First up: Meghan Brady. Notes in hand, Brady walked to the front of a gallery in the Center for Maine Contemporary Art in Rockport and took the microphone from emcee Tom Weis.
“I want to say something before I start, but I’m not supposed to,” the Camden-based painter said as a pair of slides appeared on the screen behind her. “I want to say quickly that these are influences as well as my own work. You’ll see my own work on your right and on your left, you will see my influences, with the exception of two slides, including the first one. Thank you for letting me squeeze that in. Sorry.”
Brady turned to face the screen with the two images already in place.
The clock, she realized, was ticking.
“Oh, it started,” she said, sounding rushed. “OK, This is a Beatrice Wood.”
Brady looked up again. The slides had changed, with two more coming up next.
“Oh, shoot,” she said, realizing she had to hurry to catch up to the images on the screen. “OK, a drawing by my mother [is] on the right.”
And that was the start of Brady’s first experience with Pecha Kucha.
Pecha Kucha (pronounced pe-cha’ koo-cha’) is a Japanese phrase for the sound of conversation — sort of like chitchat. It’s a new form of presentation becoming popular among artists, or really anyone who wants to talk about their work.
The format is meant to be fast-paced, sort of the way the phrase Pecha Kucha sounds. Each presenter submits 20 slides, and is given 20 seconds per slide for whatever kind of narration they choose. After 20 seconds, the slides change. There’s no going back and no do-overs.
Pecha Kucha is about making the most of those 6 minutes 40 seconds.
The CMCA Pecha Kucha, held April 17, was the second such event in the midcoast area since January. The first was held Jan. 23 at the Eric Hopkins Gallery in Rockland. Organizers were expecting 75 people to show up at the Rockland Pecha Kucha, but attendance was closer to 200.
Last week’s Pecha Kucha was even bigger — CMCA curator Britta Konau estimated 250 people packed onto the main floor of the center, but considering the large, standing-room-only crowd and preshow crush of minglers, it seemed as if there were even more.
While it’s beginning to catch on in the midcoast area, Pecha Kucha is a smash around the world. This past Thursday alone, according to a schedule on a Web site dedicated to Pecha Kucha, there were events scheduled in England, Sweden, Bulgaria, Spain, Mexico, Nebraska and Texas. The next night showed events set in Switzerland and the island nation of Mauritius.
In cities with large arts communities, Pecha Kucha might be a way for observers to see something new — a painter they hadn’t heard of, perhaps, or an up-and-coming sculptor.
In the tightknit arts community of midcoast Maine, however, many artists seem to be familiar with each other’s work. The beauty of local Pecha Kucha events seems to be that they redefine creativity. Each presenter had his or her own style and method of discussing their work. And the range of presenters — not all were artists, and not all have a profession traditionally considered creative — should entice audiences to two more Pecha Kucha events scheduled this summer: June 26 at the Farnsworth Art Museum in Rockland, and Aug. 14 at Waterfall Arts in Belfast.
“It’s the idea that you’re broadening your horizons,” said Konau, who served on the jury for the CMCA Pecha Kucha. “Other creative people are joining in, and that I think is the most interesting part. If this were only artists, it would be the same people over and over again, and the fact that it is so mixed adds a lot.”
Pecha Kucha popularity
As Pecha Kucha slowly made its way to Maine — there have been Pecha Kucha events in Portland since 2007, according to www.pechakuchaportland.org — the project to bring it north has been led by the Farnsworth Art Museum, the Maine Center for Creativity, and Midcoast Magnet, a nonprofit organization in Camden that seeks to encourage culture, creativity, entrepreneurship and community connections. A jury selects presenters for each Pecha Kucha.
Pecha Kucha was developed in 2003 by Astrid Klein and Mark Dytham of the Klein-Dytham Architecture firm in Tokyo, as a place for young designers to meet, network and show their work.
To Weis, an artist and designer who helps run education programs at the Farnsworth, the concept of Pecha Kucha sounded like the community projects he worked on while he was a graduate student at the Rhode Island School of Design.
“When I returned [from RISD] I had a conversation with people at the Farnsworth about doing things like this,” he said. “Then that little conversation started happening with a number of people. A handful of us put it together and we sort of built a team.”
The attendance figures from the first Pecha Kucha made it clear to organizers this was something the community thirsted for. When Weis asked last Friday how many people in the audience had been to the first Pecha Kucha, about half of the people in the room raised their hands.
Some came just to figure out what the phrase Pecha Kucha actually meant.
“I was just intrigued by the title,” said Rockland resident Annette Naegel, who has been to both Pecha Kucha events. “It’s a pretty bizarre title. Trying to express it, say it, is a challenge in and of itself.”
The collaborations between all of the arts organizations, including Maine Media Workshops in Rockport and the Center for Furniture Craftsmanship in Rockport, has been an unexpected outcome of the midcoast Pecha Kuchas.
“The thing is, … we have all these arts organizations in this midcoast area,” Konau said. “To work together on something like this and having it in different locations, there aren’t any issues of proprietorship or competition going on because we all want the same thing.”
‘Ruthless’ and ‘exhilarating’
Most of the Pecha Kucha presenters at CMCA have had plenty of experience speaking about their work.
But 20 seconds per slide?
