Sunday, July 13, 2003
Creating 'very much on the edge'

By BOB KEYES, Staff Writer

Copyright © 2003 Blethen Maine Newspapers Inc.


VINALHAVEN - A college professor tried to talk Diana Cherbuliez out of moving to Vinalhaven to live year-round.

"Don't go back to the island," the professor advised after Cherbuliez spent a summer here. "It's Maine. They have not reached modernism, let alone post-modernism."

That the professor happened to be wrong about the status of Maine art was beside the point. Cherbuliez, now 38 and a 13-year resident of Vinalhaven, rejected the advice. She not only moved to Maine, but planted roots here, too.

A native of suburban Scarsdale, N.Y., Cherbuliez made a decision early in life that she would make her home in the heart of a city in the thick of civilization or in a rural area, on the edge of civilization.

Anywhere but the 'burbs, she told herself.

So she built a house in the woods on an island far off the coast, isolating herself from the rest of the world for the purpose of concentrating on her art and using the natural beauty around her to feed her creative spirit.

Cherbuliez, and many more like her, represents the latest in a long line of aspiring artists who came to Maine in search of inspiration and, in the process, found a home.

In Maine's storied past, art colonies in such places as Ogunquit, Monhegan Island and Deer Isle lured painters from around the world. Typically, they came for the summer, creating by day, carousing by night.

At summer's end, they returned home to their lives and work, intoxicated by the spirit of Maine and hopeful of summers to come.

Those places still attract seasonal artists, but Maine's art communities today are vastly different and far more diverse. The art colonies have diminished, largely because of economics. Most artists no longer can afford to summer away from home. Seasonal homes are now occupied largely by tourists and summer residents.

Instead, artists seem more likely to move and work here - in all corners of the state, along the coast and inland alike, sustained by like-minded people and powered by technology and the promise of convenient commutes to Boston, New York and other cities to promote their art and careers.

Many, like Cherbuliez, live year-round. Most are painters, and an increasing number are what curators call "object makers." Often, they are trained in painting and sculpture and work with found objects - anything will do, from discarded rubber boots to used bandages to sea gull carcasses.

They are Maine's new generation of artists, bound by common motives and desires and nurtured by the growing creative community. Much of their work shares few obvious traits with the traditionalists who preceded them. Yet these artists are part of the evolving Maine arts tradition, says Bruce Brown, director of the Center for Maine Contemporary Art in Rockport.

Just as Hamilton Easter Field's paintings were informed by his time spent in Ogunquit in the early 1900s, the work of Vinalhaven's young artists reflects time spent on the island a century later.

They adapt their work to their environment, fusing natural and found materials into their creations while falling into a natural daily and seasonal rhythm.

"Living and working in Maine, or at least on Vinalhaven, has everything to do with wintertime and how reflective people are in the winter. In the summer, we feed our bodies. In the winter, we feed our brains," says Cherbuliez, who used beeswax, matches and matchbook strike plates to create a hand holding an apple for the Portland Museum of Art's 2003 Biennial earlier this year.

"One thing Vinalhaven offers to my work is the rhythm. It has to do with tides and the boats."

The role of arts communities in Maine is inextricably linked to the history and settlement of the state. It also is bound to Maine's image and culture, says Donna Cassidy, a professor of art at the University of Southern Maine.

"The popularity of art and the popularity of Maine as a tourist destination are paired . . . feed off one another," Cassidy said. "If I were to make a map of Maine and mark out artist colonies and then mark out areas that became tourist areas, there would be a high incidence of overlap between the two.

"That is important, because the idea of these locales had powerful cultural resonance, and their paintings and sculptures helped perpetuate those ideas to New York audiences and Boston audiences, as well," she said.

Vinalhaven offers a telling glimpse into Maine's art world today. The island, which is served by a state-operated ferry from Rockland, is home to about 1,200 year-round residents. The summer population is closer to 3,000. Of those, roughly 200 people identify themselves as artists.

