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January 17, 2019
December 14, 2018
November 27, 2018
Making Migration Visible: Traces, Tracks & Pathways is a wide-ranging exhibition of a dynamic group of contemporary artists whose work engages the theme of migration. Organized by Erin Hutton ’98, Director of Exhibitions and Special Projects at the Institute for Contemporary Art at Maine College of Art, and co-curated by Julie Poitras Santos and Catherine Besteman, the exhibit runs through December 14, 2018.
Poitras Santos is Assistant Professor in the MFA program at MECA, as well as an artist and writer whose work is fueled by the relationship between site, story, and mobility, often as a means to create community. Besteman is Professor of Anthropology at Colby College who has conducted extensive fieldwork in South Africa, Somalia, and the U.S. Participating artists include Ahmed Alsoudani ’05, Caroline Bergvall, Edwige Charlot ’10, Jason De León with Michael Wells and Lucy Cahill, Eric Gottesman, Mohamad Hafez, Romuald Hazoumè, Ranu Mukherjee, Daniel Quintanilla with United Youth Empowerment Services (United Y.E.S), María Patricia Tinajero, and Yu-Wen Wu. This exhibition is accompanied by a wide range of events related to migration, immigration, and border crossing that are hosted by MECA and collaborating partner organizations throughout the state. Click here for more information about the exhibition.
Obviously this is a very timely exhibit. Why is this exhibition so important? The United Nations Population Fund estimates that 258 million people, 3.4 percent of the world’s population, lived outside of their country of origin in 2017. The U.N. calculated there were 10.3 million people displaced from Syria alone by the end of 2017. Worldwide, an estimated 65.6 million people are displaced from their homes. Whether migrants in search of better economic and social opportunities, climate refugees, or refugees fleeing violence or other inhumane conditions, millions of people are currently on the move, seeking refuge and setting up lives in entirely new and foreign locations. Making Migration Visible: Traces, Tracks & Pathways challenges the idea that migration is an exception, showing viewers that migration is now the norm, inscribed in our landscapes, memories, bodies, and imaginings.
Migration is such an enormous part of human history; how did the idea for this exhibit develop and evolve? Co-curator, Catherine, and I began talking about this project in late 2016. While I don’t recall the exact moment we began developing ideas for the exhibit, as we spoke about our respective experience and interests, it became clear that from within our different fields and shared concerns we could develop a project together based on the work of artists engaged with the topic of migration.
My work as an artist regards the relationship between site, story, and mobility; many of my projects use walking as a tool to navigate the relationship between site and individual story. My paternal grandparents crossed our northern border on foot in the 1930s looking for work and a transformed livelihood. They lived through some difficult and precarious years as they created their lives and eventually became Americans. So many of us are here because our ancestors migrated, whether brought by force, or coming on their own for reasons of economic need or political freedom. Catherine has spent the past decade interrogating borders, asking whose interests they serve and who they empower. Her work as an ethnographer in Somalia in the late ’80s, and with Somali immigrants in Maine, has provided her with a unique and very personal understanding of the challenges and triumphs experienced by contemporary refugees and local immigrants.
When we first talked about the project, many suggested we should bring this show to fruition immediately in order to address current issues surrounding immigration in this country. Since that time the global conversation surrounding migration has only intensified. We both felt strongly that the exhibition should address the long view, to regard global migration as well as local immigration, and that we should take time with the development of the project. We are addressing a transformation that is ongoing, as well as the human stories that are told from within that transformation. We seek to avoid the reactive response that signifies much of our contemporary news landscape. Rapid response action is critical, but the artists making these works have taken the time needed to draw out a story carefully. We wanted to honor that model of storytelling.
How does this exhibition go beyond a typical gallery experience? What kind of impact do you think this exhibit will have in the local community and beyond? Throughout our exhibition planning, we reached out to local individuals, institutions, and organizations to participate. There are over 70 other institutions planning parallel programming during the timeframe of the exhibit. Some of these individuals and groups are on the front lines of these conversations every day, while other institutions wished to participate by challenging stereotypes and assumptions about migrants through public outreach and programming.
The partner events and programming are really extraordinary. There are parallel exhibitions, artist talks, films, panel discussions, community dinners, community art projects, book releases and discussions, music, poetry – all looking at experiences and stories surrounding im/migration, as well as creating pathways for engagement and activism. The process of connecting with so many wonderful community members has been truly affirming. While the challenges of our current political climate are great, many people are envisioning and actively participating in making our communities more compassionate and welcoming on a daily basis.
