EASTPORT, Maine — The arts are alive and well in the city of Eastport, thanks to a strong community of artists and an umbrella organization that showcases their talents and those of other artists.
The Eastport Arts Center offers a wide variety and steady diet of programming, drawing patrons and volunteers from a large area of Washington County.
The center’s artistic fruit is even more notable given the city’s small size, its population being a little over 1,000 people.
Greg Biss, president of the center’s board of directors, acknowledged Eastport has a strong, vibrant arts community, particularly for a city its size. “We’re working at it pretty hard,” he said Thursday.
Biss, a resident of Eastport for nearly 40 years, has been active in the arts center since its inception more than 20 years ago.
“This is important work for us,” added Biss, who had a career as a diver. He is also a classically trained composer and a pianist. “It’s what we do in our lives.”
“[It is] an incredibly active and involved community and arts organization,” Devon Kelley-Yurdin, the center’s publicity director, noted Wednesday.
“There are times … when I can’t believe we’re in Eastport and the quality of the arts that are being produced … and the quality of the programming,” Kelley-Yurdin said.
The center draws an audience and volunteers from as far away as Machias, Calais and across the border in St. Stephen, New Brunswick. “We get people from Campobello,” she said, the Canadian island accessible from Lubec.
The performances of community theater group Stage East are particularly popular, Kelley-Yurdin said. The group does two or three shows per year with about six productions of each.
Among the arts center’s upcoming events is a 7 p.m. concert Saturday, July 5, featuring soprano May Mackenzie, who was lauded by The New York Times as “a soprano of extraordinary agility and concentration.” She will give a complete 45-minute performance of “Pierrot Lunair” by Arnold Schoenberg accompanied by an ensemble of five musicians. Mackenzie also will perform moon-themed selections from the American songbook by Irving Berlin, Lionel Hampton, Van Morrison and others.
Another upcoming event is a two-day puppet workshop, scheduled 1-4 p.m. on July 7 and 8, designed for children ages 8-12. It will be led by Kelley-Yurdin and Vera Francis, a Passamaquoddy poet, artist, activist and educator. The workshop will focus on storytelling.
“[It’s] about different forms of storytelling, about sharing our cultural stories with other people. … It’s about community collaboration,” Kelley-Yurdin said.
The workshop will introduce Passamaquoddy stories, principals of shadow puppetry, the integration of poetry and song into storytelling, the use of voice, script writing and character building. A public presentation of the workshop is scheduled for 5 p.m. July 8.
The arts center is seeking grant funding to extend the project through the school year with the goal of teaching youths in Eastport and Pleasant Point to use the arts to share stories, fables and personal narratives with each other and their communities.
One of the apparent strengths of the arts center is its relationship with seven year-round constituent groups engaged in theater, art, music, film, education and community outreach. In addition to Eastport Gallery and Stage East, the other constituent groups are ArtsBloom, Eastport Strings, Northern Lights Film Society, Passamaquoddy Bay Symphony Orchestra and the Concert Series.
All the constituent organizations “have their crowd” of patrons, Kelley-Yurdin said.
The arts center has an annual budget of about $180,000 and a staff, albeit small. Revenues come from a couple of fundraisers, grants, constituent groups, ticket sales and rentals.
The organization purchased a church building in 2002. A successful first-phase capital campaign converted the mortgage-free building into a theater, concert hall, classroom and exhibition space. The center hosts hundreds of rehearsals, performances, workshops, exhibitions, films and community events year-round annually.
More than 3,100 people attend its event annually, and about 265 artists and performers participate in its programming.
“There’s all manner of activities,” Biss noted.
Although the arts center typically has drawn more people and sponsored more events in the summer, it is putting a stronger emphasis now on year-round programming, he said. It is has insulated its building and offers “quite a lot” of programs in winter.
The arts center enjoys strong support from the business community, he said. The center’s events draw people to the community who may eat out at a restaurant, buy gasoline for their vehicle, lodge overnight or make other expenditures.
“I don’t know how to measure … that kind of effect, but we know it’s there,” he said.