As we put the finishing touches to the Winter issue of the Maine Arts Journal, Maine is recovering from a devastating storm and just two months ago, mass shootings took place in Lewiston. Although traumatic, what we experienced since our Fall issue came out pales in comparison to the violence and suffering that affects our world. And yet, here we are, with an issue on play. As Stuart Kestenbaum observes in his essay, “[i]t may seem wrong or at least incongruous to write about play when the world is falling apart wherever we turn,” but the many contributions to this issue show how vital play is to the human experience. What Johan Huizinga called the “play element” is fundamental to culture and society. It is also at the core of creativity and art making. For Huizinga, play is synonymous with freedom and yet, it has rules and carries with it a sense of order; it opens up a space that is distinct from everyday life and that completely absorbs the person at play (in that sense, it comes very close to psychologist Mihaly Csiksenmihaly’s theory of flow, a concept that finds a perfect illustration in artistic creation). That play is not practiced for any material gain or profit also reminds one of the ideals that have been attached to art at many times in history, as embodied in the philosophy of “art for art’s sake.”

Children—and adults like Stuart Kestenbaum when he plays with his grandchildren!—create characters and situations. To pretend, as Kestenbaum explains, is rooted in a Latin verb that means “to stretch forth,” “to claim.” Entering the space of play can lead to letting go of expectations and “claim[ing] that territory of possibility.”

For Kenny L. Shapiro, who makes toy-like objects with humble items of clothing such as T-shirts, underwear, or socks, “[p]lay and hedonism in all their forms” (including BDSM) become a way of resisting, in which “the frivolous” is endowed with a radical dimension. Marrying the comical with the abject, Shapiro aims at making sense of the absurdity of violence while attempting “to neuter” it. For him, “play is political” and “a search for awe.”

The awe sought by Shapiro is also experienced by Charlie Hewitt as he witnesses the fabrication of neon signs. Experimenting with this new medium allows him to “tap into a wonderfully playful aspect of . . . creative resources.” Drawing from masses of spontaneous doodles, he creates neon works and NFTs. The colorful electrical works fill Hewitt’s “Electric Greenhouse,” a carnivalesque and “fun place” that enchants the neighborhood children.

A “glutton for knowledge,” conceptual book artist Angela Lorenz conducts in-depth research for projects that “seek to entertain as well as inform.” She tells Véronique Plesch how each of her works represents “a new challenge” in which she tries to solve the puzzle of how to best convey her ideas and the results of her research. On occasions, the means she uses to communicate adopt the form of actual games, but in many cases one interacts with her works in a game-like manner. Playfulness and humor (for instance with puns in her titles) engage, surprise, and delight her audience.

David Isakson as well likes a good pun and his titles offer him a “chance to speak directly to the audience.” Declaring that “[p]lay is serious business,” Isakson explains that his art is a “kind of play, a 100 percent commitment to the process of self-reflection” that reveals obstacles and allows him “to dislodge the truth.” His assemblages are “humorous deconstructions” that involve mundane objects. As he reflects on his creative process, Isakson considers the interplay between technique, experimentation, and playfulness.

In Judy LaBrasca’s course Drawing Games students participate in a whole range of games, not limited to the classic Exquisite Corpse. LaBrasca recounts how she turned the famous Rorschach test into a visual game in which students respond to an inkblot by drawing a separate picture that shows what they see in the stain. Although reminiscent of the Surrealist practice of producing random shapes through techniques such as frottage and decalcomania and then enhancing them in order to reveal images, in LaBrasca’s version, several participants offer their “reading” of the inkblot, and thus add a fascinating (and communal) dimension. Also remarkable is her verbo-visual adaptation of the game of Telephone.

Just as LaBrasca uses games in the classroom, Susan Webster and her husband Stuart Kestenbaum have made such pursuits a regular practice. In a playful manner, Webster delivers advice for playing such games which, as she notes, can involve large groups. The effects are remarkable: “with pre-planning, it works and makes strangers immediate best friends.” Webster provides a video of Making Connections, an exhibit that took place in her barn gallery in Deer Isle Village in 2011, a monumental variation on the Exquisite Corpse with sixty-five participants.

Following the journal’s invitation, twelve women artists who met last September at the Long Ledge retreat on Islesboro played Exquisite Corpse. In the Fall 2022 issue on Community, we read about this retreat, and it is not surprising that the tight-knit group of artists would embrace this communal activity and allow their individual styles to merge into fantastical creations. See some examples of the Exquisite Corpses that were produced during this “joyful suspension of daily life.”

Affirming that “[m]aking art and allowing art to make us is perhaps one of the most serious and necessary kinds of play,” poetry editor Betsy Sholl presents a poem by David Stankiewicz, in which the poet responds to a painting by David Driskell. That humor is a form of play is mentioned by several of our contributors and so does Sholl when referring to a poem by Carl Little in which the author playfully—and movingly—bids goodbye to a lost pocket comb. Sholl evokes the different kinds of play that appear in Gibson Fay-LeBlanc’s poem about the game of hockey.