How might this exhibit change people’s conception of the role contemporary artists play in our society? In addition to the exhibition and parallel programming, on November 2, we are holding Art+Politics, an all-day symposium (RSVP), which is free and open to the public. Leaders in the community will speak about the role of art in cultivating spaces for civic engagement on controversial topics and sparking social change. Our aim is to engage discussion regarding the potential of art to provide platforms for dialogue and learning about others’ experience. We hope to challenge stereotypes regarding refugee status and experience, immigrant lives, and migrants. The exhibition affirms the power of art to tell stories about who we are as human beings and urges us to engage challenging issues.
How did you and Catherine Besteman select these particular artists? Catherine and I looked at artists who engage their communities in their respective art practices and professional livelihoods. Artists included in this project share an interest in creating work that evokes stories about displacement, exile, mobility, identity, and community. In particular, we wanted to work with artists who focus on traces, tracks, and pathways, rather than on portrayals of people, to enable us to conduct a rich exploration of the landscapes, memory, and ephemera of movement in ways that confront in/visibility and disappearance.
Any particular story that stands out for you during this process? There are so many amazing stories! Daniel Quintanilla works with a local film collective, United YES, to share stories in virtual reality (VR) format and he has showed us how this technology can help us envision new and different worlds. United YES is a film collective started by four friends who grew up together in Lewiston after being transplanted from Southern Somalia through Kenyan refugee camps to Maine. Their love of multimedia production and firm commitment to helping their community is inspirational.
This groundbreaking exhibit and its many components wouldn’t have been possible without raising $80,000 in additional funding, including a leadership grant of $40,000 from the National Endowment of the Arts, a $10,000 Lunder Foundation Challenge Grant, a gift of $10,000 from Colby College, as well as valuable support from an anonymous donor, Coffee By Design, Alison D. Hildreth ’76 Hon. DFA ’17 , Candace Pilk Karu Hon. DFA ’13, the Maine Arts Commission (an independent state agency supported by the National Endowment for the Arts), and Jeremy Moser and Laura Kittle.
I felt that by going to MECA I would not only develop my work, but personal routines that would help me sustain a professional practice.
When did you graduate? Were you a full or low resident?
May 2018 and I was a full resident in the program.
Why did you decide to get your MFA at MECA?
I decided to get my MFA at MECA because of the trimester structure of the program and the institutional emphasis on artistic excellence. I felt that by going to MECA I would not only develop my work but personal routines that would help me sustain a professional practice.
Where do you live now and what are you doing after graduation?
I currently live in Fairmont, West Virginia. I’m teaching at Fairmont State University in Fairmont, WV.
What are you working on now?
I am working on large-scale prints, relief sculptures, and a sculptural installation for a solo show next year at Real Art Ways in Hartford, Connecticut. More info can be found here.
Do you keep in touch with your cohort?
Since graduation, I have kept in touch with my cohort at least weekly (usually more).
How has the MFA program impacted what you are doing today?
I feel that the program acted as an idea incubator of sorts. I was able to work both instinctively and critically, exploring ideas that I could refine post-graduation as well as some ideas that needed to get out to be done. Speaking to how it has impacted what I am doing today, I am beginning to develop a body of work with explorations that began within the program.
MECA’s MFA program is: “A metaphorical pressure-cooker.”
Portland is: “A special place that will rarely give you a bad meal.”
Juliet Werner (Salt ’06), a Senior Segment Producer at the Daily Show with Trevor Noah, took some time to discuss her new feature documentary film, The Laughter Life, and share some reflections on her life after Salt.
Can you tell us a bit about this new project, The Laughter Life?
This is my first time directing a documentary feature. I work full time as a producer for The Daily Show on Comedy Central, but was able to use our hiatuses to pursue this independent project. I had the help of family members. My dad edited. My brother wrote the score. And my cousin did the artwork. I am not Mormon, but was intrigued by the idea that Provo, Utah and specifically Brigham Young University, had produced this group of irreverent young people who were pursuing carers in something as unpredictable as television comedy. The synopsis below will help explain.
The Laughter Life follows a week in the life of the young comedians who write and star in Studio C, a popular sketch comedy television show that has garnered over 1 billion views on YouTube. But theirs is not your typical comedy success story, as the cast and crew behind the program are practicing Mormons living in the deeply observant community of Provo, Utah. And the network producing their show is BYUtv, a religiously-oriented network run by The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. The Laughter Life introduces the viewer to a world few have visited and demonstrates the unifying power of comedy.
