Speaker 1: You are listening to Love Maine Radio, hosted by Dr. Lisa Belisle and recorded at the studios of Maine Magazine in Portland. Dr. Lisa Belisle is a writer and physician who practices family medicine and acupuncture in Thomson. Show summaries are available at lovemaineradio.com.
Lisa: This is Dr. Lisa Belisle, and you are listening to Love Maine Radio, show number 318, airing for the first time on Sunday, October 22, 2017. Today’s guests are internationally recognized visual artist and photographer John Paul Caponigro and Suzette McAvoy, the executive director and chief curator at the Center for Maine Contemporary Art in Rockland. Thank you for joining us.
Speaker 1: Portland Art Gallery is proud to sponsor Love Maine Radio. Portland Art Gallery is the city’s largest and is located in the heart of the Old Port at 154 Middle Street. The gallery focuses on exhibiting the work on contemporary Maine artists and hosts a series of monthly solo shows in its newly expanded space, including Ingunn Joergensen, Brenda Cirioni, Daniel Corey, Jill Hoy, and Dave Allen. For complete show details, please visit our website at artcollectormaine.com.
Lisa: John Paul Caponigro is a prominent visual artist working with digital media. His art has been exhibited internationally and purchased by numerous private and public collections, including Princeton University, the Estee Lauder collection, and Smithsonian. Thanks for coming in today.
John Paul: Thanks for inviting me.
Lisa: You are a very busy man. You have had a lot of fingers in a lot of different pies.
John Paul: I am busy.
Lisa: Yeah. So I’m interested in how you initially got involved in this. I know that your father is also a photographer, but it doesn’t necessarily mean that one person is going to do exactly what one’s parent does.
John Paul: No, not at all. And in fact, when one’s parent is so accomplished, and actually both the parents were artists and accomplished. My mother is a painter and graphic designer. One thinks carefully about stepping into someone else’s shadow. So it was a longer road than many people anticipate. Many people don’t realize that I was drawing and painting and actually pursuing that all through college, and it wasn’t until I had a few big questions to answer about photography that it really became a personal passion.
And there were two questions that I really wanted to answer. One was, how do you take a device that makes this literal recording and come away with an abstract image? How does that change the experience? And two, how is it possible that two people with the same tool standing side by side shooting the same subject can come away with such different photographs?
So in many ways, the photograph is both a window and a mirror. And that’s been fascinating, still fascinates me today.
Lisa: You have a background in graphic design, I believe.
John Paul: Well, I learned something about graphic design through my mother and helping her in the studio over summers, but I wouldn’t call myself a graphic designer, even though we do produce many things in the studio. I do that out of respect to all the graphic designers who have that large training and her much greater expertise. But I really do appreciate that she sensitized me not only do design, but also to offset printing. Most of what I learned about offset printing was something that I learned through my mother while she was overseeing the production of many books, including LA Porter’s Imminent Landscape book, which is where I saw the first digital retouching machine. It was back in the ‘70s and she called these things “million dollar coloring books.” And I wanted one. But I had no idea how I was going to get a hold of the million dollars.
Fast-forward to 1990, Kodak sets up their digital training center in Camden, Maine. Center for Creative Imaging. And I got to be an artist in residence. And there was Photoshop on a Macintosh for a few thousand dollars and it was a dream come true.
Lisa: I remember looking at your website and reading about this conversation that you had to have with yourself to decide that you needed to stop doing other things in order to really focus in on what you really were supposed to be doing.
John Paul: Sure. I think we all do. In the era of information overload, in this extraordinary world of possibilities, you have to give yourself some focus. And I think the degree to which you focus and focus on the things that are really enduring passions for you, that’ll have legs, that you can stick with it long enough and feel strongly enough to bring all of your passion and innovation to, I think that’s the degree to which you’re going to live a successful life.
Lisa: What is it that caused this to stick for you? Because I think a lot of people have that question. You can have a lot of different interests in a lot of different things, and not know which one is the one that you’re supposed to really go with.
John Paul: Maybe it’s a cure for choice paralysis. When you learn to be creative, and I studied creativity. I can’t tell you how many times I laugh when my colleagues or aspiring students say they want to be more creative but they don’t necessarily think they have to study it. Just, you are it. But then you see the intelligence community or people in marketing or all kinds of other people studying creativity, and I thought, you should study it as well.
So there are a lot of skills out there that’ll help you generate a lot of information, a lot of ideas, a lot of material. And then you’re left with choice paralysis all over again. You realize out of all of these thousands of ideas, you only have a certain amount of time.
And I used to be extraordinarily frustrating to me. I would think, “Why would God give us all of this infinite possibility but so little time to actually do a small fraction of it?” And over time I felt that … I came to understand that the things that you decide to commit yourself to, the most precious thing you have, your time, your life, your breath … That level of commitment that you bring to what you do speaks volumes, adds in a depth and a certain quality to it. And it also becomes a compass for you.
So I think if you can find your true north, it helps an enormous amount.
Lisa: How did you find your true north? Was there a turning point, was there some place where you were in your life where you realized, “Okay, this is where I’ve gotta go”?
