As we settle into the summer, we bring to you an issue addressing a notion central to life: balance. We asked our contributors to think about the many ways in which equilibrium and imbalance play out in their work: how they affect composition, color scheme, style, or meaning, and, in turn, how such formal elements might be used to impact the viewer’s experience. Many of the artists in this issue considered balance and imbalance thematically, reflecting upon what it means at a societal and global level. As would be expected, the theme brings up pressing issues such as war, inequality, and the environment. Climate change features prominently with its disastrous effects. Many essays evoke the losses our planet has sustained, for instance, species that are either endangered or have completely disappeared. The contributors also consider our quest for balance at the individual level, whether in terms of physical or mental health or between the demands of daily life and one’s career.
This theme offers the MAJ the occasion to team up with the L.C. Bates Museum, where In Balance/Imbalance opened on 6 May 2023. Artists in the show are present in this issue, whether as featured artists (see below) or in a Showcase (Karen Adrienne, Stephen Burt, Alan Crichton, Fred Dearnley, Michel Droge, Jeff Epstein, Adriane Herman, Izzy van den Heuvel, Renate Klein, Maggie Libby, Amanda Lilleston, John Meader, Rachael O’Shaughnessy, Ellen Roberts, Elin O’Hara Slavick, Susanne Slavick, and Barbara Sullivan). This is the second time that the L.C. Bates has joined forces with the MAJ: in 2021, Marks and Tracks engaged with the natural world, while also offering an opportunity for artists to reflect on their practice. This summer, we are delighted to extend the collaboration to the Portland gallery of the Union of Maine Visual Artists (Portland Media Center, 516 Congress Street) with a July show on the same topic, whose participants are all included in this issue in three Showcases (A–G: Midred Bachrach, Amy Bellezza. André Benoit, Dave Berrang, Kharris Brill, Mary Brooking, Clara Cohan, Brian Cohen, Deborah Flood, Sue Garrett, Catherine Gibson, Robert Gibson, and Judith Greene-Janse; H–R: Kimberley Harding, Gregg Harper, Stephanie Herbeck, Tom Hibschman, Norma Johnsen, Jim Kelly, Dorie Klein, Lesley MacVane, James McCarthy, Ave Melnick, C E Morse, and John Ripton; and S–Z: Kathryn Shagas, Caroline Sulzer, Ruth Sylmor, Joanne Tarlin, John Tiedje, Loretta Turner, Dave Wade, Jackie Walsh, Gail Wartell, Joyce Ellen Weinstein, and Mary Becker Weiss).
Among our featured artists, Andrew Johnson denounces “the mirage of economic parity” among rich and poor countries, the “conditions and consequences of capitalism and international economic policies that propagate profound inequity,” and genetic modification and extensive use of pesticides that unforgivingly affect the land.
Jan Piribeck tells us about her association with the Maine-Greenland Collaborations project “which explores connections between social and ecological systems in Maine and Greenland.” In the face of “external chaos and confusion” resulting from “the extraction of natural resources, military presence, surveillance, and power imbalances,” Piribeck “strive[s] to express a balanced perspective through the arrangement of formal elements on the picture plane and in space.” She tracks her “responsibility as an activist for ecological health and well-being” to her family’s past in the coal mines of Illinois. Piribeck and Paula Gerstenblatt joined forces to create three circular panels, for which they used “GPS devices to track movement and record features” of the Maine and South Greenland landscape. This collaborative work underscores the need for balance both in terms of “socio-environmental concerns” as well as “between the past, the present, and the future—between intellectual pursuits (head in the sky) and somatic responses to the landscape (feet on the ground) and between autonomy and connection.” As Gerstenblatt weaves into her work what she learns about “geopolitical, economic, social, cultural, and environmental factors that impact Maine, Greenland, and the world,” she aims “to strike a balance and unify what often feels like opposing forces.” Committed to the principle that “the personal is political,” she creates collages in which “individual narratives anchor collective ones” as she negotiates destabilizing emotions to cultivate compassion and love.
Nora Tryon sees her life as a “a series of balancing acts.” For her, achieving balance requires acknowledging that “balance is a process” that involves accepting “periods of imbalance.” The same beliefs guide her creative work as “[b]alance is constantly being addressed in the physical doing of the work.” But since for Tryon, “[p]ersonal balance and societal balance are intertwined,” her work addresses “equity and fairness, social and environmental justice.”
