Critical Engagement Playground

EfrainAlmeida

Viewing Efrain Almeida at CRG

I was due to arrive at a month-long residency at the Vermont Studio Center in late October, and I needed to complete the last leg of the Sebago Lake to Casco Bay run before my departure from Maine. My plan was to arrive at the residency with a complete line (the line created by running from Sebago Lake to Casco Bay with a gps watch). Time was running short, but the week before my departure, I decided to drive to New York to catch some exhibits and pick up my son, Link, who’d been on a bike trek from Washington D.C.

It turned out to be one of those New York trips where everything clicks. First, we caught the Jeff Koons’ show at the Whitney (the final weekend of the show and of the museum’s Madison Avenue location). Viewing the span of Koons’ work deepened my understanding of the artist, and though many of the individual objects still strike me as thin, I left the show thinking of the entire exhibit as a kind of critical engagement playground. There were some particularly enjoyable moments–the early basketball work, the tinted mirrors, and the huge pile of Play-Doh, among others–but viewing Koons’ work in a packed museum was what gave it life. Some viewers strutted around, decked out and oozing swagger; others nervously glanced from gallery to gallery, not sure where to let their eyes settle. Viewing Koons in public catches the viewer in a paradox of self conscious seduction, as if one doesn’t want to be seen enjoying the scale and glitter of banal objects too much. This feeling is amplified with the pornographic images. Viewers tended to cluster around the museum labels, not wanting to be seen enjoying, disliking, or being shocked by the posed intimacy between Koons and his ex-wife, Italian porn star and politician Cicciolina (Ilona Staller). Koons’ direct gaze amplifies the feeling of being seen watching, or being seen while avoiding looking too closely. That tension seemed an key component of the show.

Koons_MadeinChelsea was a pleasure this time around as well, with a surprise discovery of Brazilian artist, Efrain Almeida’s work, at CRG (image above). We were also able to catch Robert Gober’s retrospective, The Heart is Not a Metaphor, at MoMA. Gober was a wonderful counterpoint to Koons. With Gober, low-value materials were jam-packed with narrative and social critique. He had transformed wax, wallpaper, newspaper, suitcases, bathtubs, sinks, and even holes jackhammered into MoMA’s granite floors, leaving layers of meaning for the viewer to unpack. Gober’s Untitled (Candle), of 1991, would make for an interesting comparison with Koons.

I was inspired. Link and I had jam-packed two days with feasting, family and friends, and art; now it was time to load up the bike, head back to Maine, and get back to work.

A few days later, after settling in at home,  I set out on a cold and rainy afternoon to complete the final Presumpscot River run. Link agreed to come along so that I could make it a point-to-point rather than an out and back. I’d noted from a map that I might come across a closed section of the rail trail, but from a Google Maps satellite view, it looked like I’d be able to make my way through. I was optimistic.

I set out on an industrial stretch of trail; it wasn’t particularly lovely, but it looked passable.  IndustryGood Start 1

 

 

 

 

 

 

I was just settling into a groove when I came upon a fence–essentially a metal box over a bridge, which Blockedmade it impossible to cross over the road to the trail on the other side. The sign was menacing, andSignage after a few minutes of deliberation, I decided not to scramble down to the road and up the other side; I’d reroute by the road.

I began to make my way down a hill in the direction of the river. After a few strides, I ran into another sign, even more menacing.

Menacing Signage I crossed back over the trail and made my way through some wet, swampy grass to the road. At that point, I was drenched and cold. I had 5 miles to go, if everything went smoothly. I ran up over a ridge by Windham’s Maine Correctional Center, wondering if the prison explained the menacing signs. Over the hill, at the intersection with River Road, I glimpsed a long stretch of horse barn, one of the few scenic views of the run. With no sign of the Presumpscot, I took off down River Road, as cars 10.FarmViewraced by over wet pavement. I spent the next 5 miles frequently jumping off the small shoulder as cars and trucks Long Wet Roadbarreled by, apparently oblivious to my presence.

After a long 5+ miles, I reached Westbrook and realized I must have run by the entrance to the Community Center. I called Link, did a 180, and began to retrace my steps. I was wiped out, and when Link showed up a few minutes later, I gratefully climbed in the warm car where dry clothes were waiting for me.

I’d finished the Presumpscot River line–a significant part of my first watershed run. In Vermont, I’d be able to fill in the gaps in my growing installation of drawings and paintings.

