Paintings of the Swan’s Island lobstering community by Maine artist Philip S. Steel are on display Sept. 2-15 at the Salty Dog Gallery in Southwest Harbor. The collection is a piece of the production “A Green Sky,” a theatrical project scheduled to debut next summer.
Steel has spent years getting to know the fishermen of the East Coast and documenting their history and challenges through painting. He has partnered with authors to create three productions that are theatrical, literary and visual depictions of fishing communities.
Although Steel spends 50 percent of his time in Maine (the rest in Florida), this is his first project on Maine fishermen. His previous two productions were on fishermen in Florida and Virginia.
“A Green Sky,” written by Maine playwright Frank Reilly, is a story about a young couple from New York, Paige and Dexter, moving to Swan’s Island and interacting with a couple of island natives, lobsterman Ebon and island schoolteacher Ruth.
“The main focus is for the audience to understand the plight of the lobsterman right now,” said Steel. “There are a lot of lobster, but the prices are so low that they are having trouble making ends meet, especially on the islands.”
Steel’s paintings will be incorporated into the traveling play and book sponsored by the Maine Sea Coast Mission. He has completed most of the paintings, all of which are on display at the gallery. The play is also complete, and Reilly is now selecting the cast.
“The actors talk to the paintings as if they are other actors throughout the stage,” said Steel. “I’ve been told from many people that it’s unique, that they’ve never seen anything like that before.”
The subjects in his paintings all are members of the Joy family on Swan’s Island.
“There are 10 kids from ages 30 down to about 12, and they are absolutely gorgeous,” said Steel.
“I interacted with Seth Joy. He runs the mail boat and a lobster boat,” said Reilly. “He’s a wonderful subject for the play himself, as Ebon. I’ve had him read some of the lines.”
The play is scheduled to show at 12 venues including College of the Atlantic; theaters in Boothbay, Camden and Bar Harbor; Bates College; Colby College; and Mystic Seaport, the Museum of America and the Sea, in Connecticut. Harvard and Yale have also expressed an interest in hosting the play.
“A Green Sky” is titled after an old Scottish proverb.
“When you witness a green sky, when people see it together, there’s an understanding and love that is created that lasts forever,” said Reilly, who says the green flash can be seen in Maine on the horizon over the water if the atmospheric conditions are just right. “It’s like seeing a rainbow after it rains.
“It’s about integration between Mainers and people from away,” said Reilly. “We can’t just live in vacuum. We have to let those people in.”
Reilly interviewed people on Swan’s Island and Port Clyde and wrote three books on lobstering. This knowledge is integrated into the life of the fictional Swan’s Island couple of the play.
“When [Steel] asked me to do it, I decided to take a look at his art,” said Reilly. “When I saw his artwork, I said, ‘Yes, I want to work with this man.’ He captures the sensitivity of the subject. A lot of people can paint beautifully, but you can see beneath to who the person is, what makes them unique. I think [Steel] saw the same thing in my writing.”
In addition to the play, Reilly is writing a “coffee table book” with Steel’s artwork and dialogue from the play.
“Up here, what we’re trying to do is to see if we can’t preserve the lifestyle of the 15 island communities that are lobstering communities and to make people aware of their situation and get more funding to help them,” said Steel.
Steel’s first production, “Net Loss,” completed with author Evelyn Wilde Mayerson four years ago, documented the plight of commercial fishermen in Florida.
“A net ban in Florida nearly bankrupted them all,” said Steel. “The small fishing villages in Florida, it practically devastated them.”
Funded by the National Humanities Council, “Net Loss” was scheduled for nine plays, but ended up performing 22.
The production spurred some action, said Steel. Florida House Rep. Stan Mayfield’s Working Waterfronts Florida Forever Grant Program was created by the 2008 Legislature to invest $7.5 million annually to preserve commercial fishing.
Author Richard Vaughn noticed the impact of the production and asked Steel if he’d like to do the same type of project for the Chesapeake Bay fishermen. They teamed up and created “Fishing Gone,” another painting-play-book package. The production captures the challenges facing the fishermen of Tangier Island, Va., in the center of the Chesapeake Bay.
The play was performed in 10 locations last fall, including the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, D.C.
“They call themselves watermen there,” said Steel. “And because of the pollution of the bay and because they did a couple of stupid things themselves such as harvesting sheet crabs with eggs on them, their business was kind of devastated.”
The production is not only about the communities’ difficulties, but also what they could do to improve their situation. At the end of each production, a facilitator who’s knowledgeable about fishing in the area takes questions from the audience.
Next fall, Steel and the three authors he has worked with plan to air a miniseries of the three productions on public television, produced by Jeff Dobbs Productions of Bar Harbor.
For information, call the Salty Dog Gallery at 244-5918.