How can we see the film and keep up with your work?
Can you give us a taste of what you’ve been up to since Salt?
I studied nonfiction writing at Salt in Fall of ’06 and took the week-long multimedia course in the summer of ’14. I am now a senior segment producer on The Daily Show With Trevor Noah. Other comedy credits include The Daily Show With Jon Stewart, UCB Comedy, and The Onion. I’ve also done some writing since Salt, working as a reporter for The Queens Tribune. And I spent several years volunteering for Girls Write Now, a creative writing and mentoring organization that works with high school students in NYC.
What have been your biggest takeaways from your time at Salt?
Interviewing! How to prepare and order questions. How to be present. How to get into a comfortable groove with the person you’re talking to.
And structuring the story. What do my subjects want? What are the obstacles they face? Where should we leave them in the story?
And field work: how do I spend my time to ensure that I get a variety of scenes and see the subjects operating in a variety of settings?
Remember, too: your project will have many versions— many drafts or cuts. At Salt you learn how to stick with the process, and take notes from peers. This has really stayed with me.
Are there any stories by Salt alums that you’ve been particularly excited to see out in the world?
My classmate Maisie Crow just won an Emmy for her film Jackson!
I let my curiosity lead me.
How did you learn about Salt?
A photographer friend in Portland took me to the final show of the 2006 fall semester, when the photography was still black and white film! I had been shooting some weddings and portraits locally and thought that was going to be my career, but within 10 minutes of walking into that gallery I knew I wanted to be a journalist. I met Donna and some of the instructors and they encouraged me to apply. The rest is history.
What was your Creative and Career Path?
a. 0-2 years after graduation.
I went straight from Salt graduation to the Maine Media Workshops, where I spent the summer as a teaching assistant. In fall of 2007 I attended the Eddie Adams Workshop and used my connections from there and from MMW to get some freelance assisting gigs in and around New York City. I knew so little about the industry at that point, but through assisting photographers with even mundane-seeming things like organizing their archives and gear, driving them to shoots and helping them write emails, I got a better sense of how the world of photojournalism/documentary worked and what it would take to do it professionally.
b. 3-5 years after graduation.
My partner at the time and fellow photographer, Alan Winslow, and I wrote some grants and got corporate sponsorship to do a long-term project that would be turned into a touring show. We completed it, and then began planning a second one.
c. 5-10 years after graduation.
We did the second project, which took us three years to complete, and then turned it into a public art show. When we returned from traveling we lectured and shared the project widely, and after moving back to New York City, I began picking up some freelance photography work- starting through a connection I made at Salt! In 2015 I started at the New York Times as a photo editor, and that’s still what I’m doing today!
How would you describe the story of your professional path?
I would say that my professional path hasn’t been conventional or particularly straightforward, but I’ve always thrown myself into projects and ideas that I love, and tried to tell stories the best I can. I let my curiosity lead me, and tried to be open to the experiences.
What resources, tools, or organizations have you found helpful throughout your career?
There is no substitute for making friends in your field. It can be easy to slide into a place where you feel competitive with other photographers, but finding some folks that you trust and with whom you can openly share career information (like, how much did you get paid for that gig? What was that editor like to work with?) is absolutely the best resource out there. Plus, those are the people who will understand when you go through lows, be your cheerleaders when things are going well, and you’ll all be elevated for the relationship.
How did your experience at Salt help you find your first position after graduation?
Salt instructors were the ones who encouraged me to apply for the position at Maine Media Workshops! I’m sure I wouldn’t have even applied if it weren’t for Neil and Kate and Donna.
What would you look for if you were in a position to hire new graduates from Salt at MECA?
I would look for new graduates with a good eye for unique composition, solid technical skills and the ability to sniff out a good story. So many stories feel recycled- I love seeing new ways of telling old stories, or completely fresh-feeling stories about things that could have been ho-hum.
What advice might you have for current Salt students? For new Salt alumni?
Honestly, journalism is tough. You have to really love what you do and be willing to put in the time and effort. Don’t get frustrated. Stay humble. There is always more to learn and you can always make yourself better. Trust your gut and keep telling good, important stories truthfully as long as the medium inspires you.
Find more of Morrigan’s work here.
