As one wanders through a new exhibit at the Tides Institute, a magical story unfolds — the story of the birth of an art colony, the story of a group of hippie artists who fled big-city life and came to Eastport to follow their artistic passions, the story of how once these bohemian artists came to Eastport, many fell in love with it and never left.
Leatrice Linden is one of those artists and as she walked a visitor through the Tides Institute and Museum of Art’s new exhibit, “The ’70s: Art & Place at Passamaquoddy Bay, Maine,” the story unfolded.
Through the sculptures and weavings and paintings on display, Linden explained how 40 years ago, Eastport became a refuge for New York City artists.
Linden, who creates soft sculptures and three-dimensional tapestries, arrived at Eastport in 1970 because land and houses were cheap.
“I bought a house for $350. It was built in 1852 and came with a ghost, as does every house in Eastport,” Linden recalled. She said the house was so unsound that when the winter winds blew, her bed moved across the floor.
Linden said some artist colonies coalesce around money or influence, but in Eastport it was all about real estate.
Bill Barrell, a painter from England, came to Eastport and discovered he could buy a house for $850, the same amount it cost him to rent a summer place in Provincetown. Advertisements were placed in the Village Voice in New York City.
Painter and sculptor Brendt Berger saw one of those ads in 1969 and put his Soho loft up for sale. When it was purchased by John Lennon and Yoko Ono, Berger and his wife, fiber artist Mani Feniger, moved permanently to Eastport.
Artists, writers and filmmakers began flocking to the bay, Linden recalled, lured by cheap housing, and many stayed — either year round or as summer residents — once they experienced the beauty of the area and the vibrant arts community that was growing around them.
They brought with them nontraditional lifestyles, funny nicknames like Barbara Toothpick, who created psychedelic compositions; and Alan Horseradish, a songwriter and performer; and they brought their back-to-the-land values.
There were painters, sculptors, jewelers, woodworkers, architects, musicians, poets, conceptual artists, ceramists, weavers.
“They were a microcosm of the arts in that era, making manifest in the Passamaquoddy Bay area, almost every major trend in modern art,” Linden said.
Linden said that the 16 hours of travel from New York to Eastport were both a decompression and a kind of pilgrimage.
“Artists found nourishment in the local environment, a safe place to commune with one’s muse,” she said. “Some artists made a conscious decision to opt out of the competitive New York art scene and moved into becoming full-time residents.”
Artists pooled their money and purchased the Lyons sardine factory for $2,000. They named it the Sunspot and various artists kept studios there.
That collective dream was shattered, however, when extremely high tides in June 1972 loosened the piers and the buildings floated away into the bay. Once the Sunspot was destroyed, the artists turned to the many empty shops on Water Street, the main thoroughfare in Eastport.
“So many major artists passed through here in the ’70s,” Linden said, including Denis Oppenheim, Joe Stranad, Alan Shields, Leslie Bowman, George Trakas, Vito Acconci, Red Grooms, the Bergers and many others.
More than a dozen of those original artists still remain, joined by newcomers and summer residents who bring a diversity to Eastport’s art scene.
Although artists used to take the train to New York to sell their art, tourists and art patrons now come to Eastport with its reputation as an arts mecca.
Linden explained that many of the Eastport artists maintain “the anchor theory. As long as we had this place, we could go anywhere.”
As a weaver and fiber artist, Linden uses her art to explain the community: “These are the warp and threads of the past, interweaving now with the fibers of our current art scene, creating a vibrant tapestry.”
The ’70s: Art & Place at Passamaquoddy Bay, Maine, will be on exhibit until August 18. The Tides Institute is at 43 Water St. in the center of Eastport’s downtown. For information, call 853-4047 or go to www.tidesinstitue.org.