In the wake of the Lewiston shootings, Claire Millikin wonders about “[t]his game our country plays, keeping guns like toys.” While the manhunt goes on, she realizes that our perception of time is “a game we all play badly, slipping back and forth” as the present blends with her past experience of gun violence.

In this issue’s Art Historical Musings, Véronique Plesch recalls the creation of the Exquisite Corpse by the Surrealists, and considers the meaning that this game held for the group. Plesch notes how this game and play in general “embody the fundamental qualities celebrated by the avant-gardes” and how it continues reverberating decades later, for instance in the exhibition The Return of the Cadavre Exquis that The Drawing Center held in 1993.

One couldn’t think of a better person than veteran art critic Edgar Allen Beem, who has written about the arts in Maine since 1978, to report on the “multi-venue series of exhibitions and events” organized this fall by Speedwell Contemporary to honor Alison Hildreth. Writing about Hildreth’s work, Beem notes that it “possesses an aesthetic imagination that is at once deeply serious and unabashedly playful.”

In a remarkable coincidence, Play is the Annual Humanities theme at Colby College. Dean Allbritton, Director of the Center for the Arts and Humanities, describes the different courses and public programs that address the theme “in its complicated facets.” Perhaps paradoxically, the theme was chosen despite—or perhaps because of— “mounting global crises, political divisions, and climatic upheaval (among other things).” The implications are multifarious: “play can be fun, pleasurable, and even silly—but it can also offer a channel to understand systemic injustices, bad policies, and weaponized inequalities.”

In our “Insight/Incite” column, Argy Nestor features art teacher Cory Bucknam, who challenges her middle schoolers “creatively and technically” through “a sense of play.” Bucknam, who believes that “the more fun a student is having, the harder they are willing to work,” reports on the benefits of play—and not only for her students but also in her own professional and artistic practice.

“The sparkling company of play will follow us if we are lucky or able to conjure it” writes Reed McLean as he reminisces about childhood activities and his work as an adult, recapping a recent “example of play in a moment of . . . desperation,” as he was editing a video on artist Barbara Sullivan.

For our UMVA Showcase, members responded to our invitation to reflect upon the ways in which they understand the connection between play and creativity. Betsey Feeley approaches her collages as a “playful process” without “preconceived idea of the final work.” Photographer James McCarthy delights in unexpected reflections on the window of a train that blend with the passing landscape, and which are “both serious, and pure play.” Linda Leach uses polymer clay, a medium “[m]any in the art world still think of . . . as a toy for children,” which she sees “as an art form for adults to create and play.” Val Porter builds a three-dimensional Exquisite Corpse and laughs at her result. Joseph Miller’s charcoal drawings “explore ideas about power and vulnerability, about enchantment and play.” Convinced that “it’s the toughest challenges that shape us for the better,” Sharyn Paul Brusie creates works in which she “continue[s her] search for freedom and [her] quest for play.”

Carl Little writes about MaJo Keleshian “Buddhist, Activist, Artist of Impermanence,” who died last May. Little recounts her career and gathers reminiscences from friends, artists, and poets with whom she collaborated, as well as some of Keleshian’s own words.

As usual, this issue contains updates from the Union of Maine Visual Artists and its different chapters and initiatives. President David Estey reports on the decisions following a retreat of the UMVA Board of Directors, in particular the strategic plan that was approved. Estey lists the benefits of joining the UMVA and gives advice on how to show your work. You will also find news from the UMVA Midcoast chapter, and from ARRT! (Artists’ Rapid Response Team!) and LumenARRT!, which report on their participation in such events as the Longest Night of Homelessness vigil and their support to many other important causes. We also include an update on Truth Tellers, the latest film in the Maine Masters series on the work of Robert Shetterly. As they do for every issue, Pat and Tony Owen write from Ireland and reminisce on the UMVA’s past, in particular a 1993 exhibition titled Sacred Spaces.

In our theme description, we had asked our contributors whether their artistic activity is fun or serious. The ways in which this issue explores the ludic dimension of art making shows that play is, in fact, serious business, and that what might appear as sheer playfulness is in fact a powerful strategy to cope with life’s challenges, face difficult subject matter, seek truth, explore the world, experience freedom, connect with fellow players, successfully communicate with one’s audience, and sustain one’s creativity.



Csikszentmihalyi, Mihaly. Creativity: Flow and the Psychology of Discovery and Invention. New York: Harper Perennial, 1996.

Huizinga, Johan. Homo Ludens: Proeve Ener Bepaling Van Het Spelelement Der Cultuur. Groningen, Wolters-Noordhoff, 1985. English: Homo Ludens: A Study of the Play-Element of Culture. London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1949.

You can stream an episode of PBS’s Craft in America on Play here.


Image at top: Maine Arts Journal Winter 2024 cover (Charlie Hewitt, neon sculptures inside NeoKraft sign shop in Lewiston).