Rachel Church’s artist books weave past and present. In one of her books, she reminisces about a trip and a recurrent motif that “connect[s] the different places and experiences together and represent[s] the balance between religion, history, art and everyday life in those places.” In another, she “represents the balance and imbalance between humans and nature” while paying homage to an early photographer. Her current project excavates “a community’s history and values” through “manuscript and self-published community cookbooks.”
Recognizing that although “balance may be the goal, imbalance is often the reality,” Ann Bartges pays attention to “ongoing slips and slides between balance and imbalance.” As she considers the fundamental “human desire for order, stability and certainty, and the nearly impossible struggle to maintain these states,” she explores other tensions, for instance between absence and presence, the real and the virtual, as well as between “chaos and order, public and private activities, and routines of labor and leisure.” For Richard Wilson as well, reflecting on balance brings forth more oppositions, as he confides that he sees “the world from a prepositional point of view: inside, outside, above and below, front and back” and “good/evil, dark/light, inside/outside, and male/female.” Such dualities balance each other, for instance in his paintings in which small vignettes create patterns or are even arranged in grids. As he conjugates parts and whole, he brings “two ideas in one image.” In other works, he makes “a balance of two realities”: a moment arrested in time is balanced as it were between past and future, but also between two worlds.
Claire Millikin writes about Jeremy Frey, whose work balances his Passamaquoddy heritage with artistic innovation. Drawing from ancestral basket-making traditions, Frey comments on environmental threats. A case in point is the emerald ash borer, an invasive beetle, “sign and manifestation of the imbalance of our present-day way of life.” Despite a history of colonial hegemony and cultural silencing, Frey creates “emblems of balance,” “intricately woven sculptural works whose goal is to imbue the viewer of the piece with a feeling of calm and goodwill.”
Prompted by a recent retrospective exhibition of Carlo Pittore’s works at the Sarah Bouchard Gallery (8 April–14 May 2023), Edgar Allen Beem evokes the many facets of this important figure in Maine art, whose “life was a balancing act between his fierce love for art and his nagging self-doubts.”
The abstract “paintings in fiber” by Morris David Dorenfeld, who died in early 2023, “rely on compositions of harmony, proportion, balance, and above all the visual music of color.” Each of these tapestries is, according to Carl Little, who comments on a new monograph about the artist, “a kind of balancing act.” About art in general, Dorenfeld declared: “what one leaves out can be as important as what one puts in.” Although relying on an emphatically reduced vocabulary in terms of shapes and colors, Dorenfeld’s compositions convey ebullient dynamism.
Gianne Conard writes about artists “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,” thus addressing the resulting imbalance. We read about Susan Groce’s pioneering advocacy for non-toxic printmaking materials and her unflinching plea for environmental awareness through her work. Such topics were also central to the discussions held this winter at the Mid Coast Salon in Belfast, involving Kris Engman, David Estey, Greg Mason Burns, Andrea Assael, and Jack Silverio. Also in Belfast, Waterfall Arts “demonstrate[s] by example how we should live in the world,” for instance by “reducing their facility’s environmental footprint.” Conard mentions two of the latest participants in its residency program, Nina Elder and Pippin Frisbie-Calder, who both explore our complicated relationship with the environment. We also hear from artist Kitty Wales, whose work expresses her concerns and consists in an “exploration of materials and cultural disruptions.” Recycling and upcycling, turning trash into art is central to the practice of Elder, Frisbie-Calder, and Wales, as it is for Kim Bernard. We learn about Bernard’s quest for a creative and educational practice that treads lightly on the earth and how it brings awareness—and hope.
In this quarterly’s “Art Historical Musings,” Véronique Plesch discusses how the visual translation of balance is “both a challenge and a tool that conveys multifarious meanings and values.” The notion is “both form and metaphor, visually translating aesthetic ideals, moral values, philosophical principles, medical theory, and religious doctrine.” A sampling of artworks from Antiquity to the 20th century shows that “balance doesn’t exist in a pure state of stasis” and explores notions such as symmetry and harmonious asymmetry, stability and dynamism, and proportional relationships between parts and the whole.
Just like achieving balance is a challenge and a metaphor, so is the notion of “centering”: Stu Kestenbaum writes about learning pottery. He tells us about centering clay on the wheel and the resonance mastering this skill held for him, along with the experience of making vessels by pinching the clay. Kestenbaum recalls how the resulting pots, although balanced, had unevenness that made them look “more vulnerable than the pots . . . made on the wheel.” As they don’t perfectly rest on the table and “would wobble a bit,” they come to embody the precariousness of balance.
