There is a saying that “Everything old becomes new again.” How true this is when you look at the Eastport arts scene.
Nancy Asante, president of the Eastport Arts Center, recently recalled that her grandfather founded the Grand Central School of Eastport around 1890.
“People came from all over the country to paint our breathtaking scenery,” she said. “Dramatists, literary people, they all followed.”
The seed had been planted.
“We seem to have this desire here to be surrounded by very good culture,” she said.
Today, that desire is being fueled by the Eastport Arts Center — which was founded in 1985 — and is starting to explode with creativity now that it has its own home.
“Last year, we offered more than 90 events,” Executive Director Shelby Greene said. “We are really taking on a life of our own.”
It has been a natural progression, she said, as artists and creative people flock to Eastport, discovering it is truly “an island of art.”
From opera singers to bronze sculptors to watercolorists and potters, Eastport has become home to dozens of full-time and seasonal artists over the past decade.
Not so long ago, the island’s downtown was filled with empty storefronts. Today, there are 16 galleries and a number of open studios within walking distance.
How is one former sardine factory-based island community able to foster so much art?
“It’s just the energy of Eastport,” Greene said. “I could throw a rock out my window here and hit an artist. The creative economy is really driving this area right now.”
Over the past two decades, as artists relocated to Eastport and the surrounding area, the need for a center became even greater.
“They desire an art center and that is what has to happen. The desire must be there,” she said. “We started as a cooperative art gallery, which is still there, but look at us now.”
From a farmers’ market in the center’s parking lot in summer months, to violin and cello classes for children, to avante garde films and community theater, the center has a finger in nearly every artistic pie.
To provide a permanent home for the center’s concept, a group of investors helped buy an 1837 Baptist church on Washington Street just five years ago.
It has now been converted into a theater, art space, a performance venue, and a real hub for the arts in Eastport.
Sheltered under the center’s umbrella are seven major programs: Stage East, Northern Lights Film Society, Arts Bloom, a summer concert series, Eastport Strings, Eastport Gallery and the Passamaquoddy Bay Symphony Orchestra.
Next month, a New York pianist will arrive to perform Igor Stravinsky’s “Rite of Spring” ballet with a local pianist. This weekend-long event also will feature floral workshops, an evening artists’ cabaret, art opening and exhibit, lectures on Stravinsky and the social-political climate in the early 1900s and an evening film.
This is typical of Eastport Arts Center: a variety of performances and events to tickle anyone’s fancy.
But emphasizing the arts doesn’t mean the community has turned its back on its working waterfront or its fishing history. “Those are the very scenes that many of our painters and artists capture in their work,” Greene said.
Lobster boats, sailing vessels and scallop draggers have replaced the sardine ships, and painters and photographers can often be seen creating their art at the waterfront.
Eastport is a quiet community in the winter, Greene said, which allows year-round artists to focus on their work. “Life goes on here,” she said. “It’s just a little quieter living in the winter.”
Meanwhile, renovations and repairs have been made on the former church.
“We just completed our handicapped lift project, which has been a long term goal of the Arts Center, since we have a second floor performing arts space,” Greene said.
Funding for the project was provided by USDA Rural Development, CDBG funding, Maine Arts Commission: Accessibility in Cultural Communities Fund and community donations.
“This lift will allow our many handicapped and aging patrons the chance to experience the arts in our upstairs space,” she said. “Our next phase of the project, to start in April, will be to construct a new handicapped ramp. This should be completed by the end of April, before our performance season starts.”
More information about programs and events at Eastport Art Center can be found at www.eastportartscenter.com.