YORK BEACH, Maine — As a former anti-poverty activist and a volunteer with the Maine Prisoner Advocacy Coalition, Kittery resident Kristy Martino said she’s thought a lot about the word “appropriation” — the act of appropriating one culture’s identity for another culture’s benefit, or appropriating one person’s land for another person’s purpose.
It’s an “intentionally provocative” topic that the textile designer and art school graduate anticipated would engage artists, “our storytellers,” to create visually interesting work that could spark conversations and deepen understandings.
As it turns out, Martino was not alone in envisioning art as a catalyst for public discourse. The national arts nonprofit organization For Freedoms has launched a project called the “50 State Initiative,” which the organization said is the largest art collaboration in the history of the country. Museums, galleries and arts collaboratives are mounting exhibits that all deal with art’s role in relationship to freedom of speech, the role of citizenship and civic engagement.
In Maine, only a handful of arts organizations are participating. Martino turned to her friend Cait Giunta, co-owner of Chases Garage artist studios and gallery in York Beach, and said she’d like Chases Garage to be one of them. The result is “RANSOM: Exploring the Edges of Appropriation,” which is on view in the gallery until Dec. 12.
“I believe art is the perfect platform to explore complicated topics,” Martino said. “And appropriation is probably more complicated than many. There’s a lot of nuance around the theme and there are some hard lines as well. I wanted to see how artists would approach something that is really difficult to understand.”
The juried exhibit features 16 artists from the Seacoast to as far away as Vancouver, Canada. According to Giunta, the jury was looking for “a diverse range of thought, experience and background” because they believe art “is a means to challenge power, privilege and oppression.”
Each artist was asked to write a statement to go with his or her work so people can “more fully understand” the work itself from the artists’ own perspective, said Giunta.
Among the artwork are two collographs from York artist Kristy Cavaretta. She took two pairs of jeans, inked them, and ran them through a press, leaving detailed impressions of both pair. One is owned by her brother, a construction worker, who wore then on the job for more than 1,500 hours. The other was bought on sale from Old Navy. Both have holes in them – one authentically made and one made by machine.
In her statement Cavaretta said, “I want to explore the actual authentic articles side by side. How does it feel to wear the look of years of manual labor and blue collar work as a fashion statement when your profession doesn’t allow you to leave your computer screen for more than a bathroom break?”
Another work, a painting named “Rhinestone Moccasins” by Rye, New Hampshire, artist Katherine Errecart, looks for all the world like a Caucasian girl in an Indian headdress and moccasins. In her statement, Errecart says she is of Abenaki heritage — “not a lot. Six to seven percent.” But it took on disproportionate importance in her family. Her father was proud of those roots, she said.
“When I applied for college, my parents encouraged me to check the ethnicity box for Native American and I did, showing up in admissions files right next to people who had authentic connections. Potentially benefiting from that check box without a valid claim to it.”
Martino said there’s a “variety of thinking, medium and perspective” in the exhibit, “and they’re such great representations of how broad this topic is and how complicated it is.”
Giunta said the exhibit is a departure for the gallery, because none of the work is for sale.
“No artist or organization will profit from the work created for this exhibition,” she said. “We wholly support artists making a living from their work, but the intent of this particular effort is to provoke thought, conversation and dialogue only.”
That was key for Giunta in her decision to partner with Martino. “We wanted to have a show that fosters a conversation, as opposed to being a part of the political atmosphere by making a statement or endorsing someone,” she said.
Chases Garage, in addition to the gallery, has studio space used by about 30 artists in some form or another. And she sees this topic of appropriation played out all the time among artists. When a student makes an exact copy of artwork in order to learn from the original artist, is that a kind of appropriation, she asks?
“What are the lines for appropriation? Where do you feel it’s bad? Is it OK, is it never OK?” she asks. “In my own learning, I have looked to other people’s work for inspiration. In order to learn, you have to reverse engineer something to see how it’s made. But where do you draw the line, or do you?”
Chases Garage is at 16 Main St., York Beach. It is open Tuesday through Saturday, 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. The exhibit continues until Dec. 12. In addition to this exhibit, the building also has a store where members — primarily printmakers and potters — sell their work. For more information, all (207) 361-4162.
For more about For Freedoms and the 50 State Initiative, visit www.forfreedoms.org.