John Paul: Right. And I think a lot of times we’re looking for that one eureka moment where it all comes together. But my experience has been that there are smaller eureka moments, these turning points on a much more winding path that all build up one on top of another. And if one maps out, that whole territory, you start to see not only a richer world but you get a sense of a portrait of yourself.
So it’s almost like dominoes. One thing builds on another. There might have been a particular image that came through that was a surprise, and had a quality, and said, “Yes, this is what I was looking for. I didn’t know exactly what I was looking for, but I’ve found a piece in this puzzle.” And then I think there’s a danger of stopping there and saying, “Look, I found it. It’s different. I could stick with this a lifetime.”
And in one way, you do want to stick with those eternal themes for a lifetime. You want to find those. But at the same time, within that, you want to innovate.
Lisa: When you say that you study creativity, what does that mean? How does one study creativity?
John Paul: There’s some great books out there. Like Mike Michalko educates the intelligence community and goes out and does lectures for corporations. His books like Cracking Creativity or Thinker Toys, they’re fabulous. A number of people in the marketing industry have also written great books about generating ideas. Learning little acronyms like, I think it was Tony Bazan that came up with SCAMPER. Substitute, combine, adapt, modify, put to other uses, expand, and reverse. It’s a great little tool to think about how many ways could you generate new ideas and new perspectives.
A lot of people have a lot of different definitions of what creativity is. It’s far more than just being. It’s a set of tools, a set of operations. It’s a state of mind. And then, as one of my students said years ago in one of my workshops, “Oh, I get it. Creativity. You need to actually make something. Where you test all of those ideas.” And then coming in contact with the world, with the way that other people react to it, with the actual materials, new information comes to light. You have to recalibrate. So there’s this wonderful evolution of perception.
Lisa: In addition to being a photographer, you’re very active in educating other photographers-
John Paul: Yeah.
Lisa: -which not everybody chooses to do. Some artists are very much about just doing their art.
John Paul: Sure.
Lisa: But from what I can tell, you have a passion for helping others further their own art.
John Paul: Yeah, I do. I do. You do a lot of soul-searching, you wonder what your contribution might be. And I realized that one of my contributions and one of the clearest ways that I can see my contribution right here, right now, is to empower other people. And when you see them find their voice, something that’s authentic, something that’s theirs, and you see them light up, it really is this illuminated state of being. If somebody struck a spark and they fan the flames, that’s tremendously gratifying. And you can leave a week-long workshop, sometimes a portfolio review, once in a while a lecture, and you realize you’ve touched people.
And, okay, I know I’ve made a difference. And when you leave a legacy of a body of work, you never know what Indiana Jones vault it might be locked in or how people are going to reconsider it or whether it’s going to be lost in a tsunami. You have no idea. But when you see that you’ve touched another person and you see them go on to do things for themselves and start to change their world, then you know you’ve made a difference.
So I’m looking for both, but I realize there’s an opportunity and a responsibility. And I feel privileged to be able to make a difference in other people’s lives.
Lisa: So speaking about legacy, what would you consider your legacy to be? Is it about helping others find their own path? Is it about doing something specific with your work? Or is it a combination of these things?
John Paul: It’s a combination. I would hope that my legacy as a photographer would be to encourage people to think more openly and broadly about photography, to understand what it was, what it is, and what it can be. I would hope that as an educator, I can help people live more creative lives and then empower them to make their own authentic contributions. And as an artist, I would hope that I inspire people to think of themselves as a small miracle within a much greater miracle. Not separate from, but connected with something much larger. And I think the mindset that comes with that has been life-changing for me.
Lisa: What I like about your photography is that it really is fine art photography. It’s not simply landscape, which is also beautiful. But you are creating something new from something that already exists, but you’re bringing things out of your own self and putting it out there. Even though it’s a photograph.
John Paul: It’s both a window and a mirror. There are many kinds of photographs, many kinds of art. I’m as interested in the landscapes within, the way the land shapes us and how we take it in and what we do with it inside. And then as a result, our psyches change and we see and interact with the land. The kinds of perception that we approach the world with change our experience, what you see changes what you know. What you know changes what you see. There’s this kind of feedback loop.’
So my work is as much about land as it is about the subject. It’s as much about mind as it is about the subject of land. I don’t think you can separate the two, and I think it’s very important to become more aware of ourselves in our mind, our mindset and the ways of being with land or the ways of being land. Not just documenting that vanishing thing out there, which in that larger perspective, we kind of need to get a clue on the environmental movement.
I appreciate when the biologist Lovelock who proposed the Gaia theory, that the Earth is one self-regulating organism, we are only a small part of that, was asked to speak on behalf of a lot of environmental organizations to save the Earth. Saying, wait a minute. You’ve gotta reframe this. You’re not talking about saving it. You’re talking about saving the habitability of Earth for us, our future. Our environment. Because the Earth will persist, and has for hundreds of millions of years without us, and in all likelihood, will after us.
But in our own self-interest, we might want to think about how we relate to and change the Earth that supports us, that we are a part of.
