Walking into the Phish Retrospective exhibition in the Reed Art Gallery at the University of Maine at Presque Isle is like walking back through time. The expansive, eclectic exhibit arranged by UMPI art professor Anderson Giles brings visitors back to the years when Limestone was the place to be.
The exhibit, which showcases work from a variety of artists, opened at the end of UMPI’s Sept. 29-Oct. 4 tribute to three Phish concerts held at the former Loring Air Force Base in Limestone in 1997, 1998 and 2003.
Each of those festivals, The Great Went, Lemonwheel and It, turned Limestone into the “largest city” in Maine. Combined estimates put the total attendance for the three shows at 200,000 fans with revenue in excess of $25 million.
Intent on showing what the band and those festivals did for the state, its population and its economy, Giles has been compiling artwork, posters, pictures and artifacts from each fete since 1997.
“It was such a huge and historical event for this area that I felt that someone had to document it,” he said of each concert during a recent interview. “I decided to do it, and the Phish people were very cooperative in letting me document it.”
Across the walls of the gallery inside the Campus Center, pictures depict concertgoers in resplendent clothing and jewelry as well as fans wearing nothing at all. Giles posted artist Spencer Tunick’s photograph of the more than 1,100 people at The Great Went who posed nude for the photographer in 1997. There are snapshots of Phish fans riding in cars decorated for the concert, jam-packed with sleeping bags, tents and coolers. There are also images of what Aroostook County people did to greet the fans and signs made by area businesses welcoming visitors to the area.
The exhibit offers a glimpse of the band, legions of fans and samples of articles from newspapers that covered the event.
Some of the most interesting pieces, however, illustrate what Giles found after the fans went home — from clothing and money to jewelry and expensive electronics.
“I went to the venue after everyone left and collected things that the fans left behind,” he recalled. “I was amazed at the mountains of items. Everything you could think of had been left behind.
“I found an expensive camera that someone dropped, just ground down into the mud,” he said. “I found a filthy sock full of money. There were couches, sleeping bags, brand-new L.L. Bean tents. There were so many beads, watches, glasses and things like stickers and tickets. I found a big crate of black beans left behind by someone who was making food at their campsite and selling it.”
The camera and the sock are included in the exhibit, along with funky clothes such as tie-dyed T-shirts, decorated bell bottom jeans and a handmade dress. Giles said that he wanted the exhibit to give visitors as large an image as possible of what went on during the three concerts.
“Looking at the pictures of the sea of fans, you can see why Limestone was the largest city in Maine at that time for three years,” he said. “You can see the clothing they wore, much of which was handmade. The exhibit also shows some of the art they made at the concert venue, such as chairs and sculptures. These things illustrate the fans, what the concert venue looked like and what took place there.”
For the exhibit, Giles also re-created the message boards that were hung at each festival for fans to post poems and notes to other concertgoers on. The boards allowed fans from one state to find fans from another at the venue, they contained messages to boyfriends from girlfriends and from friends to other friends. Giles collected the messages from the boards after the concerts.
The exhibit, Giles said, is “an amazing extravaganza of words and pictures.”
It also is timely, he pointed out, as it coincides with the reunion of the band. The band underwent an official break in 2004 but reunited earlier this year, selling out venues across the nation.
Giles acknowledged that he would welcome the chance to document another concert.
“I hope they do come back here again,” he said.
The exhibit will run through Nov. 21.