Every year, four artists are named the Maine Arts Commission’s annual fellows. Every year, the MAC hosts a free event for the four selected artists to showcase their work — this year, it’s at 6 p.m. Friday, Oct. 29, at the Gracie Theatre at Husson University in Bangor.
And every year, the field becomes wider, stronger and harder to choose from with hundreds of artists applying. Traditional arts, visual arts, literary arts and media and performing arts are the four categories, each accompanied by a $13,000 prize.
“We had 108 applications in visual arts, 90 in literary arts,” said Donna McNeil, director of the commission. “It’s a blind jury comprised of out-of-state jurors, so no one recognizes anyone’s work. We come up with a very short list of possibilities, and then we go through the process of trying to pick just one. It’s always difficult. But we have to choose someone that’s really got that thing that makes them special.”
This year, the traditional arts master is Theresa Secord, a Waterville-based Penobscot basket maker. Before adopting the traditional practice of basket making, Secord was a geologist for Mobil. By the mid-’80s, however, she began to study the techniques of her ancestors with master basket maker Madeline Tomer Shay, as well as taking Penobscot language classes. In 1993, she helped form the Maine Indian Basketmakers Alliance.
At that time, basket making, or “fancy” baskets, was verging on a lost art. Secord helped to change that. The alliance now boasts more than 200 members, with more young artists learning the craft all the time. Secord even was one of the first apprentices to work under a master basket maker, in 1990, the first year of the MAC’s traditional arts master awards, which is a separate prize from the four fellowships. She’s since gone on to teach a number of young basketmakers the art.
“She’s a really legendary figure in the history of Maine basket making,” said McNeil. “A few years ago she gave up teaching to focus on her artwork, and it has really increased the aesthetic excellence in a huge way. She’s a great ambassador for all Native people, particularly in Maine.”
At the showcase on Friday, the four traditional arts masters for this year also will be on hand to celebrate the 20th anniversary of the traditional arts fellowship and master program. One of these, Brian Theriault of Fort Kent, will show off the snowshoes he made that he hopes to one day personally give to President Barack Obama.
This year’s visual arts fellow is 28-year-old Freeport native Ethan Hayes-Chute. Hayes-Chute, a 2004 graduate of the Rhode Island School of Design, started out creating hand-drawn and handmade art books, that display both a needle-sharp sense of humor and a wistful, unique take on contemporary society. He also was painting and creating large sculptures and installations, many of which have a quirky, architectural edge.
After college, his work was shown in Los Angeles, San Francisco, New York, Berlin, Copenhagen and Maine, including “Hermitage,” his entry into the Portland Museum of Art Biennial in 2009. “Hermitage” was a huge, mixed-media installation of a cabin and outhouse, installed in the PMA’s lobby. Residencies this year in Vermont and Iceland and one next year in Norway affirm that Hayes-Chute is becoming a force in the international art scene.
“He’s quite something,” said McNeil. “All his work is just fun and interesting. I read his stuff about hypothetical domiciles and fantastic architecture, and it’s just fascinating. We’ve seen in recent years that established artists are taking a step back from applying for the fellowship, allowing up-and-coming artists like Ethan to emerge.”
Media and performing arts fellow Deborah Wing-Sproul has lived and worked in Cape Elizabeth for years. A multidisciplinary artist, Wing-Sproul draws from modern dance and choreography to create both live performance and video-based performance pieces. Her long-term piece, “Tidal Culture,” combines photography, video and objects formed from seaweed, and has taken her to the North Atlantic shorelines of Maine, Newfoundland, Greenland and Iceland. She expects to go to the Faroe Islands, the Outer Hebrides and Ireland in the coming years.
“The choice of bringing Deborah to the foreground is going to inspire a conversation, because she so beautifully straddles the line between media and performance,” said McNeil. “There’s some confusion in this category, but it needs to be clear that it is for someone who creates original work in either performing arts or in media — not someone who performs someone else’s work. Deborah does that in a really fascinating way.”
Elizabeth Kirschner of Kittery is the literary fellow. She has published five poetry books over the years including “My Life as a Doll,” published by Autumn House in 2008 and nominated for the Lenore Marshall Prize. That was followed by “Surrender to Light,” which was published by Cherry Grove Editions in 2009. Kirschner taught at Boston College for 17 years before moving to Maine to write full time.
Her personal, visceral poetry is exemplified by “My Life as a Doll,” a book-length poem based around Kirschner’s relationship with her mother.
“We kept reading her work over and over again, and it kept resonating with us,” said McNeil. “Her work is very strong, very deeply felt and intense. Her work kept popping up in everyone’s mind. She was the strongest both on and off the page.”
The Maine Arts Commission Fellowship Showcase is set for 6 p.m. Friday, Oct. 29, at the Gracie Theatre at Husson University. The event is free, but space is limited. For information, visit mainearts.maine.gov.