What happens to history when stories are lost? And what is the artist’s role in saving and sharing stories? Students in Documentary Storytelling, a class taught by MECA Adjunct Instructor of Foundation Matt Frassica, worked through these questions while learning techniques for storytelling, narrative, and engagement in a partnership with the Abyssinian Meeting House on Newbury Street in Portland, Maine. This Second-Year Lab class, which is part of MECA’s Public Engagement curriculum, continued a long-term project and podcast in conjunction with the Abyssinian. As Professor Frassica described, “This oral history project is greater than just this class—it’s a means of connecting to the Maine African American experience, making sure the stories are heard, preserved, and honored.”
The third-oldest African American meeting house in the country, the Abyssinian was built in 1828 as a church and also served as a school and a concert hall before closing in 1917. Its members included abolitionists and leaders of the Underground Railroad. Students collected stories from the Committee for the Restoration of the Abyssinian as well as members of the African American community in greater Portland. In early October, the students —newly equipped with an understanding of story structure and the tools for engaging subjects—took a tour of the Abyssinian and began to ask questions. Frassica said the students had a profound experience: they were poignantly affected by the layers of history in the house and in their community. One student remarked that the Abyssinian was “one of the most peaceful places” they’d ever been. Others said they could really feel the presence of history. The building is currently in the process of being renovated and rebuilt; one can see these historical layers in the structure itself.
“There are not a lot of forms in which students and young people can connect to older people and ask them questions about their lives and experiences. It’s really valuable to create these kinds of connections,” Frassica noted. “Art students are learning how to use themselves as a source. This project allows students to make connections to a wider community. They’re able to use these skills of seeing themselves as part of something greater in this project in particular, but are also able to carry that knowledge forward as both citizens and artists in their own work.” Through a mix of practical skills and civic engagement, the students come away with a greater understanding of the Abyssinian’s impressive significance—for themselves and for their audiences. Their work will culminate in collected oral histories and live storytelling events in early 2018.
Other classes also developed community partnerships for studio-based learning. The students in Design Studio, a class taught by Adjunct Instructor of Graphic Design Drew Hodges, partnered with several organizations. Linked through the Maine Association for Nonprofits, MECA’s Graphic Design majors worked primarily with 501(c)3 organizations that had budgets under $100,000 on posters, branding, and typography projects. This connection served nonprofits who otherwise might not be able to afford specialty design services while providing students with real-world experience working with clients. Kirk Simpson ’18 reflected that the class was “both incredibly rewarding and challenging at the same time. Each student tears each project down, finding out what the audience’s needs are, what the client’s needs are, and what our own imaginations can bring.”
Drew pushed us beyond the design aesthetic and made us tap directly into the emotional connection each project and community partner needed. – Kirk Simpson ’18
Hodges founded Spot Design in 1987, which was followed by the launch of SpotCo, an innovative full-service entertainment advertising agency that has done branding work for large Broadway shows such as Rent and Hamilton. He said he modeled the class “on a working design studio with the students as designers and myself as creative director. Not every project is a nonprofit, but most are. Jessica Tomlinson, director of Artists at Work at MECA, has been a great help: she connected us with the nonprofits in Maine. We began by working on a 1984 reading for the organization One Book, Many Conversations. Next, we did a membership outreach for the Center for Maine Contemporary Art in Rockland. Finally, we moved forward with a poster for the D.L. Geary Brewing Company—with which MECA has a 16-year involvement—and worked with the Frannie Peabody Center for World AIDS Day on December 1.”
One Book, Many Conversations, a nationwide initiative that encourages dialogue by rooting it in the reading of a specific book, chose George Orwell’s 1984 for the 2017 project. The University of New England, the local sponsor for the project, selected Simpson’s design for the Southern Maine One Book, Many Conversations 1984 poster. Simpson attributed this success, in part, to his professor: “Drew pushed us beyond the design aesthetic and made us tap directly into the emotional connection each project and community partner needed. Through imagery and a strong attention to typography—and how it activated emotions—Drew brought his years of experience right to the core of what every student needed and how each one of us could successfully deliver a winning design.”
Jenna Crowder ’09 is an artist who works in installation, curating, and writing. She earned her BFA in Sculpture at MECA and has worked internationally on public and collaborative art projects. Jenna is currently a member of the Portland Public Art Committee and is a member artist at Pickwick Independent Press. She is the co-founding editor of the online arts journal The Chart.
