It was the combination of his iconic Maine documentary film, “Dead River Rough Cut,” his passionate interest in bread baking, and his trips to Guatemala to build wood-fired stoves for the Mayans that drew my attention to Stu Silverstein. I later learned that he is also an artist, a teacher, a craftsman, co-founder of Waterville’s 34-year-old art house cinema, and author of several books. The thing that stayed with me the most after meeting with Stu, however, had nothing to do with his accomplishments.
Two striking things about Stu Silverstein are his humility and his fluidity. Both are evident in his attitude toward his very fine artwork. He takes his art seriously — “I don’t have hobbies,” he said — but he does not revere his finished products.
“Do you title your artwork?” I asked.
“Only when someone asks me, I make up a name,” he said.
Stu removes color, adds texture, or even paints over his works entirely. Although he has created some beautiful work in leaded glass, he gave up glasswork because it cannot be altered.
That same perpetual creative process has been applied to what is likely Stu’s most widely known work — “Dead River Rough Cut,” an extraordinary documentary film about two backwoods Mainers. Stu produced and directed the film 35 years ago with Richard Searls. The film continues to have an avid following and is a consistent bestseller at Northeast Historic Film, an organization devoted to preserving, archiving and promoting film and video records of Northern New England. It is a treasure of Americana, of Maine’s disappearing cultural heritage.
But still, Stu considers it a work in progress.
“It’s a lifetime process,” he told me. “Once it was a 90 minute film, then 30, then 60. Footage has been added and removed. It has gone through several evolutions.”
As with his art, Stu has taken his life through several evolutions, resisting any fixed definition.
After growing up in Connecticut in the 1960s, Stu attended New York University. Though he tried to follow the practical path espoused by his parents, there was always an artist inside of Stu fighting to emerge. He taught inner-city kids, wandered about the country in a Volkswagen bus, did a stint for the Audubon Society and eventually found his way to Maine to make a life here.
At his first home in The Forks, Stu and his friend Richard met the men who would become the subjects of “Dead River Rough Cut.” The two filmmakers spent a year with Walter Lane and Bob Wagg, recording four seasons of a lifestyle both astonishingly primitive and intriguingly complete.
Stu continues to have a great interest in film. He has written a full-length script that he’d love to see produced some day, but when I asked if he had ever submitted it, he said he hadn’t.
“I got involved in other things.”
Some of those things were founding the Railroad Square Cinema in Waterville and owning a brick oven café. Baked bread in a wood-fired oven has been a longstanding love for Stu. He grew up in cities where bakeries produced real, crusty loaves every day. When he moved to New England, he said, he could only find packaged breads.
“It was so dreadful. You didn’t need teeth to eat it.”
So he began making his own bread, and building the right kind of wood-fired stoves to bake it. It was the café’s wood-fired oven that connected Stu to the Mayans in Guatemala. After hearing on the radio about an organization called Safe Passage, Stu invited the founder of the organization to his café to discuss doing a fundraiser. One look at the wood-fired oven and she knew what she needed – two of those for a Guatemalan school.
For eight years, Stu has returned to Guatemalan villages every year to help construct wood-fired stoves for local residents.
But there is a downside to Stu’s impressive record of accomplishments and productions, which he discussed with sincere candor.
“I pursued a lot of dreams at the expense of my family,” he said. Stu has three grown sons from three different relationships, including one from his current marriage. He regrets that he was not a better parent to all of them.
I said to Stu, “You have created so many beautiful things. Doesn’t that mean something to you, in terms of fulfillment?”
“No. I guess it doesn’t,” he replied. At this point in Stu’s life, he said, his greatest fulfillment comes from seeing his wife and kids “pursuing their potential and getting satisfaction in their work — work that benefits others.” He wants most of all to pursue greater connections with his family.
The wisdom in Stu Silverstein is his recognition that art and life are both perpetual processes. He paints over his art; he reinvents himself. Change is, perhaps, the point of his journey.
“Go where it feels right,” he said. “Finding a niche is a deadly path.”
Robin Clifford Wood welcomes feedback at email@example.com.