It became clear early this year that my current project, Tracking the Border, would become a tracking of narrative as much as a navigation of the Maine-Canada divide. When I began to share news that I’d won a Kindling Grant (part of the Warhol Foundation Re-Granting Program), every casual chat seemed to inspire a personal story about the border: childhood memories of swimming across, horrible border crossing tales (lots of those), cultural experiences that question the border altogether, and family immigration stories, among many others. I quickly realized that rather than following the 611 mile map along the Maine-Canada border, I’d be jumping around from point to point, following people’s stories. The idea of privileging chance process over a pre-established order felt creatively right as well, and so I’ve spent the year engaging in dialogue with a wide range of people from around the state, all with very different understandings of border and boundary, both conceptually and in terms of the Maine border. The spirit of the Kindling grant is collaborative, and the granting agency holds an expanded understanding of audience and venue; my shift in approach also seemed more deeply aligned with that vision. This approach to process continues to lead me into inspiring pockets of coincidence, and coincidence is what shows up when a creative project finds its roots.
My first trip to the border was in March of this year, to Presque Isle, Caribou, Van Buren, and Fort Kent. Though I’ve done most of my traveling solo, I was fortunate to have the company of friend and artist, Rebecca FitzPatrick, on the first adventure. The motivating structure for the trip was a story that artist Julie Poitras Santos had shared about her grandparents’ illegal crossing from Canada to the U.S. in the 1930s. It turned out that Poitras Santos’ exhibition, O Time Your Pyramids, was opening at the Reed Gallery in Presque Isle in early March, and she invited us to join her for a celebratory dinner, where I’d have the chance to ask her father, Ron Poitras, about his parents’ experience. We decided, in preparation for the conversation, that we’d head up to the Van Buren – Saint Leonard crossing, which was the spot her grandparents had supposedly trekked into the States. As I’ve since come to expect, the discoveries began well before we arrived in Van Buren.
Heading up Route 1, between Houlton and Presque Isle, Rebecca and I began to spot planet sculptures. We screeched to a halt on spotting the first, not noticing the cop behind us, who quickly pulled over behind us to make sure we were okay! From signage on the site, we learned that all 9 planets were placed along Rt. 1 in a 40-mile scale model of the Solar System: one mile along Rt. 1 equalling one astronomical unit (the distance from the Earth to the Sun). I remembered hearing about a road race that coincided with NASA’s New Horizons’ Pluto mission, and realized that this was that stretch of road. I decided to read up on the race when we got to our bed and breakfast later in the day.
My plan had been to run along the border in Van Buren before dinner, so I could get a tactile sense, before meeting her father, of where Julie’s grandparents had crossed into the States. It was March, and there was still a fair amount of snow, which made the road the only option. I headed northwest along Rt. 1 toward Madawasca, with the plan to have Rebecca scoop me up when I was finished. With unyielding trucks and slippery footing, it was a rough run, but I was able to witness the way the river creates a natural boundary between the two countries in that section of the border, and I could imagine people dreaming across the divide, in both directions.
After the run, we cruised back down to Caribou and checked into The Old Iron Inn Bed and Breakfast. We began chatting with owners Kate and Kevin McCartney. We mentioned the solar system models, and it turns out that Kevin was instrumental in the development of the project (from 2000-2003), in addition to being one of the organizers of the New Horizons road race. He told us about working with Evan Graves, an accomplished Maine runner, who symbolically travelled the speed of light by running an 8:20 pace over the 39 miles of the Rt. 1 Solar System, mirroring the New Horizons’ 3 billion mile, 9 1/2 year journey to Pluto! MPBN and Runner’s World, among other sources, covered the event in detail. Using running to inspire community, education, and dialogue, Graves and McCartney’s project struck me an important reminder of why collaborative, cross disciplinary work can be so effective. It was time for Rebecca and I to head to Presque Isle for Julie’s exhibit, but before we could get out the door, Kate mentioned the Can-Am Crown, a 250 mile dog sled race that would start in Ft. Kent the next morning. Since the race would occur along the border, and I wanted to consider how the rules of the border are contextual, I determined we’d add that to the plan…that I’d continue to let each new story and question lead the journey.
Julie’s exhibit was powerful, based on Borges’ “The Library of Babel.” I’ve loved Borges since I read Labyrinths in college, so this seemed another appropriate coincidence. Julie’s work powerfully inspects language and meaning, storytelling and the experience of the body, the cerebral and the sensual, what is known and unknown (and the mysterious space in between). Truly multi-disciplinary, the exhibit incorporated text, performance, sculpture, and collaborative engagement, and provided another point of inspiration for my own project, particularly in thinking about how I would eventually represent my experiences in the form of art objects.
At dinner after the exhibit, I learned that Ron’s parents had come across the border in mid-April in the 1930s because Ron’s uncle had promised them work in CT. The couple walked across the river in water up to their knees, among ice flows. I thought back to my run in Van Buren–it’s a long walk across the water, and it must have been incredibly stressful. As Ron said, they were running “away from their lives” and toward the possibility of work. There were many Canadian immigrants coming to the United States in the early 20th century, largely because of a complex mix of economic and social factors, and the difficult balance of agriculture and industry in the two countries that lasted through the two World Wars and depression, until the explosion of new industry in the mid-twentieth century. The tense post-war relationship between Canada and Great Britain also contributed to a period of instability and high unemployment, and affected the emigration numbers.
Ron went on to say that his parents had come to the States wanting to farm, but that his father had ended up working in the logging industry, and after years of moving through different kinds of work, and back and forth between Canada and the States, he attained US citizenship and developed a successful career in the electrical business. In the midst of these experiences, Ron was born in Caribou, Maine, as an only child. As the evening wore on and more wine was poured, everyone around the table began to jump into the conversation, and we began talking about boundaries and edges in the abstract. Ron made the point that everything happens on the edges of things, and we talked about the nature of language and its relationship to borders and edges (the whole family is still bilingual in French and English). Julie mentioned port cities as centers of complex, important content because of their status as edges. Rebecca brought up the magic of nature–how where land meets the sea, nature’s dialogue is at its most rich, active, and magical. By the end of the meal, I was exhausted and amazed at what can emerge out of the simple structure of gathering a group of people together around a story.
The next morning Rebecca and I were tempted to call the adventure quits, but the possibility of seeing the dog sledding was too enticing. I wanted to explore the idea that depending on context, a border is more or less permeable. We spent the morning enjoying the dogs and their courageous mushers, and hit the road when the parade of vintage snowmobiles started spewing smoke. The parade was a high point for the crowd and the big cameras started coming out as the older rigs went by! The smell of a Skidoo always brings back memories of my childhood in the dairy farming culture of Northern Vermont, but my creative head was already over full, and it was time to head South and sift through everything we’d experienced.