Header: Drew Hodges, adjunct instructor of Graphic Design, leads a critique of posters in his Design Studio class. Photo by Kyle Dubay ’18.
Images Above, Top to Bottom:
Dennis Ross, president of WJZP 107.9, a local jazz radio station, was interviewed by students as part of MECA’s Documentary Storytelling class. Photo by Tia Doering ’20.
Students in Drew Hodges’ Design Studio class also worked with him on a rebranding project for WJZP. Jill Duson, who serves on the Portland City Council, was interviewed by students as part of MECA’s Documentary Storytelling class. Photo by Candice Gosta ’20.
This One Book, Many Conversations 1984 poster, designed by Kirk Simpson ’18, was selected to promote local community programming for the initiative.
Our goal is to have every student come to visit every exhibit, get to know the curators, be immersed in contemporary art, get to know the artists, and participate in conversations.
Erin Hutton ’98 is the Director of Exhibitions and Special Projects at the Institute of Contemporary Art (ICA) at MECA. In this interview, she reflects on the rich legacy of the ICA and her vision going forward.
Tell us a little bit about the background and legacy of the ICA.
Jennifer Gross was the first director of the ICA when it opened in the Porteous Building back in 1997. The vision at the time was to be a premier art space focused specifically on contemporary art, as there was nothing comparable in Portland then. David Ireland was the first artist to be showcased, and his dedication to working with students and interns helped to launch the premiere exhibit. The ICA directors, who also served as curators, have gone on to accomplish incredible things in the art world. Gross is currently the deputy director for curatorial affairs and chief curator at the deCordova Sculpture Park and Museum in Lincoln, Massachusetts. Mark Bessire is the director of the Portland Museum of Art in Maine, Cindy Foley serves as the executive deputy director for learning and experience at Columbus Museum of Art in Ohio, Toby Kamps is the director of the Blaff er Art Museum at the University of Houston, Daniel Fuller is the curator at the Atlanta Contemporary Art Center, and Lauren Fensterstock is an assistant professor in MECA’s MFA Program and a practicing artist. All kinds of school groups visit the ICA and use our exhibitions as part of their classroom experiences. We have programs that focus on youths, K-12, and other groups from colleges such as Bates, the University of Southern Maine, and Southern Maine Community College. We’re free and open to the public, so we really provide a service to the community.
What is your current vision?
Having been given this opportunity to honor the vision and legacy of the people who were here before me, I plan to move the ICA forward with a flexible curatorial model that will allow new voices to be included in this progressive, contemporary art space for years to come. My current vision is to really take off with this new model that allows me to be nimble and flexible through identifying and working with guest curators. At any one time, I can be working with nine different curators with nine different visions and levels of expertise. We provide a platform in an amazing facility to honor, support and promote a curator’s vision and what they want to produce. The ICA is always changing and continuously evolving. We don’t overschedule, allowing us to include an exhibit that needs to take place because of a current climate or that addresses a social or global issue. But we can also schedule out two years in advance and give curators and artists valuable time to create work, for which they are grateful. In 2017, as we celebrate our 20th anniversary, I see the ICA evolving to have a deeper connection to not only the local community but the global community as well, through digital communication. Powerful and poignant exhibits can be seen years later and through different types of media.
The ICA is always changing and continuously evolving.
How do the exhibits and projects impact MECA’s students and the curriculum?
The ICA has never lost sight of the educational component of this space that ties directly to the curriculum and vice versa, with some exhibitions layered into the curriculum itself. In fact, the ICA is used as a laboratory space for many classrooms, including MECA’s Master of Arts in Teaching (MAT) Program. Our goal is to have every student come to visit every exhibit, get to know the curators, be immersed in contemporary art, get to know the artists, and participate in conversations. Otherwise we could be like any other place. We are unique. Any student interested in working in a gallery or museum can train in the ICA through internships, employment, and hands-on experiences through curatorial practices, learning how an exhibition is put together from beginning to end, which is vital to them. They get real-world experience and deep dive into the exhibition process. MECA’s visiting artist committee is a link between the curriculum and exhibition roster. We work with faculty to produce curated exhibits, and we work with students and alumni who participate in exhibits. We’ve had interactive projects through MECA’s Public Engagement Program and we occasionally showcase student work in our front gallery through a vetted proposal process. In addition, the ICA manages all the exhibitions on campus.
The recent Painting Symposium in conjunction with the American Genre: Contemporary Painting exhibit curated by Michelle Grabner was a huge success, with over 150 people attending. What was that like?
