From canvases of tragedy come images of hope

Posted Aug. 23, 2009, at 9:55 p.m.
Last modified Jan. 30, 2011, at 11:58 a.m.

SWAN’S ISLAND — The site of the former Swan’s Island Library is just the shell of a stone foundation now, more than a year after the building burned down after likely being struck by lightning.

Yet there were signs of life one recent morning. Grass was sprouting. Bugs were biting. Blueberries were growing in the field on the library grounds.

And Elizabeth Awalt was hoping that what she found at the library in the days after the fire will blossom into something significant for a building that meant much more to the tiny island community than just a place to borrow a book.

Awalt, a landscape painter from Concord, Mass., who has summered on Swan’s Island since 1986, collected hundreds of burned books and pages that were scattered near the library.

“I immediately began to think the pages themselves were so beautiful because of the way they were burned,” she said recently, standing near the library’s foundation. “They all had various shapes, although there was a consistency to the shapes, almost a tombstone, and the way they had burned was so poignant. I began to think, ‘Maybe I’ll draw on them, start to do work on them.’”

Awalt and others did just that. The result of their efforts is “New Pages,” a collection of 32 works of art created on or with the pages Awalt collected from around the library. Some of the new pieces were made by artists who have some connection to the island. Others were created by artists who have international reputations.

The work will be on display Wednesday, Aug. 26, at the Neighborhood House in Northeast Harbor with a free open house from noon to 4 p.m., followed by a silent auction from 5:30 to 6:30 p.m. and a live auction at 6:30 p.m.

All of the proceeds, including $25 tickets for the auctions, will go to the fund to rebuild the library, a sum librarian Candis Joyce said is estimated to be $937,000.

If funds are raised for the new library, it will be thanks to those who bid on the 32 pieces of new art. Just as important, however, are the more than 200 pages decorated by community members in the weeks and months after the fire. Spurred on by Awalt, people created moving images of buildings on fire and lightning bolts; im-ages of birds and flowers, squiggles and lines. All of the pages were displayed Aug. 16 at the Swan’s Island Oddfellows Hall.

The artists’ and community members’ pages are unlike anything photographer Peter Ralston has seen in his years of following the art world. Ralston is an adviser to “New Pages” and the executive vice president of the Rockland-based Island Institute, which works with Penobscot Bay islands that have year-round communities, such as Swan’s Island.

“I think this is really an extremely heartfelt, brilliant and a soulful response to the fire,” Ralston said. “I remember being there a couple of days after the fire. It was really haunting to see all those pages and burned books, and the fact that [Awalt] came up with the idea of creating art and rounding up islanders is really meaningful.”

A meeting place

More than 100 years old, the library building and property, which is owned by the Swan’s Island Educational Society, originally was used as a schoolhouse. Later in its life — after renovations by the 350 year-round residents and hundreds more summer residents — it became a library.

It was a popular gathering place and one of few public spots on the island with wireless Internet access.

The library also served as a storage site for a collection of historical artifacts, some of which were moved into the building a few weeks before the July 24, 2008, fire.

“It was a totally helpless feeling,” Joyce said, recalling the scene. “It’s more so now. Sometimes you’ll remember something that you wished you had.”

In addition to books, quarry records, photographs and ferry logs, countless other documents were destroyed.

Awalt arrived on the island a few days after the fire and saw the book pages all over the site.

They were wrinkled from the rain and water used to fight the fire. Some were barely tinged with burn marks. Others were almost totally eaten away. The flames created brown and black wisps and fragile edges.

“It was extraordinary how many books were left, how many pages,” Awalt said. “They were all over. The wind had blown them so they were everywhere.”

The legible pages Awalt found came from all types of books. There is a page from a Richard Setzer short story, “Four Appointments with the Discus Thrower” and another from Mark Twain’s “Following the Equator” series. There are pages from a Clifford the Big Red Dog book, Jack Perkins’ “Parasols of Ferns: A Book About Wonder,” and a cookbook, “Good Maine Food.”

Awalt began to collect pages — she still doesn’t know how many she has — and began to experiment with making art on them. Then her children, who had frequented the library, joined in her work. Awalt began to think, “Why couldn’t the community put some kind of art on the pages, too?”

In August 2008, Awalt began to frequent island events such as flea markets and pancake breakfasts. She set up tables and invited islanders to make drawings on the pages.

Not everyone was receptive to the idea.

“Some people felt a little funny about it,” Awalt said. “We’re all taught, don’t draw in a book. So it went against peoples’ nature, in a sense, to do that, and people mentioned that. The kids, of course, were extremely enthusiastic and jumped in. Yet being pushed a little bit, the [adults] did it.”

By the end of the month, there were at least 60 pages. Awalt handed off the project for the school year to Swan’s Island art teacher Shira Singer, who gathered more pages from her students. The number of community pages is now somewhere around 212, and Awalt is hoping for more.

Poignant and beautiful

Willa Vennema, a Portland resident and painter who has summered on Swan’s Island for 47 years, was eager to contribute something to “New Pages.”

Her work of art wasn’t made from a page from a book, but rather uses information cards that library patrons apparently filled out, possibly when applying for a library card. Vennema used a gel fixative on a board to paste the cards and then used acrylics to paint a scene from her porch.

Vennema’s work will be included in the Northeast Harbor auction, along with the creations of other well-known artists such as Ralston, Ashley Bryan, Eric Hopkins and Dahlov Ipcar. Some have a connection to Swan’s Island, while others answered an appeal from Awalt, whose work is also among the 32 “New Pages.”

For the artists, the first challenge was figuring out how to work with the pages in their fragile state.

“I would have loved to print on these pages, but because of charred edges I could not run that through my printing process,” said Ralston, who affixed to a page his well-known “Pentecost,” a photograph of sheep in a dory boat. “The page I got was one about the importance of history on the island … [and in the photograph] there are overtones of ‘We’re all in it together.’ It just struck me that that would be a good one.”

For her piece, Awalt found a page from a book about the domestication of animals, and drew a cutaway of the interior of a local sea cucumber.

Fittingly for an artist known for her children’s book illustrations, Ipcar had a page from a Clifford book on which she drew a Dalmatian looking back at the big red dog. Amy Pollien created a sort of illuminated manuscript from her page, drawing a swan in the upper left corner.

“It’s really fantastic to see the variations of how people approached it,” Vennema said.

Aside from the work she made for “New Pages,” Vennema made her own piece for the community page collection on which she wrote, “We are sad to lose the library but blueberries thrive on fire.”

Like the blueberries around the library site, the pages Awalt found may provide some hope.

“I think Liz’s idea of this project just makes sense,” Vennema said. “It’s been so exciting to have something positive come out of the tragedy of the fire. It’s really, in a number of ways, brought the community together.”

For more information about “New Pages” go to www.swansisland.org and follow the links. Information about online bidding for the auction of artists’ pages also can be found at the Swan’s Island Web site.

jbloch@bangordailynews.net

990-8287

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