Lisa: In many of the pieces that you do, you address a very spiritual element of being. This piece is called Exhalation 4, and this piece is called Illumination 25. So these are big and broad topics and themes.
John Paul: Right.
Lisa: Are you constantly trying to find ways of manifesting these themes in your work over time?
John Paul: Yeah, and they’re coming out of a process of asking a lot of questions, and I constantly come to these things. Obviously I’m a guy who likes to think and I like talking to people who like to think. Just some better sense of how this all works and what it’s up to and I’ve been accused of having a low threshold of interest. I’m tremendously curious. I was really flattered that in high school I was given the physics award for being the wonder man, ‘cause I think in addition to being fascinated by all these facts, that sense of wonder is what really transforms consciousness, being. It leads to the new discoveries.
I think we are spiritual beings, and I think that spirit encompasses mind, body, and emotion. The whole integral thing. And so if I’m looking at a system of self being attached to a system of a much larger entity, nature, it would be natural that some of these come to light.
It’s also, the titles are a product of the way that I work. I’m looking at more universal themes and trying to extend sympathy and empathy and a sense of connection for things that might seem very distant but which we are very connected to, like Antarctica changes our weather. And at the same time, I’m trying to propose an alternative to a Western material mindset, where we’re just little particles, separate, bumping into each other. Doesn’t fit my experience. I think we’re deeply interconnected if you look at the larger web of things.
Aside from the fact that sometimes the photographs are made from two or three exposures from different places and different times, so what are you going to call them? The standard Antarctica 2012? That doesn’t quite fit. More importantly, I’m interested in those processes. So all of those series titles are about process. They’re not a title that describes a thing in a place. They describe more in process, which would suggest a way of being or a way of entering into that system.
Lisa: You’ve traveled all over the world, and I think that I read that you had a bipolar year where you spent time on Antarctica and also time on the other end of the world. I can’t remember-
John Paul: Right, Greenland.
Lisa: Greenland, okay.
John Paul: Yes, yeah.
Lisa: How do you make decisions about where you would like to go next? Is it places you haven’t been yet or is it places that you feel drawn to?
John Paul: Hmm, those are important questions. One I ask myself all the time. And I think you’ve just hit on one of those enduring questions, those guiding questions, the questions you can hold for a lifetime that have many answers and that change over time. So that is a guiding question, and I think it’s a very interesting question for all of us. Do we spread ourselves thin and see it all, or do we decide to focus in a few things and go deep?
And I think you have to do a little bit of both. Experience new things, but then also find some of the things that you want to return to. It’s one of the reasons why I’ve returned to Antarctica eight times, and there’ll be at least two more. I think we’re probably scheduled to do that every year for the foreseeable future, ‘cause it’s just gotten into my soul. It’s such a magical, mysterious place that I feel like every time I go, I discover something new, and I’m always rewarded.
So there are places you want to connect to and have a long-term relationship with, and then there are other places that you want to survey, saying, “How long of a relationship do I want to have with these places?” I do a lot of research on Google. I do some Google image searches, run Google Earth. I sometimes use Google Earth to plan a route through a dune field.
There’s a lot of great ways these days to get information, and there’s certainly no lack of photographs to be able to see these places now. The world has been fairly well-mapped. We’re living in an era where more photos are taken by cell phones in a single year than all years previous in the history of photography. That happens every year. More than three trillion photographs made every year. Never mind that a disproportionate number of them are selfies. I’d encourage other kinds of self-portraits.
I think every photograph in a way, that mirror is a self-portrait. But there’s more than just pointing the camera at yourself. Sometimes you want to point it at your emotions or your thoughts, your connections, your relationships.
Lisa: When I look at your photographs, there’s something often otherworldly about them, often not firmly planted on this planet. Some of them could be what I imagine Mars might feel like.
John Paul: Right.
Lisa: Is that intentional?
John Paul: It is intentional. I go to these wild places, 1,500 foot-high Namibian dune fields. Antarctica, which many people think of as ice but is actually called a crystal desert. There are these strange, otherworldly places right here on terra firma where we’re asked to reconsider what we think of, what we think Earth is and what we’re a part of.
That’s the mindset that I would hope that my images that would inspire. That moment, that sense of suspension of, how do I know what I know? And in that openness, that sense of inquisitiveness that a child has. Possibly discover and experience more because we allow ourselves that openness. So it’s that moment of pause, that gap, that suspension, where so much can happen.
Lisa: It is interesting that you would use the word “suspension”, because that’s another feeling that I had in looking at many of your photographs, that there’s a grounded-ness to them. There’s an earth element to them. But then there’s also an airiness to them. There’s the sense of something not being firmly placed.
And that, I think that’s a different feeling for many of us. Many of us feel very firmly grounded in this time and place.
John Paul: Sure. We’re taught to think of ourselves that way.
Lisa: So how do you walk around as a physical being in this time and place and also be creatively in a different space?
John Paul: I think we can all look more broadly at this thing called being. We relate to and we identify with our physical body and the feet that are on the ground, and that’s good. Gets us across the street. There’s some wonderful sensations. Coffee is fantastic. Chocolate’s fantastic. Right?
