BELFAST, Maine — Strong, work-hardened farmers’ hands cradle rich soil and pure white milk in the photos on display at the Maine Farmland Trust Gallery in Belfast.
The hands and what they hold tell part of the story Maine artist Heather Lyon had in mind when she began working on The Farm Project two years ago.
“The milk and soil carry equally vital meaning,” Lyon said. “All the images are taken from the perspective of the farmer. I want the viewer to envision that it’s their own hands holding the soil and milk. It’s this tender gesture. It’s holding, protecting and also offering.”
Lyon worked with five farms in the Blue Hill peninsula to take her pictures, then invited all the farmers, their families and a few artist friends to the Feb. 6 feast at Aragosta, a restaurant in Stonington. There, chef Devin Finigan only used what the farmers brought to create what curator Anna Abaldo said was an amazing meal.
“The chef often gets produce from the farmers, anyway. She donated her time and her space,” the curator said. “It was really a labor of love.”
That element of the exhibit is chronicalized on a long tablecloth stretched out on one of the gallery’s walls. Lyon encouraged those present at the dinner to spill food on the 30-foot-long cloth. Some were hesitant at first, others were quicker to dive in; but in the end, everyone participated.
“The main focus [of the meal] was celebrating the bounty [and] the labor of the farmer,” said Lyon, who based the project on ones she created in the past. “I had previously done four embroidered pieces with cloth that had been given to me that was already stained.”
The “found pattern” artwork, such as the previous pieces and the tablecloth, celebrates stains that typically are erased, Lyon said.
For the farmers, the meal was a rare chance for the busy community to get together, talk and laugh, and the memory of that meal is recorded on the tablecloth. The embroidered stains are “beautiful pinks and oranges,” from the beets, carrots and winter squash. They are red from wine and brown from a freshly slaughtered lamb.
Once the meal was over, Lyon said she had four days before the exhibit installation to embroider the stains. Several farmers, their families and other artists volunteered to help — something she said was a beautiful experience.
“I remember one of the little girls from one of the farm families came and was just loving [the embroidering process],” Lyon said.
At first glance, the tablecloth doesn’t look like the kind of art that usually is showcased in museums, but Abaldo said she likes the way it stretches art’s definition.
“Is this a map? Is this a time recording?” Abaldo asked. “For me, when I look at it, I look at the history and food and meals. When I think back in time, I think of these feasts. The markings on the tablecloth are really a recording of the food that was enjoyed and shared. There are many ways we can record events. Facebook is one way. But how direct and how tactile to record a beautiful evening this way?”
To Abaldo, what happened at the meal and its aftermath was art — albeit in an unusual and creative form.
“What I really appreciate about this show is how process oriented it was,” she said last week. “It started with the idea of these images of the farmers holding their soil. The idea was to capture the tender gesture of holding the soil or the milk. From there, she went on to think about the importance of soil, but also the community created by farming and food.”
For Lyon, who also used soil from the farms to create a sculpture that visitors see as soon as they enter the gallery, the three-part exhibit is a testament to the “deep connection” she feels to the land.
“I am really pleased with the tablecloth in particular, because I think it really effectively documents the experience,” Lyon said. “I am hoping the farmers will come and they will remember where they sat, who sat across from them and the stains they made.”
The exhibit will be open through March 27, with the artist’s reception from 5 to 7:30 p.m. Friday, March 20, at Maine Farmland Trust at 97 Main St., Belfast. For more information, call 338-6575.