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Essay: In Maine, If There's an Artistic Will, Artists Find a Way

Artist and writer Jenna Crowder writes that if artists have good ideas and the passion to get things done, the Maine arts community is incredibly supportive.

Jenna Crowder

This article originally appeared on Creators.

As part of 50 States of Art, Creators is inviting artists to contribute first-person accounts of what it is like to live and create in their communities. Jenna Crowder is an artist and writer based in Portland, ME and the Founding Editor of The Chart, a Maine-based online arts journal.

The thing you'll likely hear first and most about Maine's art scene is how nourishing and supportive the arts community is here. It's fairly accessible and can be shockingly horizontal, which lends itself to artists being able to make cool things happen with a lot of encouragement from spaces and people in the Maine art world. I've felt this spark of enthusiasm over the past several years in my own practice as an artist, curator, and writer: I curated citydrift/Portland , a 72-hour meta-event of happenings, performances, and installations with 150+ artists throughout the city of Portland; collaborated on a full-length original spoken opera, Persephone in the Late Anthropocene , for which I created the set/installation and costumes; and co-founded an online arts journal called The Chart . Basically, I think if you have good ideas, the passion to make those things happen, and the thoughtfulness to create meaningful partnerships, there's a community here that will be totally on board to help bring those projects to life.

The video/new media artist Erin Johnson comes immediately to mind as someone who exemplifies how this dynamic can work. Erin moved to Maine about a year and a half ago to teach in the Visual Arts department at Bowdoin College. She reached out to a lot of artists and makers and galleries, and it quickly seemed like she had about a thousand projects underway. Erin is super generous with her work and in how she builds relationships. She's been able to ask gently prodding questions that get locals rethinking about space here—her project, A Long Wait , on Casco Bay's Fort Gorges was a gorgeous contemplation on time and purpose—and it's exciting to undertake those investigations with her.

Performance still from S P E C T A C U L A R B L A C K D E A T H by knightworks dance theater as part of A Long Wait, curated by Erin Johnson. Photo: Erin Johnson

There's a growing number of artists and collectives in Portland whose practices feel revelatory and pointedly inclusive in a state yearning for diversity. New Fruit is a woman-run artist space that prioritizes the work of women, queer, and trans artists. Theater Ensemble of Color was founded by René Johnson in order to create better opportunities for actors of color in Portland. Able Baker Contemporary is a relatively new artist-run gallery that's putting together work from local and national artists to consider Maine's perspective as a vital part of a bigger conversation.

Performance still from Persephone in the Late Anthropocene at SPACE Gallery, 2016. Denis Nye, Megan Grumbling, Jenna Crowder, Tess Van Horn, and Corey Anderson. L–R: Brigette Kelly (as Persephone) with Ian Bannon and Marjolaine Whittlesey. Photo: Chronos Ananke

Mike Kelley once wrote that "the main motivation for an artist … to start writing criticism is that the critical establishment was not addressing [certain] cultural concerns." As is often heard in small cities or rural areas, I and other artists were craving more criticality and intentional dialogue about the work being made in Maine. In 2015, I received a Kindling Fund grant from SPACE Gallery to start an arts journal, The Chart, to explore the cultural concerns here. I'm particularly curious in the ways that art can be engaging, collaborative, and public, and starting with my own community in the art world made sense. In an effort to broaden the reach of these dialogues, I worked with the Institute for American Art last summer to launch MTV Crits! , a series of critical music video screenings that I co-hosted with the journalist Nadia Prupis. (Spending an evening discussing Beyoncé's cultural impact is a good way to do that.)

While there's no denying that artists flock to the lush, quiet beauty of the state to embrace the solitude of wilderness, Maine's more traditional art scene is neatly balanced by a pulsing, hyper-contemporary thrust of connection and expansion.

MTV Crits!, a critical music video screening series hosted by JennaCrowder and Nadia Prupis at the Institute for American Art. "Portrayals of Women's Sexuality in Pop" was Episode #1 in July 2016. Image: Jenna Crowder

Learn more about Jenna Crowder on her website and check out her work on The Chart.

All year, we're highlighting 50 States of Art projects around the United States. This month, we're covering Mississippi, Virginia, Nebraska, Maine, and Arizona. To learn more, click here.

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