“It’s ruthless,” said Jan Owen, a calligrapher and book artist who lives in Belfast. “When you’re practicing, you think, oh, this must be going on forever. But it’s good, because it really makes you focus down.”
As Weis, the emcee, warned the crowd at the start of the event, 20 seconds is what the presenter makes of it. Sometimes, 20 seconds flashes by; sometimes, it’s an eternity.
For Brady, who spoke quickly to squeeze in what she had in her notes, the time zipped by.
“It was exhilarating, actually,” she said after the presentation. “There was something terrific about having a structure to presenting one’s ideas, which can be sort of unruly. So it’s interesting, providing a structure in this way.”
Painter Michael Reece, on the other hand, said little. The realistic images of his land in Searsmont and the buildings on it were so beautiful, they needed few words.
“We’re still in Searsmont,” Reece said, whistling as the time and slides passed by, eliciting laughter from the audience.
“This is Searsmont, again,” Reece said a few slides later. “… I swore this was the last painting I would do of my house.”
Stone carver Douglas Coffin seemed to find a middle ground, speaking about each slide as it appeared. He had time left over during some slides and ran over on others.
It seemed natural, but he changed his strategy during his preparations.
“I started out just using bullets and saying, I’ll stick to the bullets and be a little extemporaneous,” Coffin said after the presentations. “Twenty seconds was so tight and so unrelenting that I didn’t trust myself. It was just easier to write it out, and then I could relax and I wouldn’t go over and I wouldn’t lose my way. It was really a matter of self-preservation.”
Presentation styles varied as much as the choices of subject. Artist Pat Findlay spoke casually and off-the-cuff, explaining his whimsical drawings. Woodcut artist and illustrator Holly Meade spoke about process. Some presenters revealed influences, or talked about history and back story, while others stuck with barest facts.
“People come for the surprise,” Weis said. “That’s the fun part. Because sometimes you see where they work, what inspires them, you see what they’re thinking about. It’s really about seeing the whole process. The final product is just one part of it. There’s a lot more to it and this gives the artist an opportunity to share that with us.”
Twist on ‘the lobster gospel’
While the presentations were all creative, to describe Pecha Kucha as an artists-only affair is too limiting. There are many forms of creativity, as the Pecha Kucha organizers had hoped to point out.
Diane Cowan, for instance, the founder, executive director and senior scientist of The Lobster Conservancy in Friendship, realized the career she had built for herself was its own form of creativity. For Pecha Kucha, she chose to show a series of photographs illustrating the creation of the conservancy and her life there. But she wanted to say something about her work in a whole new way.
“I usually intend to preach the lobster gospel. I have things I want to say and I usually write what I want to say and then I go seek my images,” she said. “But in this case, the images drove the presentation. So it was really kind of fun looking for, oh, what are artists going to like, what images do I have that are really beautiful?”
A lot, as it turned out. And not only did her 20 photographs stand out from the stonework and calligraphy and line drawings, so did her method of presentation. Cowan chose narrative to match the images. She read in a measured voice from notes, pausing a few times, and told a story over the slides.
For some in the crowd, Cowan’s presentation may have been the most anticipated — the one with the greatest potential for surprise, as Weis might have said. What would this lobster scientist have to say about creativity?
“It’s so funny, because people I work with, when they heard I was doing this, they were asking, ‘Are you going to show your own arts and crafts?’” she said. “I was like, ‘No. [The Lobster Conservancy] is my dream, what I created.’”
The other so-called nonartist — although the work he does can certainly be considered artistic — was George Terrien, a landscape architect who spent his allotted time on charts, graphs and facts about green buildings and restoring old buildings.
Back in January, the first Pecha Kucha included a fashion designer, an organic farmer and a boatbuilder.
As it turned out, the presentations by nonartists helped to define creativity as much as any painter or sculptor. This amassing of creativity, no matter what form it takes, is one reason people seem to be attracted to Pecha Kucha.
It certainly drew in Naegel, of Rockland. She also works as a volunteer for Cowan and knows Terrien, but was curious about their presentations.
“I wanted to see how they were going to weave all of that together,” she said. “It wasn’t traditional artists, and I thought that was going to be interesting.”
Nothing new, in a new way
Pecha Kucha serves as a forum for artists and others to present their work. It functions as a way for arts organizations to collaborate. It helps spark a sense of community.
“More than anything this felt like community and that’s important, living in Maine when the winters are so long and you feel far away from people,” Brady said. “So to connect like this, in a really compact way, just really underscores the importance of community.”
Naegel, however, believes the community is already in place. Like Pecha Kucha itself — with all of its variations in styles, presentation format and subject matter — provides a different, creative way to look at things, she said.
“It’s nothing new for people to be around art, talk about it and be expressive in various ways,” she said. “So maybe this is labeling it in a way that attracts people that wouldn’t have otherwise come. So I don’t think this is something new. It’s just a different venue, and it’s fun.”
• • •
Future Pecha Kucha events in Maine
Thursday, May 21
Where: SPACE alternative arts venue, 538 Congress St., Portland
When: Doors open at 6:30 p.m.; presentations begin at 7:20 p.m.
What else: Submission deadline is May 6.
Friday, June 26
Where: Farnsworth Art Museum, Rockland
What else: www.farnsworthmuseum.org
Friday, Aug. 14
Where: Waterfall Arts, Belfast