Last week, I spent 3 days at the Maine International Conference on the Arts, which took place on the U. Maine, Orono campus. There were a number of excellent workshops and performances and, since the campus includes a forest filled with running and biking trails, I was able to get a great run in every day.
On the first day of the conference, I walked into a workshop on arts assessment and looked up to see Michelle, a former student from the Vermont College of Fine Arts MFA program. After the workshop, we walked across campus, catching up on the several years since we’d worked together. I learned that she’s moved out of Madawaska to start a farm near Skowhegan. Her creative work has shifted from photography to breeding cows and pigs and growing mushrooms and rye. Given my current farm running project, this was a perfect, unanticipated connection! Having wrapped up my first 6 farm runs, and the subsequent drawings, it’s become clear that I’m not done with the project—far from it. As Michelle shared about her farm: the land, piglets about to be born, a greenhouse being erected, and a breeding experiment with cows (something to do with yellow meat), I realized that this would be the perfect farm for my next run. She’s on board and a plan is in the works!
After a second conference workshop, I was eager to stretch my legs. I wasn’t sure how to find the trails, and as I was leaving a classroom building, I stopped a policeman who was rushing in. Smiling I asked, “Do you have a second?”
He looked at me sideways and replied, “I thought you were going to tease me about my face.”
Not sure how to respond, I took a closer look and noticed bruises and scabs on his nose and cheeks. With a sheepish smile, I asked him if he knew about the trails. He led me back to his car, where he dug out a map and described a perfect 5-mile loop. I headed for the edge of campus. Following his directions, I ran the main path through the woods, down to Old Town on a second string of paths, and then back to campus on a paved bike trail. Perfect. That night, after afternoon performances and workshops, I grabbed a burger and beer at The Sea Dog Brewing Company in Bangor and walked back to the Charles Inn for restful night. This was proving to be an excellent conference and a great personal retreat.
Day 2 of the conference began with a presentation on Strategic Thinking. The session wasn’t as corporate as it sounds. Linda Nelson, of Opera House Arts in Stonington, managed to make the material fresh, and I found myself asking whether my farm running project exists in the context of a clear mission. Pondering this, I decided to skip the next session in order to head out for run number 2.
This time, I headed into the woods to see if I could navigate an easy loop without getting disoriented. I was happy to find regular maps posted on the trails. I meandered through the larger paths and found my way to the far end of the corn field loop. As I ran around the expansive fields, I recalled Linda’s present-ation, and realized that I do have a mission statement: “to combine art and running in order to inspire a rich connection with the land.” My current work can be reduced to that. I mulled it over like a mantra for the rest of the run, pleased to find the conference informing my creative work.
The day concluded with an evening performance by Mike Daisy, who presented his new one man show, The Secret War, on the current state of privacy in the United States–the bottom line: very little privacy for the people, increasing secrecy in the government. Daisy’s monologue centered around an imaginary dialogue with Daniel Ellsberg, who leaked the Pentagon Papers; Chelsea (Bradley) Manning, who leaked classified documents from the Iraq war involving documentation of the killing and torture of Iraqis; and Edward Snowdon, the former NSA contractor who released documents disclosing massive US Government surveillance activities. At first, I wasn’t sure what to make of Daisy’s manic, self-deprecating persona, but in reflection, I realize that he’s an important cultural voice–that he’s bending the medium of theater toward social responsibility. Framing his work, it seems important to realize that it’s theater, not journalism. Art can speak the truth by using illusion as a tool.
Day 3 began with a 2-hour workshop on documenting and archiving creative work, after which I scooted back to woods for a final adventure. With each Orono run, I’d been a bit more daring about hitting the smaller, more circuitous trails that led deeper into the woods. This time, I returned to the corn field for a few laps, and then decided to head back toward campus from the far side, on a path I’d discovered the previous day. After about 100 feet, I ran into the first of many crossroads and took a right turn, imagining that I’d run back into the Dorion Loop, which would lead me to familiar ground. After about 5 more turns, I realized that not only was I on an unfamiliar path, but it might be tough to retrace my steps.
I forged ahead, and the wooded paths got smaller and more remote. It was gorgeous running, but after about 20 minutes with no signs or recognizable landmarks, I was beginning to get concerned.
My 30 minute run had gone 50 minutes and I had no clue about my location.
I was just about to turn around when I saw a larger trail ahead. Then, at an intersection, there was a map. I still couldn’t orient myself, and as I was pondering, two mountain bikers arrived. I asked if they’d come from campus, but they had no idea. Since they also seemed to be lost, I took off in the opposite direction. That strategy worked, and after a few minutes, I came out on a trail I recognized. Relieved, I ran back to the car for a quick change.
The conference concluded with a closing talk by Mike Daisy, this time on the current state of the arts. He made the point, multiple times, that “the arts are fucked.” He talked about a declining audience and connected this to the lack of arts education—students aren’t being trained as artists or as audience. Our culture no longer values what it is that artists have to say; it doesn’t support artistic creation as real work. He concluded with a charge to arts leaders and educators to imagine new ways of making arts education available and made clear that the vacuum created in its absence is not just tragic, it represents a critical turning point in human history. It was a challenging and inspiring conclusion to three rich days in Bangor, Maine.