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Presence and Absence

 

4.tracks3My next watershed run covered a 4.5 mile stretch were the Sebago to Sea trail turns away from the lake and begins to meander along the Presumpscot River toward Casco Bay. I ran an out and back–a total of 9 miles on a paved trail that runs alongside an old rail bed.

Tracks 2

Tracks 3

I get a bit jittery about hunters when I’m running in the fall, and though this  stretch of trail abuts farmhouses and soccer fields, I did hear a few shots in the distance–target practice, I assume, since it’s still archery season in Maine. At one point, I realized that although I had on a fave highlighter yellow Brooks running vest, I was also wearing a white baseball cap. Thinking my bobbing cap could be mistaken for the butt of a white tailed deer, I stuffed it in my pocket and let the rain soak my head.

TracksThe most surprising moment of the run came with two boys careening around a corner on their bikes, fishing poles balanced Tracks 4straight out over handlebars like jousting lances. I jumped to the side to avoid being pierced, and gave them a little wave. I’d only seen the river at the start of the trail, but I knew the Presumpscot was coursing through the woods nearby, and the boys were a sign that it must be close.

Throughout the running/drawing watershed project, I’ve come to realize that both the presence and absence of water capture my imagination–in terms of a personal, tactile experience of the land (and the related process of collecting images and ideas about water/landscape as an artistic subject) and in considering the human relationship to water on a larger scale. 

10.tracks8_rain Each run has deepened my understanding of how we relate–and often fail to relate–to the water around us. I’m increasingly conscious of where water comes from (before the faucet) and where it goes (after the drain).  In this case, as I ran over wet pavement, I envisioned 7.tracks6water running off the paved trail into the woods, seeping down into the soil, running into the Presumpscot River and down to Casco Bay. Having learned recently about green infrastructure, I find myself distrustful of anything paved. I scan parking lots for bio-retention plant beds and porous pavement, Stopknowing that our habit of skimming the land with buildings and tar stops the natural process by which soil cleans and cools the water. Disrupting this natural step, by diverting water directly to pipes, is dangerous and expensive, leaving more polluted water for our waterworks companies to treat and often overwhelming the systems that exist in most water treatment facilities.

When I return to the studio after each run, these facts fade to context and the echoes of the experience in my body move to the foreground. For me, the experience of running is a process of reduction, a process through which being present in the moment supersedes other more cluttered ways of being. In the drawings that are emerging from the watershed runs, the marks reflect the feeling of being Lucinda, just another animal running through the landscape.

Watershed2

 

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The Lake

rootFor the fourth leg of my Casco Bay watershed run, I decided to delay exploring the middle of the Sebago to Sea trail and instead to complete an out and back on sections 1 and 2. Driving up to the lake, I spotted a parking lot on Rt. 237 with the now familiar Sebago to Sea trail kiosk. The lot planted me in between sections 1 and 2 so I’d be able to run out and back on each, with a water stop in between. I hit the trail, and found myself on what I thought was a smooth, easy running surface.  Ignoring my footing, I got about 10 strides in when my left toe caught a camouflaged root and I ditched it into the trail, cutting my right hand and jamming my right elbow hard into the dirt. Not willing to abandon the run, I wiped off the blood, cradled my elbow for a minute, then took off slowly down leg 2, away from the lake.

Other than the pesky root and one busy road crossing, the trails were great for 2.signage1running. There’s a network of side paths, but all were marked with clear signage. I quickly reached the end of the second section of the S2S network (an easy 1.2 miles), turned around, and ran back to the car. My arm was aching from the fall, but I was eager to to see the lake, so I  took off in the opposite direction on section 1.  Route 35 had some fast moving cars, but after crossing with care, Iroads S2S 1 entered the woods and took off down a trail blanketed with soft pine. This trail led to Pond Road, which runs alongside the lake to a final section of trail.

