Caleb Charland can recall a vivid memory from when he was 8 years old. His father was working on their house in Winterport, pounding nails and sawing boards, and young Caleb was watching the process — smelling the freshly cut wood, seeing sawdust spray into the sunlight, snapping a chalk line to see a puff of blue smoke. He didn’t know it at the time, but those sensory images would directly affect the art he’d make later in life.
Skip ahead 16 years and it’s 2005. Charland was back in Winterport, building a garage with his father. He was in between finishing his bachelors degree in photography at the Massachusetts College of Art and Design and starting his masters at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, and in his down time was studying some basics in math and science. That’s when he had a very interesting idea.
“I had all this expertise in photography. I was taking math and science classes at a community college,” said Charland, now 33 and living in Bangor. “I just started playing around with kid’s science books, looking at simple science experiments. And that’s where this all started. It kind of fell into place.”
Next to the baking soda volcanoes and carbon dioxide cars was another staple of fifth grade science: the potato battery, in which a galvanized nail and copper wire are inserted into either end of a potato, and then the wire is connected to a small electrical device, like an LED clock or light. The chemical energy of the potato is converted into electrical energy — the potato acts as a conduit for channeling the energy from the nail to the wire, to the thing being powered. Presto: potato battery.
Charland saw much more than an easy demonstration of how electricity works. He saw a way to harness the power of things in nature, such as potatoes, apple trees, copper and iron, lemons and limes, and basic household tools, like nails, wire and matches, to create something beautiful.
Since then, Charland has been photographing scenes in nature and the studio, wiring up the aforementioned materials to power tiny LED lights, as well as documenting other natural phenomena like fire, magnetism, light and fluid studies. Using shadow, light and elements of chemistry and physics, he creates in his photos an atmospheric, surreal, otherworldly confluence of technology, nature and art.
“Photography itself is a scientific procedure,” said Charland, whose work has been displayed in galleries nationwide and across Europe, and has had photographs featured in magazines like National Geographic, Discover and The New Yorker. “You’re using chemistry, and there are a lot of other variables, so it always felt like kind of a scientific pursuit for me.”
The roots of Charland’s fascination with natural and technological phenomena stem from those childhood experiences of working on the house with his father.
“Many of those experiences later translated into my artistic practice,” said Charland, a 1999 graduate of Hampden Academy. “All those things kind of stuck in my mind … I learned to appreciate the power that tools and materials hold.”
Charland started with smaller installations, using lemons or limes, jars of apple cider vinegar, or just one potato or apple. He’s also worked with matches, sparklers and glow in the dark paint, and in one series, “Biographs,” he allowed bacteria to develop on the surface of colored film. He did a similar experiment to the battery project involving pennies and nickels, in which vinegar-soaked squares of paper are layered in between coins, creating a similar electric current.
He did not start taking his work outside until 2011, when he began shooting in apple orchards and potato fields, such as LaJoie Potato Farm in Van Buren, on some property on Outer Kenduskeag Avenue in Bangor, or more recently, Nettie Fox Farm in Newburgh. Charland is always looking for new places to set up installations, and those with suggestions can email him at email@example.com.
“It can take me a couple days to set one up. I spend a lot of time on a ladder,” said Charland. “Then I’ll usually spend the night at the installation, making sure everything goes right.”
Once one of his large outside installations is complete — Charland wired up more than 300 apples to power the LED lights in a chandelier he hung in an apple tree at Nettie Fox Farm in Newburgh — he shoots his photos with a large format bellows camera. He currently uses an 8-by-10 inch Wisner Field camera, which gives his photos great depth and detail, capturing not just the light from the lamp but also ambient moon and starlight.
Though his art has been displayed worldwide, Charland prefers to work in rural Maine, where the skies are clear, the land is fertile and the people are self-sufficient.
“There’s something about being from Maine and growing up here that really inspires me. There’s this DIY aesthetic and tradition of self-reliance, and you’re close to nature … I do my best work here,” said Charland, who moved back to the Bangor area from Portland in August. “There’s an appreciation for all those things here. I think all those things really helped steer me in the direction I’m going with my art.”
“Caleb Charland: From the Basement to the Backyard” has been extended at the Center for Maine Contemporary Art in Rockport through Dec. 1. Charland also is part of the Portland Museum of Art’s biennial “Piece Work,” running through Jan. 5, 2014.