On July 12th, I completed an interactive “garden intervention” at the Ogunquit Museum of American Art. The intervention was the culmination of work I’d been doing in Ogunquit for a few months. Preparation involved researching the town’s history, on-the-ground exploring, and meeting with some of the long-time residents, all of whom were overflowing with tales of Ogunquit, from the late 19th century to the present.
As is true with most of my current work, the project took multiple forms but was grounded in drawing. On the day of the intervention, museum docents introduced visitors to the project by showing them three of my aerial map pieces. Each drawing included 3 pink “x” marks indicating the 3 dialogue sites on the museum grounds. Visitors would begin by choosing a site, then meeting me at my drawing table.
We’d start with a brief chat about the performative nature of the project and how they were embarking on a collaboration. Then we’d walk to the site they’d chosen. I’d begin by sharing some of Ogunquit’s social and artistic history, such as the tensions between Hamilton Easter Field’s Summer School of Graphic Arts and Charles Woodbury’s Ogunquit School of Drawing and Painting. Henry Strater, the museum’s founder, came to Maine to study at Field’s school in 1918. In the 1950s he purchased land on Narrow Cove, from the Woodbury family, and had the museum built on the water’s edge. Ogunquit has been a magnet for a wide range of known and unknown artists (Hartley, Hopper, Homer, and many more), and passions for the town and its history run deep. In my preparation, I heard as many stories of raucous parties during prohibition and wild theater galas as I did the more somber tales of artistic growth. What came across in all of my research conversations was a profound sense of community and a hunger to hold on to that intimacy in a world that is much more frayed, digital, and dispersed.
During the intervention, I shifted each dialogue from the historical to the personal. I pointed out how place lives in our very cells. Our cells pull toward or react against the places and people that formed us. I shared stories about some of my places: my grandmother’s driveway, the ferry landing in Blacks Harbour, the lower east side of Manhattan, and then I’d invite them to share a story in return. In every case, the conversations quickly dove deep, and I was blown away by the stories people shared. Below you’ll find condensed fragments of the 16 conversations.
Cellular Places and Narrative Fragments
Bangor, Ellsworth, MDI
Point Pleasant, NJ
Steel Country, OH
Kennebec Valley and the Belgrade Lakes
The NH coast
The piers, before Hurricane Sandy buried them, and before the “Jersey Shore” was a thing.
Five miles from home there’s a place where the fields go on and on, then there’s a sudden valley. In the valley stands a 300-year-old oak, thick and knobby. You can hide a car behind it.
In the winter, during the depression, there was a pond and a willow in the yard. No one was happy.
It feels trivial, but being a teen-ager on the beach, chasing the girls.
Always returning to the water and rocks. Scrambling over the rocks at ten, trying to decipher mysterious writing rising out of the hard, etched surface.
There’s a spot in the woods where we go that’s filled with green light. There’s a mound of moss surrounded by trees; it’s like a fairy land. One time there were hundreds of cairns in the stream. We’ve seen giant spiders skimming on the water. Even that was magical, and I’m terrified of spiders.
Losing my virginity at the family camp and returning to reconnect many years later.
The cove, a handsome man, and a missing oar. The place, and the man, cast a spell over me.
Working with a group of women, storytellers, where all the screwed-up family history and related questions of identity were dropped. It was a place where I became open. Where I felt what it was to be loved completely.
What it was to leave steel country and go to Maine, where your eyes can go for a walk and your brain with it.
Genetic imprinting of place is a thing, and Maine is in my cells. Maine is home, unlike the cannibal forest of the west. That forest holds the fears of being eaten and more. In Maine, as a girl, I walked in the woods like I was part of it.
Actual home is too dysfunctional–Disney World feels special and more like home to me. Family feels right when we’re there.
The family summer house with the pine floor, under the Tsuga hemlocks. There’s only boat access, and you can anticipate the tactile sense of the place while you wait for the trip over.
Places with stones, to do deep work in. Nature is alive, the stones are conscious. I’m drawn to places where there’s no dramatic crutch, existentially or artistically. Thoreau and a twig, not Acadia. The twig is the cosmos; Acadia does too much work for you. When I work, everything has to be right, and when it is, the wind and the clouds work with me.
The shamans in Peru.
In my adult life, I’ve been recreating my grandmother’s porch and its familiarity because it’s the safest space I’ve ever known: a white house with black shutters, hollyhocks, and the warm musty smell of a porch that puts you to sleep.
A stone grotto at the end of a field, with statues—the Virgin Mary with lambs. I love the Virgin Mary.
I was a dancer in New York, but now I need to go north…to Newfoundland…as far North as possible. I need austerity. I need to not be distracted from experience and to know a place by physically knowing it.
As each conversation closed, I ritualized the exchange by walking back to my table to draw a homing pigeon. I added each bird to a growing flock on the side of the museum wall as a way of honoring the stories shared and allowing myself a momentary quiet space where I could live in the world that had been shared with me.
In closing: Thanks to Andy Verzosa for inviting me to perform the intervention, in his role as Interim Director of OMA, and to Michael Mansfield, the current OMA Director for his continued support of the project.
On August 29th, at 6:00 pm I’ll be offering a Totally Tuesday talk at the museum: Tracking Narrative: A Contemporary Approach to Landscape . I’ll share more about the project, including some of the local lore I collected, while offering some examples of the artists and artistic movements that have influenced my work.