And at the same time, there are all these thoughts and emotions and I’ve meditated most of my life, and so the benefits of watching yourself watching, watching yourself being in lots of different ways, have opened up possibilities, insights, opportunities. So I’ve realized I’m carrying this whole psychic space with me, with this collective of psyche and body.
And then I also challenge myself to think more broadly about self and environment. So there’s an airy quality, there’s also an airy quality to the breath. If you watch your breath for years, you realize that you’re part breath, but then you also read the latest science like Lyle Watson’s beautiful book, Heaven’s Breath. You realize that the very air that you breathe is alive, that there are thousands of microorganisms and it’s just this constant exchange. We’ve exchanged breath just in the short time we’ve been this close together.
That the water we drink also is alive, thousands of microorganisms. Craig Venter did that DNA sampling down the east coast and saw that there were these interconnected biomes, and we’re part of that. We’re bags of ocean, really. We’re far more water than we are physical, and according to physics, we’re far more space than we are particle.
The Earth itself is full of life, and even the parts that we don’t consider living are really a matrix that sustains that life. So we think of our living, our being, as being embedded in this web of life. We’re part of that. Moving through that space creates ripples. And that space creates ripples within us. We realize this is this marvelous exchange.
So I hope that my air gives other people a taste of being connected to that, what I’m calling a miracle. It’s just so staggeringly beautiful, interesting, complex, infinite. I think for all that we’ve learned in the last couple hundred years in science, I have to remember how much we don’t learn. The great scientists let us know that every time they answer a question, they come up with 10 more.
And we have to remind ourselves that much of what we understand, so much about the universe, orbits of planets and big bangs, that we still can’t account for 90% of the mass in the universe. There’s a long way to go. It’s that more open-minded quality that I find exciting.
Lisa: Tell me about your own evolution as a photographer and an artist. Tell me what this has looked like over the trajectory of your career.
John Paul: How far back do you want to go?
Lisa: As far back as you like.
John Paul: I almost got us kicked out of our apartment in Dublin at the age of 2 because I took up mural making. My parents paper trained me. They put blocks of paper everywhere and said, “Hey, kid, on the paper.” Got that straight. We all had our place on the icebox, the refrigerator.
Dad always used to embarrass me with this one story. It wasn’t really an embarrassment, it was more of a celebration. He said, “I knew the kid would be okay when he came back with two drawings. Tossed the first one on the table and said, ‘Look what the teacher made me do!’ Red house, blue sky, green grass. ‘And look what I did!’ Purple sky, orange grass, black house. I knew he’d be okay.” So there was that celebration of independent spirit and also a recognition that we all each had our own individual creativity.
I learned to talk a good painting at Yale. I wish I’d learned to make a better painting. Sometimes you just have to put a lot of time in there. I decided not to study photography there because I had a great teacher in my father, and I thought, “I won’t be able to spend that much more time with the old man.” Little did I know that he’d move in my backyard in Maine, and we’d be spending decades together, which is really quite rich.
And a lot of people overlook the training my mother gave me. She was also a very fine painter, graduated top of her school from RISD in painting, but then later became a graphic designer, and became far more than a graphic designer when she oversaw the production of books, and so she really understood the printmaking. So watching her and even helping her in her graphic design studio, I learned a great deal there.
So my parents trained me and I also got some academic education, and then as I say, I’m just endlessly inquisitive, so I’m constantly looking at other people’s work, I’m constantly studying lots of different fields, whether it’s science or creativity or art. And then you find your way. Finding your way has really kind of been the real challenge, there’s no well-mapped system. And it’s something that I’m actually trying to make some inroads in with some of the publications that I do, with the workshops that I create.
I think there are ways to discover your voice more quickly, and to make some substantial and generative statements about the creative process. As open as it is and as much space as you need to make for individuals and all of their subjective and idiosyncratic differences that make a richer stew, that doesn’t meant that there aren’t certain turning points and certain ways and certain moments that you can look for, and certain ways of responding, certain ways of asking questions that can get out a lot of rich information very quickly.
These are not the things they taught me at Yale. I learned to write a good paper. At least for Yale.
Lisa: It’s good to have lots of different talents. It’s good to have lots of different ways of being educated.
John Paul: Well, it’s a certain way of looking and thinking.
John Paul: So I was fascinated to see that orientation, and then ultimately I felt like I wasn’t learning to make the painting that I wanted to make, and if I graduated with that degree, I would, for me, feel like a fraud. So I went west to Santa Cruz and handed in my first Yale paper there and they went back and said the same thing I said at Yale. “You need to go see a writing tutor.” So I went back to my old way of writing and it was just fine.
It was fascinating to see the very different mindsets that different communities. They had a different language, a different way of orienting, a different way of seeing, a different way of being. And exposure to all of that was very helpful, ‘cause then you can take the best from each and chart your own path.
Lisa: Well, I am very glad that we have had the chance to talk. As I had mentioned to you, when I met your father, I could tell he was just a fascinating individual. And then I knew that both of you were very fine artists in your own right. So it’s kind of … My father is a doctor and I became a doctor. But then I’ve continued to evolve in a different way from my father. It’s interesting to hear the same thing from you, that your father’s a photographer, your mother is an artist. You are a photographer and an artist, but you’ve also, again, continued to evolve in a different way.