No TrespassingAs I neared the lake, I began to see fences with signs designed to keep people out. This seemed contradictory given that the lake functions as both a water supply and a recreation destination. According to the  history mapped out on the Portland Water District website, there’s long been tricky balance between these two functions of the lake, with cottages being removed as early as 1909 and boating and swimming rules being adjusted over the subsequent century. The PWD website points out that human activity is the greatest danger to the lake, from swimming near the water intake to using chemical treatments on lawns. Lawn chemicals can leach down into groundwater and enter lakes in the natural run off that occurs with rain. These pesticides and fertilizers are irrefutably dangerous to humans, animals, insects, and the environment, and though they create a dead ecosystem, the association of fluffy green grass with the idea of a well-maintained house has been slow to change. Sebago Lake is large enough that it remains relatively healthy in spite of these challenges. The PWD website points out that, “Sebago Lake is the deepest lake in New England and contains almost a trillion gallons of water.  This doesn’t mean it’s invincible, but it takes more effort to pollute that much water.” Human activity is taking a toll, but it’s happening slowly. There have long been debates about whether motorized boating should be allowed on the southern end of Sebago (currently, it’s only prohibited 3,000 feet from the water intakes), but the legislature hasn’t chosen to prohibit them at this point. As Portland’s primary water source, Sebago is a hard working lake, serving a quarter of a million people, essentially 25% of the Maine population. The watershed project has given me the opportunity to slow down time–to appreciate the lake, the river that flows from it, and to examine the ways that these natural resources intersect with human industry, domestic life, and recreation. 

After months of exploring the Presumpscot River, which leads from the lake to Casco Bay, I was eager to reach the lake itself. As I emerged from the woods, completing the final 2.8 mile stretch of trail (S2S, section 1), I emerged on a sandy beach, smiling at the grand blue expanse and the outline of New Hampshire’s White Mountains in the distance.

Sebago Lake

I explored the beach for a few minutes, splashed some water on my face, and retraced my steps to the car. I’d run 8 miles and my elbow and hand were pretty sore. I was ready for a few days of rest before taking on the final mid-section of the Presumpscot and then the circumference of the lake itself.

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Trail Stewards

fall reflections

The third leg of my Casco Bay watershed run was too long to do an out and back, so I  locked up my bike at the finish–the Westbrook Community Center–and drove back down to the trailhead at the Waste Management Plant on Forest Avenue. waste managementThis process actually gave me a better lay of the land, which was especially useful on the cycle back to the car when I was finished. When I had parked the car and slipped on my Mizuno Wave Riders, I promptly started running in the wrong direction. startIt took me a few minutes to figure out that I had to cross the bridge with traffic, turn the corner, then start the trail on the opposite side of the river. When I did find the proper trail head,  crew lumber I quickly came upon a crew of Portland Trails staff, hard at work on the trailbridges. I stopped to say hi, and was pleased to meet Daniel, the Trail Steward. This chance meeting gave me the opportunity to express my appreciation for their work and to share a bit about my project. After a few minutes of chatting, I trotted down the trail of hard packed dirt and worn grass, which eventually led down to the opaque green water, now reflecting impressionist dabs of orange and yellow. I was reminded that in order to finish the entire trail before winter, including the run around Sebago, I’d have to step up my pace!

pathsAfter a stretch of river-side running, the trail stopped abruptly at private land. trail seekingAfter poking around for a few minutes, I found that the trail re-entered the woods just up the power line clearcut. Following a stretch of trail alongside a tall wire fence I came out on the road that would lead me the remaining miles back to the community center and my bike. finish_bikeI cycled back to the start, feeling the excitement of the growing journey, eager to get back to the drawings-in-progress in my studio.backtotheroad_tothebike

The watershed drawings are now well underway–so far consisting of twelve 23″ x 23″ graphite and watercolor works on paper. As I run each new stretch of the watershed, the drawing installation expands and new visual and conceptual connections emerge. I’ll conclude this blog with one panel of the work-in-progress, with more to follow soon!

Watershed: Leg 2 (work-in-progress)

Watershed: Leg 2 (work-in-progress)

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Cosmic Cellar

graffiti

Leg 2 of the Casco Bay watershed project picked up where leg 1 left off, under a bridge on the Sebago to Sea trail as I continued my run up the Presumpscot river toward Sebago Lake.

trail 1

I cruised under the bridge and headed into the woods along a dirt path, distracted by the sound of rushing cars. The hilly trail was well worn from mountain bikes, and, enjoying the ups and downs, I was just beginning to lose myself in the run when I heard the unique pop of a golf club making contact with a ball. Over the next rise, I emerged alongside the Riverside Golf course, which eventually led out onto the street. golf courseAfter finding my way along the busy road to the next   trail entrance, I ran a fairly desolate path alongside a cyclone fence. to the roadAs I re-entered the dim woods, reconnecting with the river, I padded by a young couple kissing on the river’s edge.

cyclone fence

 

 

 

 

 

I meandered alongside the milky green water until I entered the

trolleyparkhistorical trolley park, with signs indicating a waterside gathering place, active from 1896 to 1920.

