Ethereal objects haunt the buildings of Liberty for “The Dearly Kept” multi-venue art exhibit

Posted May 02, 2011, at 4:48 p.m.
Last modified May 02, 2011, at 11:10 p.m.

LIBERTY, Maine — The exhibit starts beside a rack of Dum Dum Pops in Peaveys General Store in Liberty, and it continues along the tops of bookshelves in the town library. The sculptures have infiltrated the post office, town hall, John’s Ice Cream, the K-12 school and shops along Main Street. Paper replicas of treasured possessions of Liberty residents are on display under glass cubes all around town for the interactive exhibit “The Dearly Kept” by Liberty artist Martha Piscuskas.

“It’s just really potent, the energy of these objects,” Piscuskas said as she waited in the fog for Liberty shop owners to hang up their “open” signs on Wednesday morning.

Though it’s usually rude to dial a cell phone while viewing artwork, this particular exhibit is enriched by the use of a phone. The untitled sculptures are accompanied by a number, and if viewers call 228-0301 and type in the number, they’ll hear the owner of the original object describe why they keep the object and what it represents to them.

“I wondered why you didn’t write an explanation on each one,” said Liberty resident Sue Pelletier to Piscuskas when they ran into each other outside Liberty Tool Co., which has a ghostly sculpture on display in stark contrast to shelves of dark, steel tools. “But it was wonderful to hear people, in their own voices, explain why the object is dear to them. Hearing the voices made all of the difference for me.”

From the recordings, viewers learn whether the paper sculpture is a stack of poker chips or coins or Oreo cookies. Even the shapes that seem to be an obvious representation of a familiar object — such as a dog leash or iPod — will gain a new meaning when viewers hear the stories behind them.

The owners’ identities remain a secret. Initially, Piscuskas envisioned the name and even a photo of the object’s owner to accompany the sculpture, but as the project evolved, she realized the interactive exhibit was less about individuals and more about the collective memories of a community.

One resident, who lives in a nearly 200-year-old house passed down through generations of her family, talks about the value of inherited relics in her phone recording.

“The women in the family before me somehow still live on in spirit through me,” she said.

Her prized possession, mirrored in paper, resembles a purse or bag, but you’ll have to visit the exhibit and call the phone number to discover what it truly is and how it reminds her of her hardworking grandmother.

Piscuskas first conceived of the idea for this project more than a year ago, but she wasn’t sure how she’d replicate the objects. The possessions are tactile, but the feelings connected to them have no mass. Piscuskas’s goal was to form a visual bridge between the emotion and the object, the history and the relic.

“I wanted them to be ephemeral icons of a feeling, the heart,” Piscuskas said. “I spent a long time experimenting to be able to achieve that … Smoke was one idea, but that would have been really challenging to have that be stationary.”

Inspired by the paper sculptures American artist Leonardo Drew, Piscuskas searched for a ghostlike paper for her own creations and came across discontinued military disposable pillowcases, about 30 years old, made of a soft, textured paper. Funded by the Maine Arts Commission, she set to work roaming around town and introducing her project to people she knew well and others she didn’t know all that well.

Piscuskas, originally from western Massachusetts, moved to Liberty 25 years ago and works at co-director of Waterfall Arts in Belfast. It didn’t take long for her to get to know a lot of people in town, but visiting people’s homes for the “Dearly Kept” project to talk with them about their treasured possessions led to intimate conversations that she never would have had with her neighbors otherwise.

“[A dearly kept object] came to them in a nanosecond; it really did,” said Piscuskas. “Generally, my philosophy is, what comes to the mind first is the richest thing.”

Most of the cherished items came from the owners’ pasts and reminded them of people they’d lost. Some are simply found objects that the owner, for one reason or another, wanted to hold on to. And some are more modern creations.

Piscuskas said the project brought up a lot of good memories for people around town. And many participants shared with her stories that they didn’t want told on the recording. She used their moving, personal stories as inspiration as she crafted their emotions out of paper.

“It forced me out of my comfort zone,” she said about interviewing town residents about their possessions. “It was a rich experience. People shared so much, and I’m so grateful. They loaned me their objects for months. It felt like I had this museum collection of possessions worth so much. People have just been so forthcoming, and it’s been important for me to honor that community trust.”

Since she didn’t put any restrictions on the size or nature of the dearly kept object, one person chose a vehicle. She wants to reproduce it, but she hasn’t scaled any objects down yet, and she wants to stay true to that reproduction. She’ll need a lot of pillowcases.

In fact, there are several objects she has to replicate in paper. As the exhibit remains on display, she hopes to add to it, and she wants to bring the exhibit to other towns. An artist talk about the project will be scheduled in May.

Her own dearly kept replica is on exhibit at the town office. The sculpture is No. 27.

For information, visit eluxstudio.blogspot.com or call 228-0301.

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