the Union of Maine Visual Artists (UMVA), the source for this journal, itself a tool for community-building, which connects artists throughout the state. Opening Pam Burr Smith’s reminiscences is a group photo of the UMVA in 1975. In front of a house with shingles—we are clearly right here in Maine—we see twenty-eight adults, along with a couple of children and dogs, proudly holding a banner with the Union’s acronym. In this and other essays, we read about what tied these people together, not only their youth and hippie philosophy, but their life choices and identity as artists. From its inception, the UMVA was meant to advocate for artists in a variety of ways. “Geography was a challenge in creating community,” and so Smith recounts the many ways in which the UMVA brought its members together and the long-lasting friendships that developed. Indeed, it’s now been almost half a century, or, as Stephen Petroff puts it, “a long lifetime,” during which members became “friends for life.” We read about the profound respect and intense admiration that grew between the members and that still binds them to this day. We read about memorable moments in which life and art intermingle and how these individuals are what anchors others to this place. They are indeed what made Petroff decide “to stay right here.”
Place is central to the cultivation of a sense of community—as is the generosity of those who welcome kindred spirits. This is the case for Brita Holmquist and her house on Islesboro. We learn how this retreat came about and read recollections from some of Long Ledge’s habituées. Nikki Schumann, Anina Porter Fuller, Sarah Faragher, Liz Moberg, Louise Bourne, Wendy Garner, Nora Tryon, Pamela Elias, Sondra Bogdonoff, Sharon Townshend, and Jean Wyman recount how days are spent, describing the different settings and the activities that take place, and how this magic setting nurtures creativity and community, leaving a lasting mark on the participants and a profound sense of gratitude. For them, Long Ledge retreat is, to use Liz Moberg’s words, “a luxury and a necessity.”
As artists form communities, they can also effect change in the world. Citizen artist Elizabeth A. Jabar writes how, on a daily basis, she asks “What do the times require of us?” Jabar believes that a constant questioning of “how actions and practices of teaching and making art” can impact the world will make it a better place. What she terms “creative action” is at the intersection of reflection and activity and is meant to usher “a new way of being in the world.” Central to such pursuit is the creation of a sense of community, a “process of bridging and belonging” that allows for “social healing.” Jabar creates “resilient community platforms” that open up relational spaces in which art making and dialogue take place and participants, especially those from diasporic communities, are “seen, heard, and celebrated.” Likewise, the artists participating in ARRT! and LumenARRT! are activists and we read about their thoughts and experiences. For Nora Tryon, activism affirms bonds and connections, and collaboration is nurturing. For Christine J. Higgins, the collaborative process is one that breeds open-mindedness and personal growth and the work created is put to the service of organizations she believes in. Mary Weiss contributes photos and the memories that accompany them, for instance her delight at seeing a banner engaging a very young activist. For Lee Chisholm, the process is as valuable as the results. Ann Thompson marvels at the energy and the synergy sparked by a painting session and Anita Clearfield summarizes the experience in a caption to a photo: “that’s community in action.”
Further afield, during a residency in the Italian “ecovillage” of Torri Superiore, Marguerite Kahrl created permanent outdoor installations. Her work was meant to “engage the community, build upon their resources, and to activate place and dialogue between art, craftsmanship, and architectural history of the medieval village.” Kahrl’s project involved what she calls “relational nests,” ceramic sculptures welcoming migratory birds and their eggs. But the nests didn’t only impact the avian population as the project was carried out with the help of the local community and this, as Kahrl says, functioned as “a restorative gesture,” that underscores “our relationship with each other and the ecosystem surrounding us.” Environmental awareness is also central to the Gulf of Maine EcoArts, a group of artists-activists, whose “mission informs art with science, science with art, to promote stewardship and activism for worthy environmental causes.” Lee Chisholm discusses how EcoArts promotes its vision, aimed at the “world’s human community,” through exhibitions created in partnership with cultural, educational, and scientific institutions. In a second piece, Chisholm reflects on EcoArts’s collaborative process and how projects are carried from conception to fruition “as though the spirit of the common ideal was at work behind the artists.” ”Like trout snapping up mayflies during an early summer hatch, new ideas have tended to appear suddenly and spontaneously out of the depths, stimulated by the energy of our collective concentration. The ideas come from all of us.”
As she weaves the narrative threads of her identity and of her thirst for belonging, Veronica Perez recounts how in her first encounter with Tender Table, she experienced “reciprocity and joy.” We learn about how she started her “braiding circles,” “intimate community gatherings focused on braiding three-strand braids while holding conversations about identity and belonging.” The dual activities of braiding while telling stories open up a space for “communal healing.” In her essay, Perez mentions working with Indigo Arts Alliance (IAA), and how this allowed her “to make the work honestly, without fear of people not understanding where I am coming from.” In the next essay, Claire Millikin explains how IAA founders Daniel and Marcia Minter (inspired by David C. Driskell’s lasting legacy and eloquent example) meant to “offer mentorship to early career artists of African descent and at the same time enrich the surrounding community of African diasporic peoples in Maine.” In fact, mentorship is essential to IAA’s mission and is implemented through residencies that “foster community and connection,” bringing in fellows not only from the United States, but also from the Caribbean, Africa, India, and Brazil. Ultimately, IAA’s goal goes well beyond artistic expression, as it aims, in the words of deputy director Jordia Benjamin, “to create multidisciplinary art to inspire a multiracial democracy.”