John Paul: Right.
Lisa: So you continue to maintain your own DNA, but it’s a launching pad for you.
John Paul: It is, right. You understand. Your parents are part of that nurture, they provide a rich foundation for you. And at the same time, you want to individuate, you want to find your own path, and you bring something new to it ‘cause you have a very different experience and a different soul.
Lisa: One last question. What is it about Cushing that continues to nurture you here in Maine?
John Paul: Maine has always been this calm, stable, quiet, safe place to come off the road to retreat to. It’s beautiful. I’m surrounded by nature. And I think the Maine coast is really one of the more beautiful places in the country, as well as the community is very welcoming. They really do, all walks of life, have a deep appreciation for art and for nature. So I find that kind of restorative, generative.
And they’re also respectful about private space and doing it your way. Don’t tell me how to do things, I won’t tell you how to do things. That kind of mentality. It’s pretty wonderful. You can get a lot of work done. So I found it to be a very supportive, quiet, grounded community that’s really rich and wonderful. If you’re looking for it, it’s got a lot to offer. And if you just want to hide out in the woods and get stuff done, you can.
Lisa: I’ve been speaking with John Paul Caponigro, who is a prominent digital artist working with digital media. His art has been exhibited internationally and purchased by numerous private and public collections, including Princeton University, the Estee Lauder collection, and Smithsonian. I look forward to hearing more about what you’re going to be doing in the future, and I really appreciate your coming in today.
John Paul: Thank you for inviting me.
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Lisa: Suzette McAvoy is the executive director and chief curator at the Center for Maine Contemporary Art in Rockland. Thanks for coming in today.
Suzette: You’re welcome, I’m happy to be here.
Lisa: So you’ve been doing this long enough that now the museum is not only in a completely different building, but in a completely different town.
Suzette: It is. Last June, June 26 of 2016, we opened at our new location in Rockland and so we’ve been there a little over a year now. It’s been an incredible year, it’s gone by in a blur. There’s been so many good things happening. We’ve reached more than 40,000 people in our first year, which surpassed our projections of about 35,000. And that’s about quadruple the number that we had in our former location in Rockport. So it’s been a really wonderful expansion of both our program and our audience.
Lisa: What is it, do you think, about the mid-coast area that is so supportive of artists?
Suzette: Well, a lot of artists tell me that Maine is where the work gets done. That they come to Maine to really spend time in the studio. There’s this sense of, you’re away from the market. You’re away from the social demands of being in a more urban area. So there’s not only the natural beauty of the place, you get that wonderful north Maine light, which of course is attractive to many artists working in the studio. And a side note is it’s also one of the features of the new CMCA building in Rockland, is that the architect Toshiko Mori took advantage of our north-facing property to bring natural north light into the main gallery.
So I think that the mid-coast provides this sense of natural beauty, but also an environment that’s really conducive to doing work in the studio, which is, of course, where the art gets made.
Lisa: And we also are appreciative of artists. So this is a place where people can come and be artists, and they will know other people will come and look at their work.
Suzette: Yeah. It’s long been an area where there’s been a community of artists. Going back to the middle of the 19th century, artists have been coming to the coast of Maine. And Maine Coast Artists, which is how we began in 1952, really was an outgrowth of that. The Farnsworth Museum was started in 1948, and Maine Coast Artists, as we were known then, started just four years later because so many artists were coming to the mid-coast to … In part a reaction to getting out of the urban areas, getting out of New York City, so they ended up coming right after the war, this was, pretty much.
And so they would come to the mid-coast in a similar way that they might go to Provincetown in Massachusetts. But from there, there just developed this network of artists who knew each other maybe in Boston or Philadelphia, New York, and then it became more of a year-round … So there’s always been this nice balance between the year-round artists and the more seasonal residents. But really a great creative community that we have.
Lisa: Define for me “contemporary art”.
Suzette: So I always tell people that at CMCA, we are focused on the art of today. That contemporary art is really dealing with the current topics of today’s culture, so it’s really made by artists that are looking at the world around them and addressing that, and with a contemporary spirit. With an idea of not looking backwards, but looking forward.
We’re a non-collecting institution. We don’t have a collection like a more traditional museum, and that’s really because in 10 years, if we were collecting, it wouldn’t be contemporary any longer. So it’s not just that it’s about living artists, because there’s a lot of living artists, some of them, that are not working in a contemporary way. They’re working in a more traditional … really grounded in the 19th century traditions, or they’re very nostalgic in their outlook. We’re really interested in artists that are part of the larger cultural dialogue of today. Are they aware of the aesthetic concerns of the more contemporary voice?
Lisa: Tell me about some of those artists.
Suzette: Well, right now, for instance, we’re showing the work of the artist John Walker, who I think really fits that profile really well. He lives in Seal Point, Maine, which is down by South Bristol. And he’s been really addressing the Maine landscape around his property in Seal Point for almost 30 years now. But he’s doing it in a really individual, unique way.