It was an incredible experience to have artists, critics, writers, and a participatory audience hear from leaders in the field. This event would not have been possible without Gail Spaien, professor in MECA’s Painting and MFA Programs and a contributing artist to the American Genre exhibition. She developed this grand idea and had the energy to see it through. Michelle Grabner shared her vision for the exhibition that surrounded us, and we all got to kind of geek out on painting and be immersed in critical theory and all things painting. Our students were able to engage directly with these leaders and everyone left inspired, feeling like they sat through something really meaningful and powerful. We plan to have more symposia and opportunities for the community to engage in critical conversations.
In what sense is the ICA “a constant critique”?
The students who come in here say, “Ahh—that’s art,” because they see it on the walls. But the purpose of the ICA is to create dialogue—for a student, guest, or visitor to view artwork and have a response. It might be positive, negative, emotional, or blasé, but there’s a response. The exhibitions are meant to provoke students to bring these conversations back to their classrooms and strive to have their work on view in a museum or gallery or in experimental ways. We have pop-up events, visiting artists, a lot of things that percolate beyond the walls of the gallery. The future of the ICA lies in the impacts that go well beyond just the physical space.
Are there any particularly memorable stories you would like to share?
My most memorable story—the reason why I was so drawn to working in the ICA—was my experience as a young student working with David Ireland and being an intern on that exhibition, where I received first- hand experience and made a real personal connection with the artist. I will never forget it. Partnering with Daniel Fuller on the student-immersive events where we collaborated on weeklong student engagement projects was also a rich experience. The projects were fun, wacky, and strange, but mostly they were incredible experiences for our students. I continue to look back on those two important experiences, and they fuel the work that I do now.
YOU NEVER KNOW HOW YOU LOOK THROUGH OTHER PEOPLE’S EYES March 8–April 20, 2018. Selected artists create an antagonistic equilibrium in an experimental framework curated by artist Scott Patrick Wiener.
2018 MFA THESIS EXHIBITION May 11–June 8, 2018
More information on upcoming shows can be found here.
Maine College of Art shares deep roots with the Portland Museum of Art. In 1882, the Portland Society of Art was founded, which encompassed both the art school and the museum. Not until 1982 did the Portland School of Art (as it was named in 1972) separate into an independent organization with a renewed mission to educate professional visual artists. In 1992, the College was once again renamed as MECA to better reflect its status as a degree-granting New England school.
Throughout its transformations, MECA has always retained close ties with the Portland Museum of Art, both as our neighbor in the Arts District and in recognition of the collaborative arts community here. MECA’s first-year student orientation, for example, includes a visit to the PMA, and MECA has offered Drawing at the PMA as a Continuing Studies class. In 2013, the PMA presented Ahmed Alsoudani: Redacted, the first major museum exhibition of the work of American-Iraqi artist Ahmed Alsoudani ’05, one of our most successful alumni.
PMA’s 2018 Biennial, a survey of contemporary art “intended to highlight artists with meaningful connections to Maine and enrich the cultural lives of the people of the state,” runs through May 30, 2018, and the 25 selected artists include many from the MECA community: David Driskell, Hon. DFA ’96, Gina Adams ’02, Jenny McGee Dougherty ’05, Anne Buckwalter MFA ’12, Adjunct Instructor of Foundation Stephen Benenson, Assistant Instructor of Illustration Daniel Minter, and Assistant Professor of Sculpture and MFA Joshua Reiman.
The Portland Museum of Art’s 2018 Biennial is made possible by the William E. and Helen E. Thon Endowment Fund, with additional support from the PMA Contemporaries. “Inspired by his own experience and love of biennials, Thon entrusted the PMA with the means to offer a rich contemporary art experience to its audiences.”
Nat May, the former executive director of SPACE Gallery (another vital arts organization and connecting point in downtown Portland, located between MECA and the PMA), was invited to curate the biennial this year. In addition to his work at SPACE for more than 13 years, May has been a strong influencer in the local arts community. To determine the final list, May assembled a team of arts professionals, which included PMA’s Judy and Leonard Lauder Director Mark Bessire, artist and Maine Indian Basketmakers Alliance co-founder Theresa Secord, and Skowhegan School of Painting & Sculpture Co-Director Sarah Workneh. They each visited studios throughout Maine and the nation, meeting with artists who complement each other while reflecting Maine’s increasingly diverse community. In a change from past biennials, many of the artists will be exhibiting not just one singular work but several.