As with my first watershed run, described in Water Pathways, the Sebago to Sea trails lead me through wooded, suburban, and industrial zones. I’m always alert when running alone, but there are particular sites that put me on edge. Sometimes I startle when snakes, squirrels, woodpeckers, and mourning doves slither, dart, tap, and rustle in the bushes around me, but it’s the places on the edge–the transitional areas between public and wild space–that put me on  alert.

Philosopher Gaston Bachelard, in his classic book, Poetics of Space, writes about the phenomenology of place, examining shells, nests, drawers, garrets, and cellars, pondering the affect of these spaces on the human imagination. I would add the underworld of bridges to Bachelard’s list, as secret places that cause a shiver in the corporeal imagination. Referencing L’Antiquaire, by Henri Bosco, Bachelard describes a “cosmic cellar” in which a character, in a dream, discovers “an immense body of water,” which causes him to shiver (23). The author describes the shiver as not human fear but “cosmic fear” that echoes the “great legend of man cast back into primitive situations” (23). Bachelard goes on to describe how this process leads to a sense of connection– dream/imagination affecting reality. Speaking of the body of water discovered in the cellar, in a dream, he writes:

From the cavern carved in the rock to the underground, from the underground to stagnant water, we have moved from a constructed to a dreamed world; we have left fiction for poetry. But reality and dream now form a whole. The house, the cellar, the deep earth, achieve totality through depth. The house has become a natural being whose fate is bound to that of mountains and of the waters that plough the land. The enormous stone plant it has become would not flourish if it did not have subterranean water at its base. And so our dreams attain boundless proportions. (23-24)

There is a didactic purpose to my watershed project: to increase my own awareness of where water is sourced (and share my discoveries) and to make visible what is concealed about our relationship with the water that sustains us. At the same time, my motivation is poetic; I’m collecting artistic source material through a process of experiencing place. In that vein, Bachelard offers me philosophical bedrock, illuminating the relationship between what is seen, felt, and imagined, and thereby helping me to read my experience of running the edges and corners of the natural world.

underthebridge

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Jessie James’ Magic Garden

Swiss Chard

There are many tales to tell about my experience of Grand Manan this summer. Garden 1 The island has weathered some tough losses, which I’ll share about in future posts. Today I want to tell you about the garden of Jessie James and Anne Mitchell.

Garden 3I’m on the island for a local event celebrating the release of my mother, Alison Hawthorne Deming’s latest book, Zoologies: On Animals and the Human Spirit. The weather is gorgeous and we

decided to get out and enjoy the day, to pass the time before the evening’s festivities. On our way to the Anchorage for a beach walk, we stopped by an island “farm stand” to pick up some swiss chard. The so-called farm stand turned out to be one of the most magical gardens I’ve ever seen! Certain places are so lovely that they permeate one’s dreams instantly, and this garden went straight to my heart. I’ll let the images say the rest.

garden 3garden 8

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garden 6garden7

 

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Water Pathways

Presumpscot River

I’ve launched a new studio project on the subject of water, which will consist of a combined process of running, writing, drawing, and creating installation works. The project has begun close to home, with the Casco Bay watershed. I’ve been researching throughout the summer, and yesterday I began in earnest, running the final leg of the Sebago to the Sea trail. The trail starts at Sebago Lake, the primary source of Portland’s water supply, and ends at Casco Bay. As with my farm running project of last year, I’m discovering that it’s easy enough to print a map and find a starting point, but navigating the hidden vision within someone else’s mapping process is often more complex.

The 7th and final leg of the Sebago to Sea trail runs from the Blackstrap Road Canoe Launch to East End Beach, and it combines, somewhat awkwardly, urban, suburban, and forested segments.  I asked my friend Rick to join me on this first run, in order to facilitate the point to point running (a car on each end) and the navigation (I’m learning to run with reading glasses, but it’s a pain!). Also, Rick’s got good map sense and keeps the pace moving. The 7th leg of the trail is mapped out at 8.2 miles, but we found the urban bushwhacking to be difficult and added a few miles, due to hunting for the persistent transitions from woods to sidewalks and back (our final run was 10.08 miles). Difficulties aside, the process of meandering with a map in hand tends to offer surprising insights, and this was no exception.

