May 21, 2018
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Art walks revitalize downtown Presque Isle

By Kathryn Olmstead, Special to the BDN

Let’s see if I can explain this. The first Friday of every month is art walk night in Presque Isle. But as the event grows in scope and popularity it has become more and more challenging to take in all that is offered.

May 3 was particularly complicated for me.

For starters, the number of downtown businesses hosting artists and musicians has nearly doubled since the event began several years ago. Twelve venues were listed on the May 3 program, including a live Victorian-era window display at an antique store, a free wine tasting, a trio of vocalists from Waldo County at the music store, an acoustic duo at Catholic Charities and a solo performance by popular Aroostook singer-songwriter Travis Cyr at the coffeehouse.

While several of these sites might have offered once-in-a-lifetime experiences, I had to sacrifice them for three events I believed would not be repeated: a 5 p.m. reception at the Reed Gallery at the University of Maine at Presque Isle with a talk by featured artist Anderson Giles on an exhibit representing his 30-plus-year career as a painter, an art auction at Wintergreen Art Center on State Street, and a drawing for winners of the Eat for Art competition at The Whole Potato on Main Street.

Giles has attained national stature as an abstract artist since his early years in the art department at UMPI when a commissioned painting was mysteriously removed from display in Wieden Hall, an act of administrative censorship that would provoke outrage today. This piece is among the survey of works from 1985 through 2013 in the current exhibit, “Reflections,” and I wanted to hear Giles’ comments on it and the other paintings spanning his career.

At Wintergreen, Director Wendy Gilman Zubrick had collaborated with Heather Sincavage, director of the Reed Gallery, to collect more than 70 original works of art from Maine and beyond, each in a 12-inch-by-12-inch format, for an auction to benefit a forthcoming Northern Maine Cultural Center. Doors opened at 6 p.m. with bids on each piece starting at $60. I definitely wanted to support this important fundraiser.

And at The Whole Potato, May 3 ended a month-long competition among diners to attract patrons to the cafe by offering them a chance to win a work of art donated by a local artist. Entrants in the contest gave not only their own names, but also the name of the person who suggested they eat at The Whole Potato, people known as “Potato Pushers.”

Six pieces of art were donated for the contest. The two pushers who referred the most patrons got first pick. The remaining works were awarded to the customers whose names were drawn from the hundreds submitted during the month. I had been in friendly competition with the college store manager at Northern Maine Community College to be No. 1 Potato Pusher. I was eager to learn the final count.

I did not really intend to spend the evening in town. I had been gone a week and was on my way home to Caribou from Orono with my dog Lucy in the car. After the three-hour ride, she was ready to romp. So I bought her some supper, let her run around a bit, found a shady place to park the car and promised to limit myself to brief stops along the art walk.

But, beginning with inspiring remarks by Giles, I was soon swept into the excitement of the evening. The Reed Gallery was so full it was hard to view the paintings, and art admirers continued on to another stunning exhibition by UMPI senior Corey Levesque at the Pullen Gallery on the campus.

“I am thrilled so many gravitated from Reed to Pullen,” said Sincavage. “The community is beginning to see what the arts can bring to our lives.”

I was still thinking “brief” when I moved the car from the university to another shady parking spot downtown. I took Lucy for a little walk, begged for her patience and headed to the Wintergreen Art Center.

The place was packed. The bidding for artwork was in high gear. People moved from work to work, pencils in hand, signing their names on bid sheets under the pieces they wanted. I found myself bidding many more times than I intended. I began to identify my rivals as I watched them raise my bids.

It was 7:30 p.m. Time for the Eat for Art drawing at The Whole Potato. Lucy would be content as darkness cooled the evening. I headed up the street, passing people returning from other venues to check their bids at Wintergreen. The Whole Potato was so busy serving meals, the staff had not had time for the drawing. I was relieved to see one of my rivals from the art auction.

The cafe’s cook wanted to place a bid on a painting at Wintergreen, but was too busy to get away. I said, “Sure, I can run down and sign you up. What’s your limit?”

So I raced back to Wintergreen to place her bid and, of course, check on my own. I was no longer committed to as many paintings as I had been, and my largest bid had been more than doubled. I let it go.

At 8:30 p.m. the silent auction went live. Lifting each 12-inch-by-12-inch painting from the wall, Sincavage gave the crowd a last chance to raise the final bid before declaring the work sold and delivering it to the cashier.

I had not noticed that someone had raised the bid on the painting I had come to claim for the cook from The Whole Potato, but when the work went up for the final call there she was beside me, having closed the kitchen in time to assure she had the winning bid. Whew!

All 70 canvasses sold, raising more than $6,000 for the forthcoming cultural center.

Zubrick estimated at least 250 people attended, and artists ranged from high school and college students to professional artists and art enthusiasts.

“The support was far-reaching,” Sincavage said. “Artists who had a tie to The County also felt compelled to contribute.”

Art was received not only from all around Aroostook County, but also from Washington state, Oregon, California, Michigan, Massachusetts, Pennsylvania, New Hampshire, Canada and southern Maine.

“The day of the auction, we received proxy bids from as far away as Biddeford,” Zubrick said. “We also had someone call asking about the time of the auction, stating they were driving up from Rockland.”

She said numerous patrons mentioned how the art walks have revitalized the downtown, recalling the days when people were not attracted to the downtown area in the evening.

“Now they feel people have a reason to be out, taking in the experiences and mixing with others. It has become an adventure.”

Lucy was asleep when I returned to the car with two new paintings. And next day I got a call from The Whole Potato: I am the No. 2 Potato Pusher.

Kathryn Olmstead is a former University of Maine associate dean and associate professor of journalism living in Aroostook County, where she publishes the quarterly magazine Echoes. Her column appears in this space every other Friday. She can be reached at or P.O. Box 626, Caribou, ME 04736.

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