So while the subject of the Maine landscape is completely traditional, there’s been a long history of artists addressing the Maine landscape, John is doing it with a particularly unique voice. These are abstract when you first look at them, but I think a longer viewing would really start to reveal how he is responding to the visible world, the outside world, the way weather affects the light on the water. For instance, there’s a number of very large-scale abstract paintings that are brilliant blue stripes with white patterning on them. And if you can put your imagination out there on Seal Point on a brilliant summer Maine day when the light is reflecting off the surface of the water, it’s creating that pattern in your mind’s eye.
And so he’s somebody, I think, who is really taking that long tradition of Maine painting, and pushing it into new areas. Helping us to see the world and think about the world in new ways. And that’s what I think of when I think of contemporary art. It’s making me, as the viewer, think about the world outside in a way that I haven’t thought of. It’s helping me see another point of view, think about work in a different way.
Lisa: Many of the artists that you bring in have not only a Maine connection, but also are connected really around the world. And so this becomes an interesting touchpoint, I think, for us. A reminder that we aren’t just our own little state up here with our own little museums. That we really … It’s broader reaching than that.
Suzette: Yes. And that’s a real goal of ours at CMCA, and part of the move to the larger building and having a bigger footprint was to really communicate to the larger world that there is incredible things happening in the contemporary art field in Maine that can really hold its own on the global platform.
And it’s always been that way. If you go back to the earliest artists that were coming here, like Thomas Cole and Frederick Church, Winslow Homer, the Zorachs, Hartley. They were at the forefront of contemporary art in America when they were working. When Thomas Cole came to Mt. Desert Island in 1848, he was cutting-edge contemporary art at the moment. I always remind people that all art was contemporary once.
So this was a legacy that was established in Maine, and just continues until this day. And we’ve had this continuing wonderful balance between artists that are here year-round being enriched by artists that are coming here from away, and that there’s this continual dialogue between it, with places like Skowhegan, MECA, that are always feeding us new artists into the state. And they typically fall in love with it. Some of them come back, and then they become year-rounders, and the whole scene just gets enriched from the bottom up.
Lisa: You raise a good point, because when I think of Winslow Homer, I don’t think contemporary the same way that I would think of the Zorachs being more contemporary. But you’re right. At one point, he was doing very interesting things with his painting that other people were not.
Suzette: Absolutely. In 1890, William Winslow Homer was cutting-edge. The fact that he put the viewer right on the edge of the coast so that they … He compressed the space. It’s sort of art speak, but if you imagine earlier landscape painters, you were back from the shore and you were an observer of this more tame landscape scene. Homer put you right into the power and the almost violence that was possible from the ocean, that he was witnessing there on Prouts Neck. He really created a much more contemporary viewpoint than earlier landscape painters, and that’s something that is with us until today.
Lisa: Is that also potentially part of contemporary art, is putting people sometimes in a place of discomfort?
Suzette: Yes, sometimes. I think it’s being aware of the realities of the world, not trying to cover up or create a sense of nostalgia. We’re not looking at the world with sentimental eyes. It’s looking at the world without blinders on. Sometimes it can be in a very imaginative way. For instance, next summer we’re showing the work of Tom Burkhardt and it’s an installation piece that’s called Studio Flood, and he’s recreating an entire three-dimensional full scale studio space out of cardboard. And it’s completely upside down.
And it’s about climate change and about how the world is becoming upside-down, and what would happen with a tsunami and a flood. And even though he created it before these recent storms, it certainly feels very timely. And it brings to the fore some issues that are very much a part of today’s topics.
Lisa: So contemporary art also encompasses things like sculpture and maybe fiber arts and things that are auditory. It’s not just paintings on a wall.
Suzette: Absolutely. It’s all range of mediums these days. Just over the weekend, I went up to South Penobscot, Maine. There’s an interesting art space called The Cannery that was showing seven sound art installations. So that’s not something that you see too often or hear too often. It’s, in both of these cases, it was work that was combining both video and auditory sounds into the experience of the art piece.
So that ranges from things like that to installations like I mentioned to freestanding sculpture. When we opened the new CMCA, we had a sculptural installation by the artist Jonathan Borofsky that filled our entire main gallery with large scale sculptures that the viewer walked through. So it ranges from that to more traditional-sized paintings.
I tell people when CMCA started in 1952, nearly every painting fit on an easel and every sculpture on a pedestal. That’s certainly not true today.
Lisa: So it’s funny to think of something that is called the CMCA being founded in 1952. It’s funny to think about, as an institution, how you can stay true to your mission, which is to focus on contemporary things. But you’re more than half a century old.
Suzette: Exactly. It is really hard to think of that, and it’s incredible, the changes that have happened in art over that time. But always staying true to our mission of showing what we have felt is really the quality work. Excellence has always been the standard, showing work that curators of CMCA over the years have felt was important to be introduced to the public audience. And that included people like Louise Nevelson, Robert Indiana, Alex Katz, Jamie Wyeth. So many artists, people now like John Bisbee and Dozier Bell. And they all had early shows at CMCA back in the day.