Of those 200, a growing number are younger artists who share a zip code with established and widely recognized Maine artists Robert Indiana, Alison Hildreth, Tad Beck and others.

Four of them - Cherbuliez, Hildreth, Indiana and 25-year-old Sean Ryan - are part of a current show, "I.D.: Four Artists from Vinalhaven" in the Carnegie Hall galleries at the University of Maine at Orono, which, among other things, offers insight into how the island's art scene has evolved.

Ryan, who grew up in suburban Connecticut, has been coming to Vinalhaven for seven years, the first four as a summer resident. He met Indiana his first summer here, and was hired as a studio assistant the next year.

Vinalhaven provided a new experience. His first year on the island, Ryan lived in a small cabin without water or electricity. It was, he says, a sort of self-imposed exile to help him create order in his life. The experience forced him to make do with circumstances beyond his control. Without a lot of external distractions, his island life forced him to be more introspective. His work absorbed him.

Such inward journeys and self-exile amid nature are a common theme for artists, and celebrated by writers such as Henry David Thoreau at Walden Pond.

Island life also brought Ryan together with other artists, experiencing similar life-changing moments.

"Here we are, on an island off the coast of Maine, in the Atlantic, living not the most luxurious lives," says Ryan, explaining the bond. "We're very much on the edge."

Among the artists he befriended was Erica Hansen, 27, who came to Vinalhaven to teach art at the island school. Hansen came to Portland from the Midwest to enroll at the Maine College of Art, which she chose over other art colleges because of its 24-hour studio access.

While at MECA, she met Cherbuliez, who spoke as part of a visiting-artist series. The two became friends, and when Hansen heard about an opportunity to design an art curriculum in Vinalhaven's K-12 school, she applied and was hired.

While a large chunk of her life is consumed by her duties at school, Hansen makes time for her own work. She shares a studio with Cherbuliez, and the two sometimes collaborate on projects, trading ideas and experiences.

The studio is deep in the woods on a remote part of the island. Tourists who take the ferry from Rockland rarely, if ever, see this part of Vinalhaven. It's a long drive down a rough road, miles from the scenic port.

The studio is attached to Cherbuliez's house, which she built mostly herself and which remains largely unfinished on the inside. The post-and-beam studio is open, flush with natural light. Cherbuliez works on the ground floor, which is divided into a series of work stations with various power tools. Hansen works in a loft that is accessed by an aluminum ladder.

Cherbuliez's studio houses a variety of completed pieces and works-in-progress, although now it is home mostly to items that might be used in future projects, from a pair of glass slippers to inner tubes to hundreds of cigarette butts strung together to form a tail.

Part of Cherbuliez's penchant for collecting stuff stems from the fact that she is surrounded by water, and disposing of things isn't as easy as putting it in a trash can for morning pickup.

Hanson is a painter by training, but much of her current work involves making art from items found in domestic settings, to project a sense of comfort in familiar surroundings. Among other projects, she sewed together tea bags to form a quilt and created a dress from pages of a book.

A common theme among the Vinalhaven artists is the frugality of their work and its inventive nature. Part of it may be old-fashioned Yankee ingenuity, Ryan says, but mostly it's a matter of using what the environment has to offer in the most creative, telling way. Their work is elemental and unpretentious, reflecting their environment and lifestyles.

"The work is based in the soul," says Cherbuliez. "It's not just handiwork, and it's not just clever."

Hansen senses a growing bond among her friends on Vinalhaven and artists in Maine as a whole, especially younger artists whom she meets at mainland exhibitions. "I feel like it's just starting to get really exciting," she says of the state's contemporary art scene. "I have met a lot of artists I really respect, and I think it has the potential for growth."

Cherbuliez agrees.

"There is a huge hunger here now that is growing," she says. "There is a hunger to make this work, and a sense that we can change the standards of art and open things up."

Staff Writer Bob Keyes can be contacted at 791-6457 or at: