Artists gather to uncover the unknown, Quimby’s proposed national park

"Wassataquiok Stream," Michael Branca, oil on canvas
Photo courtesy of Marsha Donahue
"Wassataquiok Stream," Michael Branca, oil on canvas
Posted Sept. 21, 2011, at 3:53 p.m.
Michael Branca paints Wassataquoik River for the "Painting the Unknown" exhibit at the North Light Gallery in Millinocket. His painting will be on display at the gallery until the end of the September.
Photo courtesy of Marsha Donahue
Michael Branca paints Wassataquoik River for the "Painting the Unknown" exhibit at the North Light Gallery in Millinocket. His painting will be on display at the gallery until the end of the September.
"Bridge on the Wassataquiok," Milton Christianson, watercolor.
Photo courtesy of Marsha Donahue
"Bridge on the Wassataquiok," Milton Christianson, watercolor.
"Below the Bridge at Wassataquiok," Pamela Redick, mixed media.
Photo courtesy of Marsha Donahue
"Below the Bridge at Wassataquiok," Pamela Redick, mixed media.

“Guerrilla art” is all about making statements, often political, through public art. It might be as simple as leaving a leaflet in a library book or as illegal as adorning an abandoned building with graffiti. But for artists in central Maine, where there’s more wilderness than town, guerrilla art takes on a new form. In Millinocket, Marsha Donahue leads artists on forest trails rather than city streets to communicate a message to the community.

Donahue, owner of Millinocket’s North Light Gallery, brought a dozen artists into Roxanne Quimby’s proposed national park property on Friday, Sept. 16, to educate the public about the land through art. The resulting artwork will be on display through the end of September at the gallery.

“Walking with permission and a guide from Elliotsville Plantation, we hiked onto Roxanne Quimby’s land,” said Donahue. “I sort of charged the artists with looking around them and asking themselves, ‘What’s so special that could make this land a national park?’ The exhibition is to kind of answer that question a little bit.”

The “paint out” was to capture the beauty of the 70,000-acre chunk of land that abuts Baxter State Park. Quimby aims for the land to be designated Maine Woods National Park, an area that would be nearly twice the size of Acadia National Park.

Quimby has yet to approve any public tours of the land, so Donahue appropriately named the project “Painting the Unknown.” Participating artists signed an agreement that whatever art they produced when on the land could be used for publications in promoting the proposed park.

Donahue led a similar “paint out” in 2006 to support the campaign for Baxter State Park to raise $14 million to purchase Katahdin Lake and 4,000 acres of surrounding land.

On Friday morning, the group of artists — who responded to the gallery’s call for artists in several publications — crammed into a 16-person van donated by Matt Polstein, owner of the New England Outdoor Center, and loaded their supplies in a pickup truck to travel to Lunksoos Camps, where Don Fendler was rescued and which was purchased by Quimby in April 2011.

Making up the group was Jen Holmes, Mary Lou Moulton, Gaile Nicholson, Caren-Marie Michel, John Redick, Pamela Redick, Melinda Campbell, Renee Lammers, Evelyn Dunphy, Sandy Dolan, Milton Christianson and Michael Branca.

Five artists stayed at the camp to paint scenes of the Penobscot River, while eight of the artists, including Donahue, paddled canoes across the East Branch of the Penobscot River with guide Dave Weatherbee and hiked more than a mile to Wassataquoik Steam. Their progress was slowed only once when the group had to construct a bridge out of logs to cross an unexpected stream.

“There was no way to get across without going in over your knees,” said Donahue. “So we went off and got logs and built a bridge and [were] across in 10 minutes. This is what we do all the time. We’re artists. We come up with creative solutions to things.”

They reached the bridge of Wassataquoik Stream by noon, ate a quick snack and got to work painting.

“I really enjoyed watching the other artists create,” said Lammers of Bucksport. “There was a man, John Redick, who was pouring paint, and I just watched in amazement. And there was another lady who was painting on a piece of acrylic plastic and then laid a piece of paper over the top and pulled off a painting with a spoon.”

Lammers chose to participate out of curiosity of what the land looked like, and she was impressed by the views from the cabin of the spruce forest and the view of Mount Katahdin on the logging road to the cabins.

“I can see how [having the land as a national park] would really help the economy, and I can see how other people would like to see the land stay the way it is,” said Lammers. “I just hope, whatever happens, happens for the better of Maine.”

“For me personally, when I go out plein air painting, I like to think from a hiker’s point of view and to really get down into it,” said Branca, who climbed down a steep slope and propped his canvas between two boulders in order to paint his composition as close to the stream as possible.

“I’m really excited about the idea of the park, and I was excited about the idea of being able to see the land as well,” Branca, a longtime hiker of the Katahdin region who describes himself as “pro-feasibility study,” said. “And in terms of being part of a group, that’s something I don’t usually do, though I do often put on a backpack with my stuff and go out painting. I was painting on the top of [Mount] Katahdin two days later (after the group trip).”

When the artists made it back to camp at 7 p.m., they finished their compositions and framed them for the exhibit, which was hung at the North Light Gallery the next day, Saturday, for the town’s annual Trail’s End Festival.

On Saturday, the group of artists gathered once more on the sidewalk outside the gallery to paint street scenes, and on Sunday, a bunch of the artists relocated to the Golden Road, a long logging road that runs near Baxter State Park and is used by outdoor enthusiasts to access the many lakes and ponds and areas for hunting and camping.

“Everybody wants an annual event now,” said Donahue. “Maybe next year we’ll do a Katahdin scavenger hunt with a map and a view, and they have to find that view and paint it. We’ll see what happens next year.”

U.S. Sens. Olympia Snowe and Susan Collins, the state Legislature, Gov. Paul LePage, Millinocket Town Council, the Fin and Feather Club and Maine Snowmobile Association are among the groups that have voted to oppose or have expressed skepticism about Quimby’s initiative, through which she hopes to create a Maine Woods National Park. Opponents have cited fears of hurting forest product industry lands and damaging state efforts to revitalize the region’s two paper mills. Medway’s school committee and Board of Selectmen are the only governmental bodies statewide that have publicly declared their support for a feasibility study of the park, as has Millinocket’s downtown business association and the Katahdin Region Chamber of Commerce.

Some proponents have complained that the park’s initiative too vague, the land too shrouded in mystery, thus Medway selectmen and other proponents have formed a committee to sell the initiative statewide that includes a DVD of the proposed park lands. Like the planned DVD, the paintings hanging in North Light Gallery are an effort to help the public visualize this treasured forest.

To learn more about North Light Gallery, located at 256 Penobscot Ave. in Millinocket, call 723-4414 or visit artnorthlight.com.

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