“What happens when you display art about unexpected things? How could we put the idea of hunger in the community?”
The questions were posed by University of Maine at Augusta art professor Peter Precourt on Friday at the opening reception of “Art of Duality: Hunger-Sated, Two Sides of a Canvas.” The exhibition is running through Nov. 27 at Harlow Gallery in Hallowell.
He watched people toting bags of food into the brightly lit gallery. The room quickly filled as people navigated through art hanging from the ceiling on chains; on one side of each square panel the artist expressed hunger, and on the other, the idea of being sated.
Hunger: a skeletal Buddha, a circle with holes pecked out, a child with sad eyes, an empty food can. Sated: a full pantry, a family sitting down to a meal, a farm with livestock and gardens, groceries.
The exhibition is a part of “Art for Hunger,” a concurrent, three-venue exhibition showing at Harlow Gallery, Artdogs and Circling the Square Fine Arts Press in Gardiner and UMA’s Charles Danforth Gallery. A portion of the art sales will go to hunger relief efforts in Kennebec Valley.
Students in a collaborative UMA course came up with the design for Harlow Gallery’s exhibition. In addition to the duality theme, the students decided to build sculptures from nonperishable food items on pedestals around the gallery. Exhibition visitors can add to the sculptures or take away, depending on their food security at home.
“So many Mainers are too proud to go to the soup kitchen and shelter,” Precourt said. “But what happens when you can walk into an art gallery and leave what you have and take what you need?”
Karen Adrienne, professor of art at UMA, proposed the show last November. It surrounds Thanksgiving, a time to be thankful for what we have; and, for many, it’s a time to eat food to the point of overindulging. But for more than 175,000 Maine people, that isn’t an option.
More than 13 percent of Maine households are food-insecure — unable to consistently acquire adequate amounts of nutritious food — according to the Good Shepherd Food-Bank. This places Maine with the highest food insecurity ranking of any state in New England.
Naomi Schalit, writer of the 2007 award-winning opinion series “For I Was Hungry” that was published in the Kennebec Journal, spoke at the opening reception of the Harlow Gallery exhibition Friday evening. She found the artwork there provocative.
“This is my community. I live up the hill,” said Schalit. “I think this is a problem that doesn’t go away. The more people who understand and know about it, perhaps then it can be improved. But it’s going to take a lot more than bringing cans and packages to a pantry.”
At the time of her 2007 series, Maine was experiencing the fastest hunger rate increase in the nation. She learned that teachers brought food to school to feed children who were falling asleep on their desks because they didn’t eat breakfast. Food pantries could tell hunger was increasing even before the United States recession in December 2007.
“Rural Maine is hugely affected by hunger,” Schalit said. “All you have to do is look at school’s free and reduced lunch numbers. [Hunger in Maine] is not a secret, except we don’t see it.”
When we think of hunger, we think of thin bodies. But in Maine, it’s usually the overweight people who are hungry and lacking proper nutrition, said Schalit.
“Calories are cheap and nutrition isn’t,” she said.
Schalit ended her speech by pointing out that no one raised the issue of hunger in the recent gubernatorial debates.
“Hunger is a problem because people don’t have the means to get the food they need. It’s going to take good jobs. It’s about allowing people the dignity of earning a living, to not worry about where their next meal comes from,” she said. “Some of you who want to do something about hunger need to get aggressive about it and move the battle to another level, to city hall and Washington.”
At the Harlow Gallery, the proceeds from art sales are split three ways, between the Hallowell Food Bank, the artist and the gallery.
The Harlow Gallery has a history of exhibiting art for a variety of causes, from “Transforming Violence,” raising awareness of domestic violence in 2005, to “All Creatures Great and Small,” supporting the Kennebec Valley Humane Society in 2007.
“I really do believe artists can affect society and do more than just create beautiful pictures,” said Harlow Gallery Executive Director Deb Fahy. “This is a place where we can all look at a goal and do it together.”
Artists participating in the exhibit range from middle school age to artists in their 70s.
Students at the art club at Gardiner Area Middle School submitted artwork.
“They were so passionate about it, and I was so surprised,” said their art teacher, Salimar Poulin.
Several Harlow Artists also contributed artwork.
“We have plenty to share and we just wanted to make sure there’s no hungry people in the community,” said Harlow artist Jamie Ribisi-Braley of Manchester as she balanced cans on the nonperishable goods sculpture last Friday.
Her piece, an encaustic and photo transfer called “Full, Empty,” was one of the first pieces of artwork purchased Friday. Her husband, Brian Braley, also sold his untitled textured encaustic piece. Both were priced at $100, and both artists decided to donate their portion of the proceeds to Hallowell Food Bank.
“It’s tougher to think about it when it’s close to home,” she said. “It’s easier to say, ‘Oh, in Portland it’s a problem.’ But it’s a problem everywhere.”
At the end of the exhibition, what remains of the food sculptures will be donated to the Hallowell Food Bank.
The exhibition was sponsored by Joel D. Davis and Associates, a private wealth advisory practice of Ameriprise Financial Services Inc.
For a list of food assistance programs in each county, visit www.maine.gov/agriculture/co/tefap/countysearch.html. Harlow Gallery is located at 160 Water St. in Hallowell, and is open noon-6 p.m. Wednesday-Saturday. For information on “Art of Duality: Hunger-Sated, Two Sides of a Canvas,” call 622-3813 or visit www.harlowgallery.org.