SEARSPORT, Maine — It was, apparently, a momentous occasion the day in 1907 when the schoolhouse on Greens Island was removed.
The schoolhouse had been there since 1834, but with a dwindling population the school was rendered obsolete. The building was closed and sold, and then moved to nearby Vinalhaven Island, where it eventually became a fish house.
The atmosphere was festive. Men worked to transfer the schoolhouse from the shore to a boat. Children watched with forlorn faces as the men removed their beloved school. Windblown pages from a wayward book were flying through the air. Other boats gathered in the water to watch the scene.
The incident on Greens Island occurred more than 100 years ago, but today we get to experience it all through the eyes of French artist Anne-Emmanuelle Marpeau, whose intricate and whimsical shadowboxes depicting Maine naval and coastal history are on display in an exhibit at the Penobscot Marine Museum.
The subject matter of many of the works included in “Inside the Box — The Marine Art of Anne-Emmanuelle Marpeau,” is grounded in real events. Marpeau, however, fills in the details from her own imagination, incorporating vignettes that round out the event she has chosen to depict.
There are 21 shadowboxes on display, although Marpeau, who could not be reached for comment as she was traveling from France to the U.S., thinks of her art as ex-votos, a term for votive items traditionally placed in churches as offerings of thanks.
“The word ‘ex-voto’ means to make a commitment in the form of a promise,” Marpeau said in an artist statement. “There is the trial itself when the individual, admitting his weakness, asks for God’s mercy and makes a solemn promise to be forever grateful if he survives the ordeal; this is followed by the fulfillment of that promise.”
Many of the shadowboxes are accompanied by Marpeau’s explanations of the work, written on the frame of the boxes, sometimes in the voice of one who would have witnessed the scene firsthand. Some of the boxes also have embedded in the frame a small scene which corrollates with the story.
In addition to the written explanations, Penobscot Marine Museum Curator Ben Fuller set up LED flashlights with some of the shadowboxes so the viewer can see all the details in the darker corners of the works.
Marpeau spent last summer on Great Cranberry Island as part of the Heliker-LaHotan Foundation’s residency program for artists, but she has been interested in Maine for more than a decade.
Marpeau lives in a town in the French region of Brittany, a peninsula that juts out into the Atlantic Ocean. That is the basis of her interest in Maine, said Dennis Gleason, an owner-director of Gleason Fine Art in Boothbay, which represents Marpeau and also is hosting this summer an exhibition of her work.
“Geographically, there are a lot of similarities with the Maine coastline and nautical history,” Gleason said. “She is a real fan of going to any little maritime museum to research stories, and she is captivated by certain stories that are part of the maritime history of Maine.”
The story behind “The Day They Took Our School Off,” based on the Greens Island incident, is one of those tales. Others include lighthouse openings, regattas, and even a weekly delivery of books to an island from a local lighthouse library board.
“She takes a story and she runs with it,” Fuller said as he was standing near Marpeau’s “A New Lighthouse: Bass Harbor Head,” which depicts what she imagined to be the scene on opening day of a new lighthouse in 1858. She based her piece on an account from an order issued in May 1858 by the lighthouse board.
The detailed scene is populated with dozens of tiny figures on boats and standing on the shore, and seagulls flying overhead.
“Maybe [opening day] didn’t look like that, and in some cases [the works are] totally imaginative,” Fuller added. “What she knows here is that the lighthouse opened in 1858. So then she says, ‘OK, let me try to do a celebration.’ She’s got Friendship Sloops, she’s got dories, she’s got peapods, skiffs, schooners, she’s got people. She’s got all sorts of stuff going on. Now it’s an event.”
Although that event may not have occurred exactly as Marpeau depicts, Fuller said many of her details are historically accurate. For example, if one removed the title from “Burnt Island 1886, or Paint it White,” — Marpeau’s version of the library book delivery — Fuller would have been able to estimate the date at late 19th century based on the style of boat, the appearance of the lighthouse, and the clothing on the figures.
Marpeau’s sense of whimsy is evident throughout her work. In the narrative “From Morse Island to Port Clyde – 1910,” she tells the story of Isaiah Osier, a resident of the Morse Island, on which alcohol was not allowed. Marpeau depicts, from left to right in the shadowbox, Osier’s decision one day to build himself a dory, row it across a stretch of water to Port Clyde, and then get “gloriously drunk.”
The artist sets a raucous scene in Port Clyde, with a busy dock, tiny police figures chasing rabble-rousers, and in the middle of it all, Osier with a glass in his hand, a brown liquid sloshing out of the side.
Marpeau likes ghost stories, too. In her version of these tales, she often depicts what she imagined to be the outcome of a mysterious wreck or disappearance, ghost ships and foreboding dreams.
Gleason said Marpeau is “very secretive” about her methods and materials, although she appears to use wood and fabric in many of the shadowboxes. However she does it, Marpeau is able to depict the smallest of details and the tallest of tales.
“She has a very inventive way of dealing with things,” said Gleason. “These are really works of art and they’re quite unique in our experience. There are people who do marine dioramas, but they’re more prosaic and narrative. They don’t have the sense of whimsy and mystery that [Marpeau] incorporates in her work.”