Walk through the door at Maine Farmland Trust Gallery in downtown Belfast and you’ll be greeted by the smiling face of chef, author and community activist Alice Waters, a champion of locally grown, fresh food and opponent of fast food.
Waters’ engaging, life-size portrait is one of 16 works of art on display in the gallery’s current exhibit, “Food For Thought 2,” on view through April 19.
“The show celebrates agriculture through art,” said art gallery coordinator Anna Witholt Abaldo.
The group show features four, well-established Maine artists: Susan Camp of Winterport, Kenny Cole of Monroe, Rob Shetterly of Brooksville, who painted the Waters portrait; and Barbara Sullivan of Solon.
All works in the exhibit express provocative, food-related themes, Abaldo said.
The idea of food naturally implies farmland under cultivation — a top priority at Maine Farmland Trust, whose offices are located in back of the art gallery and also above it, in a second-floor office space. The goal of the 10-year-old nonprofit is to protect Maine’s agricultural land from development and keep it in farming, she said.
The vibrant portrait presence of Waters, a restaurant promoter in Berkeley, Calif., lends an inviting warmth to the exhibit. Her insights regarding her Edible Schoolyard program can be seen in the text incorporated into the acrylic painting.
“What we are calling for is a revolution in public education — a real Delicious Revolution. When the hearts and minds of our children are captured by a school lunch curriculum, enriched with experience in the garden, sustainability will become the lens through which they see the world.”
One can find Michael Pollan, the witty, best-selling author of “The Botany of Desire,” and “In Defense of Food” grinning wryly near the gallery door, another portrait by Shetterly.
“I am really enjoying being greeted by Alice Waters and Michael Pollan; it’s nice to have them here,” said Tim Fuller, outreach and communications coordinator for the trust.
But those works are just the beginning. The small but well-mixed show, which features paintings, sculptures and drawings, is full of surprises.
Perhaps the most politically charged works on view are Kenny Cole’s ink-and-gouache drawings created specifically for the exhibit. Five pieces, executed in stark black and red on white paper, graphically communicate the perils of women of agriculture in war-torn countries.
For instance, there is his visually arresting drawing, “South Sudan,” which depicts a woman aiming a gun. Above her head is the blood-red, inverted triangle of an all-meat food pyramid.
“I came up with the idea of women with weapons protecting food. … Unfortunately, women defending their food has a basis in reality. … Women are the farmers in a large part of the world. There is a lot of violence against women. Women are left behind to farm when men go off to war,” Cole said in a recent phone interview.
“I like his edgy work — his idea how the military industrial complex dominates agriculture,” Abaldo said.
Adding a note of whimsy to the show are five bas-relief sculptures created by Barbara Sullivan. The colorful pieces include a shopping cart and various food items, such as pork chops, chicken, steak and bottles containing high-fructose corn syrup.
An untitled piece of Sullivan’s shows a woman seated in a car and ordering at a fast-food takeout window. The work is a visual comment on the modern consumer’s alienation from real food and the farmland that sustains it.
“It interests me how people have a relationship in getting food through a window,” she said.
Sullivan is happy to have Maine Farmland Trust as a venue for her art. “They’re trying to procure farmland for Maine’s future. I really believe in that,” she said.
Susan Camp, a sculptor and printmaker who teaches at the University of Maine in Orono, creates art using odd-shaped gourds, which she grows and constrains in molds and other forms. After harvesting them, she cures, cuts, burns, pierces and decorates them with natural stains.
On view is her sculpture, “Farm Fresh Grade A.” The intriguing, quirky piece depicts a headless, legless chicken. Set in the middle of its body is a cluster of small egg shapes contained within a steel ring. A wing design is etched into the back of the gourd.
“She is forcing us to look at how we manipulate natural life around us … such as the way chickens are raised for egg production,” Abaldo said. “You have to spend some time with her pieces, which are quite tactile.”
A third Shetterly portrait depicts Florence Reed of Surry. Reed founded Sustainable Harvest, a nonprofit that teaches local people to teach Central American farmers to abandon forest-devastating, slash-and-burn agriculture and, instead, use better farming practices.
“These three portraits have to do with food and land issues,” he said. The paintings are part of a highly successful series composed of about 150 paintings called “Americans Who Tell The Truth.” In 2005, Dutton published 50 of his portraits in a book with the same title.
He meets many of his portrait subjects in person, he said, such as author Pollan, who teaches at the University of California at Berkeley. Shetterly is booked for the next two years to give talks, lectures and workshops based on his series.
“I’m on the road almost constantly,” he said.
Abaldo has been with Maine Farmland Trust for about a year and a half. An artist and journalist who has lived in Holland and the Caribbean island of Aruba, she brings a cosmopolitan spirit to the small gallery.
And she has added her own bit of whimsy to the current show — six tin cans lined up in the gallery’s storefront picture window.
“I’m planting seedlings in them,” she said, as she armed herself with a plastic watering can and climbed over her office desk to get inside the window display area. “I thought it would be fun to play with the contrast between growing our own food and being in touch with planting seeds — and getting food from cans. A lot of people eat out of cans.”
Abaldo and her husband, Vincent, recently bought an 1825 farmhouse “in need of a lot of work,” she said. The house is set on three acres in Lincolnville.
The art on view in “Food For Thought 2” was drawn from a larger exhibit held this past October at a conference called “Food for Thought, Time for Action,” a collaboration between College of the Atlantic in Bar Harbor and Maine Farmland Trust. Abaldo curated the show.
Looking for the right farmer
That morning, construction worker Barry Crawford came into the Maine Farmland Trust gallery. Crawford, who owns a 125-acre farm in Monroe, had anything but art on his mind.
Instead, he was seeking counsel from trust associate director Kristin L. Varnum and FarmLink coordinator Sue Lanpher, whose offices are located behind the gallery space.
“I’m stressed to the max, financially. I have a farm I want to get out of financially. I want to sell it to somebody who will appreciate it,” he said.
Later, Lanpher pointed out that the trust is not in the farm real estate business.
“We don’t take commissions. We’re not in competition with real estate agents. We’re like an old-fashioned, matchmaking agent,” she said.
Finding the right farmer to keep a Maine farm in production is only one of the programs the trust offers. Other strategies include: buying easements, accepting donated easements and protecting vulnerable properties through the trust’s Buy/Protect/Sell program.
The trust also encourages new farmers to enter farming and helps existing farmers keep their farms, according to their recent newsletter.
Maine Farmland Trust is eager to get the word out about their programs and services.
“Our goals are large. We want to make an impact,” said Fuller, a 2003 graduate of College of the Atlantic in Bar Harbor. He is currently charged with boosting trust membership, which currently stands at 2,000 members.
“We want to add 1,000 new members this year,” he said. Despite the bad economy, “we’re seeing growth,” he added. “People are trying to focus their money to give what’s important right now, like food security and food pantries.”
In 10 years, the organization has protected 16,000 farmland acres in Maine. Led for the past four years by executive director John Piotti of Unity, the nonprofit is the only land trust in the state focused solely on farmland, Fuller said.
“We’re looking to protect another 100,000 acres over the next five years,” Fuller said. “We expect that 400,000 acres of farmland will be in transition in Maine, as farmers retire, need to sell their land or die.
“Much of that [land] will be lost to development unless we can protect it,” he said.
For more information, go to mainefarmland.org.
Lynn Ascrizzi is a poet, gardener and freelance writer who lives in Freedom.