We found the trail head, a tiny parking lot near the river in Falmouth, and were just about to start the run when a guy pulled in, hopped out of his pick-up, and started chatting. He had some time to kill while he was waiting for his wife and he’d been curious about the new trails. He looked around, commented on the un-artful graffiti tag on the trailhead sign, then began sharing some of his childhood memories of Portland. He talked about swimming in the “back bay” before it went through a period of being polluted. This gave rise to a debate about back bay vs back cove. According to our chatty friend, the yuppies brought the term back cove; however, it looks like he’s on thin ice with that argument. Yuppie is an 80s term, and History of Portland,  published in 1865 by Portland mayor and state senator William Willis, is filled with discussions about the back cove. I doubt even this would convince our storyteller, as he was adamant! He went on to mention the practice of infilling for development and the related contamination of Portland’s water. He said he used to swim in the back cove until he saw sewage in the water. He also recalled his childhood when there was an ice delivery truck and his parents would leave a note for what size ice block they wanted. I told him that he looked good for 121 years old, as I can’t imagine ice delivery in 1940s Portland, though it probably existed! It’s interesting to note that the water lines of the back cove used to be significantly different, before the city expansion that began after the Industrial Revolution and after the fire of 1866. “Portland Then and Now,” an article on University of Southern Maine Osher Map Library website (with very cool maps), describes the infilling that occurred: “Several major land fills extended the urban core into Portland Harbor and up the Fore River to support commercial and industrial enterprises. New residential property was created by filling in the Back Cove.”

234.suburbia_oiltruckWe were ready to start our run, so we pulled out of the conversation, turned away from the wooded trail leading back toward Sebago Lake, and headed out onto the street. As we attempted to follow the map, aiming to arc back to the river, we ran through suburban developments that were completely desolate–a single oil truck grumbled by. We eventually reached the first section of wooded path, which led down to the finally, the woodsPresumpscot River and to the nicest part of the run. As we were looking for the right path, we spotted some Warhol-reminiscent graffiti under the bridge.

9.river

banana graffiti

River Glow

 

 

 

 

The path along the river was lovely–the green of the river glowing through the trees to our left. The trail was quiet but for one guy walking his dog and the sporadic sound of traffic in the distance. After a mile or so, we found the Presumpscot Falls and a sign describing the site of the Smelt Hill Dam, the first dam built in Maine, in 1734.

Presumpscot FallsThe sign outlined how, in 1996, a flood irreparably damaged the dam. By 2002  the remains were removed, which restored the falls and the possibility for a healthy, diverse wildlife habitat.

19.rickwoods

As we ran down river, it was hard to determine where the Sebago to Sea trail navigated out of the woods. We were enjoying the trail, so we stayed near the river until it intersected the bridge on Allen Avenue, at which point we scrambled up to the street. Allen Ave. bridgeFrom that point on, the trail led through schoolyards, sidewalks, roads, and paths, and it wasn’t until we were over half way that I realized that, in addition to scattered Sebago to Sea signs, discrete white blazes were marking our trail. 21.blazesWe followed the white dashes up Stevens avenue, at which point we realized that the blazes 22.blazes2mark Portland Trails and aren’t specific to the Sebago to Sea route.

27.backcove

 

Having lost the trail, we turned toward back cove, knowing that we would intersect the mapped route on the Washington Ave side.  It was a beautiful day for running, but still, I was wiped out and the blue-green water looked welcoming. We cruised along the familiar back cove trail, down the final mile to the East End Beach.

30.eastendbeach

We soaked our legs in the water for a bit and then headed back to the starting point to pick up the car.

As I reflect back on the farm running experiences of last year, I’m aware that part of the process and pleasure of discovery was in getting lost while navigating someone else’s vision of a place—a vision with a different set of goals than mine (knowing one’s farm boundaries, locating fence lines, etc.). The same is true with the watershed exploration, and I imagine the board members, naturalists, and trail crew that developed these trails with the goal of “connecting communities.” As I experience Lucindathe trails and the water pathways that accompany them, as a way of understanding the Casco Bay watershed and the water resource that fuels Portland, I feel as if I’m in conversation with others who have looked at the land with care and intentionality for a range of reasons. I can’t wait for the next run and for the drawings that emerge out of the experience.

 

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