This issue’s poetry section includes three poems by Richard Foerster, Betsy Sholl, and Pam Smith. Richard Foerster writes about the solstice as a “[p]ivot, fulcrum,” which the poet compares to “Anubis’s feather,” recalling how, in the ancient Egyptian Book of the Dead, we see the jackal-faced guardian of the underworld weighing the departed’s heart against the feather of Ma’at, the goddess of order, truth, and justice. In the poem she shares for this issue, Betsy Sholl looks at a portrait by Richard Avedon of the Danish author Isak Dinesen. She puzzles over the photographer’s choice to capture a “face that had been through the press of heartache” rather than his usual young models. In her introductory words, Sholl ties the poem to our theme: the photographer balancing his different types of work and the main character of Dinesen’s memorable story Babette’s Feast pouring all her newly acquired fortune into a feast. Pam Burr Smith offers us an ekphrastic poem about a painting that is “just behind [her] eyelids.” She evokes its harmony of colors and shapes, and, in particular, how “[t]an meadows oddly shaped, balanced and tipping / tilt toward each other and rest supine, / reposing in languid, impermanent ways.”
In our “Insight/Incite” column, science teacher Sharon Gallant talks about her experience in the Gardiner High School launching a program that incorporates arts into her curriculum. She recounts how replacing traditional forms of assessment with creative pursuits such as book arts implements a successful, transformative, and “visible shift to student-centered learning.” Her conclusion resonates with this issue’s theme: “balance is something you find, it is something you create.”
Chris Crosman sees in Anna Queen’s work a form of play that is “about seeing and doing, accident and intention, control and letting go.” Queen explains how unexpected moments of imbalance generate new ideas. Crosman discusses several of Queen’s videos and, in particular, a recent installation in which “[v]iewers move from enigmatic sculpture to sculpture, each with its embedded secrets and symbols.” This installation is “a field of action” that explores connectivity—the artist’s and our own.
Carl Little writes about the “remarkable series of bronze figures” titled Women of the Gulf of Maine that Celeste Roberge has been creating and that bear witness to the artist’s fascination with seaweed. Out of wet organic matter, emerge “mythical female creatures” as the artist becomes alchemist and demiurge.
Painter Yvonne Jacquette, who died on 23 April 2023, had been spending her summers in Maine since 1965. To commemorate her passing, we have assembled a small dossier that contains a link to the recording of a conversation between Jacquette and former Colby College Museum of Art director Sharon Corwin and a few articles.
Each quarter, we hear from the UMVA Portland and Midcoast chapters and read about their activities. David Estey reports on the results of a recent survey and retreat aimed at assessing “the strengths, weaknesses, opportunities, and threats facing” the Union of Maine Visual Artists. Estey summarizes the resulting decisions and initiatives and introduces new UMVA Board members. Among these, is Daniel Sipes, one of the founders of Lights Out Gallery, to whom Estey dedicates an essay, followed by an account by Reed Mclean, one of the founders of Lights Out, of the process of renovating and transforming a snowshoe factory in Norway, Maine, into a multi-function art center.
Artist Greg Burns tells us what he has learned reviewing grants for the Maine Arts Commission. His insights will no doubt be precious to many of our readers.
Each quarter, you can read about the ways in which ARRT! has been supporting progressive causes and see the banners and placards produced in the past months. We also have an update from the Maine Masters series with the forthcoming film on Carlo Pittore that will be released this summer. We conclude with Pat and Tony Owen’s Irish dispatch, who drawing from the UMVA archives, reflect on how to find balance between commercial success and artistic integrity.
Although each of our contributors conceives and experiences the dual notions of balance and its lack or loss in remarkably varied and personal ways, what emerges from this issue is that balance is fundamentally dynamic in nature. As a process, it is impermanent and fleeting. It is a negotiation, a dance with the entropic forces of chaos. It is a drive, a desire—perhaps even an unattainable goal. It is the pursuit of such goals, even of those that may never be fully reached, that effect profound change. Artists can contribute by spreading awareness of the imbalances that surround us. The concert of their voices motivates us and gives us the necessary strength to face the task at hand, to re-balance our world.
Image at top: Maine Arts Journal Summer 2023 cover (Richard Wilson, A Moment, acrylic on canvas, 36 x 24 in., 2022).