So I’m really proud of that long history that we’ve had of introducing artists to the public early on in their career, or showcasing older artists that haven’t gotten that kind of exposure that their work really deserves. So there’s never been a time where I felt like there … been a limitation by just being focused on artists connected to Maine.
Lisa: That’s also funny to think about, the fact that at one point, Louise Nevelson and Jamie Wyeth, those were the contemporary. Again, it’s like the Winslow Homer idea, and now we think about them as fairly classic.
Lisa: But, you’re right. They needed earlier exposure to get to the place where they could become classic.
Suzette: Exactly. We had a show with Robert Indiana in 1964 of his love sculpture, his love work. That’s the year that was introduced to New York. So it was pretty incredible, what’s been happening here in the coast of Maine. And maybe hasn’t been really celebrated or made as much of as the real impact on the story of American art. And that’s really one of the things that we aim to do at the new CMCA, is to make sure that that story, the importance of that story, the importance of Maine’s role in the ongoing story of American art, is told to a larger audience and maybe gets more the kind of attention that it really deserves.
Lisa: One of the things that I’ve enjoyed is the studio visits that you do. And I think that you post stuff on Instagram, so I will sometimes be like, “Oh, there’s Suzette. She’s over at this artist’s studio, and she’s over at this artist’s studio.” And it kind of just brings it full circle for me, this idea that this is a living person that is working on their art in their own space and there’s something that’s very alive about that.
Suzette: Exactly. I think it’s quite honestly the best part of my job. It’s the thing I enjoy doing the most, is doing studio visits. And I only wish I had more time to do them. Maine’s a big state, and it’s hard to get around geographically. I try if I have a meeting in some place, I try to make sure that I schedule a studio visit at the tail end of that day or before my meeting to take advantage of being there or being away out of the office.
I do try to get around as much as I can. There’s really no substitute for seeing the real thing, to be able to talk one on one with an artist in their working space and see what their concerns are, what their ideas are, their working method, all of that. So lately I’ve been really trying to post those visits. And oftentimes people ask me, does that mean they’re going to have a show at CMCA, and I say, not necessarily. It’s just really that I’m trying to get out there and connect with the artists and see, take the pulse of what’s going on around this state as much as I can and share that with the online audience.
If I have the advantage of being there, and I always ask the artist if it’s okay if I photograph their work ‘cause some people are a little touchy about showing work in process. But if they give me the permission, then I feel like I just really want to share that in any way that I can, with the online audience. So I’m a big believer in social media. I know that some people really don’t like it as well, or they say it’s not for me, but it’s a way for me to feel connected with artists across not only the state, but across the nation that are working, and see work that I maybe wouldn’t otherwise see. So it’s just a tool for me, I think. A communication tool.
Lisa: I actually think it’s usually important, especially when it comes to art. My daughter, my older daughter, she loves art, has always loved art. Actually worked in the Portland Art Gallery over the summer. And she loves following the art feeds. She loves seeing what’s going on, seeing the artists, seeing the pieces, and it can be anything from what’s going on at the Louvre to what’s going on at the CMCA.
Lisa: This is a way to get people interested.
Suzette: It really is. I think it has great potential as really an educational tool. I certainly benefit from it. I follow a number of online art journals and number of artists’ Instagram feeds, and whenever I give a talk to artists about getting their work seen or professional practices, I always say, “Get on Instagram especially, because that’s really visually focused.” And it’s an easy way, it’s free. It’s a way to get your work out in front of an audience, and you just never know who’s going to see it and what it might lead to. So, yeah, I’m a fan.
Lisa: Good, we’re on the same page on that one. Anybody who criticizes, at least you and I, we know what we’re talking about. So that’s good.
Tell me about this award that has recently been announced at the CMCA.
Suzette: Yes, well, just yesterday we’re really pleased to announce a partnership with the Ellis-Beauregard Foundation. That’s a new foundation based in Rockland, Maine. It’s the legacy of two artists, John Ellis, and his wife, Joan Beauregard. And the director is now Donna McNeil, and we’re really pleased to be partnering with them.
The Ellis-Beauregard Foundation itself is going to be giving out a $25,000 award annually to a Maine artist working in any medium, and part of the award is a solo show at CMCA. So that’s our contribution to the award, is the exhibition so that the public, the larger public, can see the work of the artist that is getting the award.
So we’re really pleased about this and it’s a significant amount of money. That was one of the things that I think the Ellis-Beauregard Foundation thought was particularly important, was to give a significant monetary award to really be able to make a difference in an artist’s life.
Lisa: Well, that’s important. This is something that a lot of artists that I’ve spoken to for quite some time, they will need to do other things in order to support their art, and support that creative side. So to be able to have the space provided by money to turn on your lights, I guess, and pay your mortgage. That’s pretty important.
Suzette: Well, it’s enough money that I think somebody, if they are able to, they could take a break from work, from an outside job. They could rent a studio space, they could buy materials. It really … It’s enough that I think that it can really make a significant difference in an artist’s career. And coupled with the exhibition at CMCA, so that it also brings that work to the larger public, I think together it’s really going to be a positive contribution to the whole field here in Maine.