Header Image: The Portland Museum of Art Biennial 2018 opening party. Photo by Brianna Soukup, the Portland Press Herald.
Wheels click in staccato rhythms and rubber stoppers shriek against the slick wooden floor of the track. Strapped head to toe in protective pads and helmets, 10 women on rollerskates jockey for position, huddling in groups, bracing and pushing. Two nimble skaters—jammers—race each other as they try to score points for their teams while avoiding the clusters of the opponent’s blockers.
It’s a Saturday night in September—the opening bout of the 2017 Maine Roller Derby season. The RIP Tides are battling the Calamity Janes at Happy Wheels Skate Center in Portland, Maine. I am trying to be nimble myself as I dart from this corner to that, my camera and tripod in tow. I chose roller derby as the subject for my short documentary film project at Salt because I’ve always loved the pageantry of the sport: the campy derby nicknames like Cabbage Smash Kid and Stella Moves, and the displays of bravado and high drama on the track. But as I circle the players trying to get footage, trying not to get hit, I’m still not sure of the story I want to tell.
Later, at the after-party, under glowing strings of lights on the rooftop ofBayside Bowl, I asked some of the skaters sitting near me, “What should my focus be? What is the real story here?” One of the newer skaters spoke up quickly. She looked younger than most of the other skaters, and her long limbs, speed, and agility made her a natural jammer. During the bout, she looked almost like she was tiptoeing as she fought her way through the opposing team’s blockers—a mix of determination and uncertainty. She shared her own story: like other gay women on the team, she’d found not only a community that is notoriously inclusive, but she’d also met women who’d been out for some time and were living the kinds of lives she hoped for herself. I thought about my own experiences as a gay person, how I sought out places where I could be around other LGBT people, how reassuring it felt to see those older community members and think, “I’m going to be okay.” Her story stuck with me all weekend.
The following week, I asked if she would share her story in my film, and she reluctantly agreed. She was nervous about being on camera, afraid she might say the wrong thing; she didn’t really want the spotlight.That week, she allowed me to film her at practice, gliding around the track, chatting with teammates, but the following evening, when it was time to sit down for the interview, she texted me apologetically. She just wasn’t sure that she wanted to share her story, to open herself up to judgment and scrutiny. I told her I understood, but I was crushed. I wasn’t sure that I could make the film without her story.
Before I came to MECA, I buzzed with anticipation through the spring and summer, knowing that I would soon be leaving a job that had become heavy and stale. I knew I would spend the last four months of the year far from home, learning to make documentaries while surrounded by other students chasing the same dream. But during the second week of classes, when we turned in our first assignments, I realized that I was afraid to share my work with the class. I had studied photojournalism as an undergrad a decade ago, but in the years between had somehow forgotten how terrifying it is to create something so personal and then put it up on a screen for others to judge. I couldn’t fault the young skater for being scared of how I might tell her story or for her fear of what others might think.
I realized that I came to Salt, to MECA, to Maine, chasing a sense of belonging as much as a dream of making documentaries.
In the weeks after our failed interview, I wrestled with my disappointment, but I knew I just wasn’t done with roller derby yet. I thought about the other people I’d met sitting on the rooftop at that after-party. There’d been a young man there who had met a skater at a record store just
days before. After he’d confided in her that he really didn’t have many friends and was lonely, she’d invited him to the bout and he had decided to come. And there’d been all those other skaters: each had their own story of what had brought them to the sport, and each had stayed with it because they’d found a community that welcomed them and accepted them as they were. I decided to continue with the project, to gather as many of their stories as I could and try to capture that sense of community.
I also thought about my own story. I realized that I came to Salt, to MECA, to Maine, chasing a sense of belonging as much as a dream of making documentaries. All my classmates have their own story of what brought them to Salt, but we’ve all been welcomed into a community here, and it makes me think of what I find most wonderful about the documentary: the feeling of connection to someone or something you didn’t know before.
Alix Towler Salt ’17 is a writer, artist, and documentary filmmaker from North Carolina. A former forensic social worker, Alix focuses primarily on issues of social justice but is also drawn to document the quirky, the novel, and the charming. She came to Portland as an inaugural member of the fall class of Salt at MECA.
Images in Header: Photos by Alix Towler Salt ’17, except for upper right photo by Rick Stark Salt ’17