Collaborative Art-Making

The St. George peninsula is mid-coast Maine is an astonishingly artsy place.  Among the famous artists who’ve lived here or near are Andrew Wyeth and his son Jamie (who still lives here), Kenneth Noland, Greg Mort, and William Thon. And in addition to those better known names are dozens and dozens of full-time and summer-time makers, working in media as diverse as watercolors and stone, encaustic and rusted metal, digital photography and hand-made paper.  It’s a great place to be a maker.

Every summer, through an open studio program organized by the late, great Don McClain (no, not that one.  The other one), between 20 and 40 artists have opened their spaces to visitors for one or two weekends each summer.

I love such projects, but I started to feel bad for the artists because they couldn’t visit each other.  This celebration of the area’s creative community precluded the participation of many of its members.  I tried to figure out something I could do to bring us all into community?

chapbook-230x300And from that, the “progressive poetry project” was born.  Here’s what we did:

1.  I left a box of blank cards with each of the artists who was interested in participating, and instructions to the folks who visited the studio to write something on the card that was inspired by the work.  Not “this is so pretty,” but maybe something like “blackberries tinged with sea spray.”  Or whatever.  I tried really hard to keep it open and not prescriptive.

2.  I collected all the boxes, spent some time looking at the art work, and then used as many of the words on the cards as I could to make a poem that was responsive to the work or the words or both, one poem per studio.

3.  Then, I turned those into a little chapbook, illustrated with images by several of the artists, and shared with everyone who participated.

What I hoped was that the artists and visitors would consider us as all in “it” together, a community of collective appreciate and creation, and that those often firm lines between makers and viewers would blur.  And that did happen, at least a little.  But what also happened, delightfully, was that many of the artists felt that the poems really suited their work–even though they couldn’t control what folks said about their art, or what I did with the things that they said.  And I have to think that that’s due to more than serendipity, that the poems were the distillation of community being manifest.

Fireflies Attract

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Earlier this week, my friend Barbara and I headed out to a meadow just before dusk to meet with Sara, a firefly expert, and Michelle, a fellow firefly fan.   Barbara and I are working on an extended project about this place, and she has made many gorgeous pictures of fireflies here, so we thought it’d be great if someone wise in the ways of fireflies could school us about what we were seeing.

We had a terrific  time, although we didn’t see nearly as many fireflies as we had expected to. It was, it turns out, a bit of a seasonal low point–the waning days of summer’s earliest fireflies, and very early in the waxing of the next species, whose time to spread their wings starts soon.  Still, we learned a ton–including the difference between photuris and photinus, and between boy flashes and girl flashes, as well as assorted details about the evolution of firefly glow and about their mating habits.

Equally captivating, to me, is what the fireflies engender.  As we tell folks about our interest in these beautiful bugs, people send us pictures or point us toward other artists also interested in them.  Two great images that came our way last week were from 19th century Japan.  Here’s one of them:

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Many people in Japan, it turns out, have a profound affection for fireflies.  In fact, that ardor rises to the level of a being a general cultural appreciation of them. Sara had been in Japan earlier in the month, giving a talk at a scientific conference.  To her surprise, even lay people attended.  And not only did they listen avidly, they also asked great questions and seemed to fully appreciate the information being presented by the scientists.

In addition to the images that have come our way are recommendations of other pieces–like this haiku by the poet Issa, who lived approximately two hundred years ago:

A giant firefly:
that way, this way, that way, this –
and it passes by.

Michelle also told us about an artist she’s especially fond of, Canadian Michael Flomen. He uses photographic materials and a deep appreciation of light and chemistry (no wonder he likes fireflies!) to make his images–which are utterly literal and entirely abstract at the same time.    Rather than using a camera, he lets the fireflies walk on photo paper, for example, and leave their own trail.  Here are a couple of his collaborations with fireflies:

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These, in turn, remind me of the work of Martin Prothero, who sets out carbon-coated glass plates and lets animals trace their own paths across them.  Here is one:

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Firefly traces, animal tracks, human artworks — fleeting marks of lives being lived well.