Lisa: The thing that I find fascinating about Rockland is that it’s absolutely still a working waterfront. The ferry goes out to Vinalhaven, where Robert Indiana’s studio and home is. Goes out to North Haven, there’s a big … I think it’s a concrete factory or something that’s … There’s some big factory that’s over there. So there’s this gritty, industrial feel to it. And yet it’s been called the new art center of Maine.
Suzette: It’s rapidly becoming that, I think. Our building is just a block away from the Farnsworth Art Museum. It’s around the corner from the Strand Theater. So we intentionally bought that location when it became available to create that, to be the third leg of the proverbial three-legged stool. To really create a center in the heart of Rockland’s Main Street and arts district.
There are now something like 24 commercial art galleries scattered around Rockland. So with the CMCA and the Farnsworth, the Strand Theater, these commercial galleries. The Ellis-Beauregard Foundation now. It’s becoming this really active art center.
We’re very close to the working waterfront, and the building was really designed to be both an aesthetic bridge and architectural bridge between the historic Main Street and the working waterfront. Design New England called us as timeless and as frugal as the Maine lobster boat. So we love that description, because we really are so … It’s sort of an industrial style building with metal cladding on it, and it’s not fancy. It was done with a really minuscule budget, but just working with a great architect, Toshiko Mori, to make every nickel count.
Lisa: Every time I talk to artist Eric Hopkins, he reminds me that his original studio was actually somewhere in that footprint of where your building is now, so it’s got this interesting kind of decades-long heritage of already being a place where art was, I guess, focused upon.
Suzette: Well, yes. Our art lab education classroom, our art lab classroom, is exactly where Eric’s studio was. So I feel like there’s really great energy in that space leftover from Eric, ‘cause certainly he’s a wonderful artist and friend of CMCA’s. And we have him to thank for actually bringing that property to our attention. He’s also a very good friend of our architect, Toshiko Mori. Her husband Jamie Carpenter and Eric went to the Rhode Island School of Design together. So the reason that Toshiko and Jamie are in Maine is because of Eric, so there’s a wonderful network there. It’s that Maine thing where there’s never six degrees of separation in Maine. It’s never more than two, I think. So there’s a great network and spirit of community that surrounds the whole CMCA.
Lisa: I also liked the fact that the Camden International Film Festival has showings scattered not only in Camden and Rockport, but also in Rockland. So you’re bringing in yet another type of art and more exposure for the people at CMCA for people coming to town for that.
Suzette: Yes, a lot of people come into town for CIFF, for the Camden Film Festival. And the last couple of years, they’ve had this incredible virtual reality showcase called Storyforms that has been installed in a building directly across the street from us at CMCA, so there’s been this wonderful exchange of visitors to the Storyforms to see the virtual reality pieces that are on view, and then coming over to CMCA.
And for the last couple years, we’ve tried to have something that was really participatory or engaging the public in our courtyard during the CIFF weekend. And this year we had the sculptor Jeff Smith and his piece called “It’s the Smallest House in the World”. Picking up on the tiny house movement, it’s a bright grass green sculpture that is also a functional tiny house. Not meant for the long haul, but really great as a talking point and topic of conversation. Something to get people thinking about.
It’s absolutely adorable, small house on wheels. And it had a documentary film about the tiny house playing inside the tiny house during CIFF. So we try to have something that fits or would be appealing to the CIFF audience during that weekend, and hope to do more, ‘cause there’s so much crossover right now with film and documentary, and storytelling. There’s visual artists that are working in that medium, so there’s a lot that I think we can partner with in the future as well.
Lisa: Well, I’m excited to go back up and visit. I’ve already been in the CMCA, but it continues to change, so I’ll have to make a trip back up to Rockland. I’ve been speaking Suzette McAvoy, who is the executive director and chief curator at the Center for Maine Contemporary Art in Rockland. Thank you so much for coming down and for sharing this continuing story with us.
Suzette: Well, it’s been my pleasure. Thank you so much for having me.
Lisa: You’ve been listening to Love Maine Radio, show number 318. Our guests have included John Paul Caponigro and Suzette McAvoy. For more information on our guests and extended interviews, visit lovemaineradio.com. Love Maine Radio is downloadable for free on iTunes. For a preview of each week’s show, sign up for our e-newsletter and like our Love Maine Radio Facebook page. Follow me on Twitter as doctorlisa and see our Love Maine Radio photos on Instagram.
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This is Dr. Lisa Belisle. Thank you for sharing this part of your day with me. May you have a bountiful life.
Speaker 1: Love Maine Radio is brought to you by Maine Magazine, Aristelle, Portland Art Gallery, and Art Collector Maine. Audio production and original music are by Spencer Albee. Our editorial producers are Paul Koenig and Brittany Cost. Our assistant producer is Shelbi Wassick. Our community development manager is Casey Lovejoy. And our executive producers are Kevin Thomas, Rebecca Falzano, and Dr. Lisa Belisle.
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Here’s a track from Spencer Albee’s new album Relentlessly Yours, in stores and online now at spenceralbee.com.