Katie Bonadies talks with Kate Anker about another place that creates community and nurtures its members’ creativity: Running with Scissors Art Studios (RWS) in Portland. During the conversation, Kate Anker addresses the positive effects of working in a communal environment, and the many ways in which RWS supports its members, both materially and emotionally. Ultimately, such a support system allows members “to push themselves, move in a new direction, or change mediums,” and, confirming the meaning of the studio’s name, to take risks.
What better place for a retreat than a private Maine island? Anina Porter Fuller started the Great Spruce Head Island Art Week in 1993. Since then, she has welcomed twelve visual artists and writers each year to walk in the footsteps of Eliot and Fairfield Porter (featured in the recent book At First Light: Two Centuries of Maine Artists, Their Homes and Studios). As in so many of the essays gathered in this issue, the author and the participants express gratitude, in this case, for the family corporation that makes the yearly week-long retreat possible and for memorable times of “camaraderie” and “common artistic energy.”
In this issue’s Art Historical Musings, Véronique Plesch discusses how a work of art can convey the idea of a cohesive group, but also, and most importantly, how for artists, a sense of community is created and cemented: from institutional structures, such as medieval guilds, art academies, or artistic movements, to the fundamental role played by place, be it a region, a city, a neighborhood, even a building or a room. After considering the intersection of group identity and artistic avant-garde, the essay concludes with works of art created in a communal manner which, through the experience they provide, construct community.
Gianne Conard recounts two celebrations in Belfast: back in 1991 for Bern Porter’s eightieth birthday and this past summer for Waterfall Arts founders Al and Lorna Crichton. Conard’s essay drives home the critical role that both place and people play in promoting the creation of a community. Conard mentions an impressive number of people, events, groups, and initiatives that show that despite the changes that have occurred during the three decades that separate the two celebrations, Belfast remains “a community that boisterously and joyously celebrates the arts,” and “a healthy and vibrant source of creativity and fellowship.”
MAJ Poetry Editor Betsy Sholl writes about the many ways “Writing in Community” happens in Maine and how writers relate to it. The four poems she selected, by Suzanne Langlois, Maureen Thorson, Dawn Potter, and Marita O’Neill, are the result of a fascinating communal writing experience in which “an art form that seems to require solitude and long quiet hours suddenly becomes communal, off-the-cuff, trusting the levity and levitation of the group to surprise new work, to jiggle language loose.” Sholl explains that all four poems “think about language in one way or another”—there can be no community without communication. Thomas Birtwistle contributes four photographs from his Peaks Island series to accompany the poems.
While taking a walk through his town, Stuart Kestenbaum, reflects upon the different buildings he encounters and their history and evolving functions. This also triggers personal memories, in particular of people. The thought of one friend or acquaintance leads to another, and slowly, as Kestenbaum’s mind wanders as he strolls, his community comes alive, defying decaying buildings’ impermanence and music-making’s fugacity. For Gwendolyn Loomis Smith, the landscape and landmarks similarly trigger memories. “[N]ostalgic for a past and hopeful for creating a future” her quest for a community eventually landed her at the Farnsworth museum. Smith discusses some paintings from the museum’s collections created by artists who are established members of Maine’s artistic landscape, a place that allows a remarkable balance between community and individuality.
Middle school Visual Arts educator Hope Lord recounts a collaboration with Pamela Moulton. Lord explains that such collaborations allow her to provide her students “with varied creative learning experiences.” Although this particular collaboration took place during the pandemic and Moulton participated remotely, we read about the ways in which it was successfully implemented despite the distance and how the students learned to handle an unusual material, denim, in inventive, expressive, and collaborative ways.
More than ever our quarterly dispatch concerning the activities of the Artists’ Rapid Response Team (ARRT!) is fitting. In addition to their usual gatherings to paint banners to support progressive causes, we read and see photos of ARRT!’s contributions to community celebrations and parades: Earth Day in Belfast, the Fourth of July in Whitefield, and Old Hallowell Day. Read also about LumenARRT!’s forthcoming projection of Get Out the Vote and Support Women’s Choice images and words in Portland for First Friday, on 7 October 2022. As always, we include an update from the Union of Maine Visual Artists (UMVA), with the exciting news of the creation of a Midcoast chapter and a slew of exhibitions in Portland.
Looping the loop, we conclude this issue with Pat and Tony Owen, who think back to the beginnings of the UMVA and the ways in which the Union connected with like-minded artists’ associations both in the United States and abroad.
Image at top: Maine Arts Journal Fall 2022 cover (LumenARRT! and ARRT! at the Defend Democracy Anniversary rally on 6 January 2022, Monument Square, Portland; Veronica Perez, Braiding Circle (photo: Christian Kayiteshonga); Gulf of Maine EcoArts artists in preliminary stages of painting Ammen Rock.