When the Farnsworth Art Museum put out a call to Maine artists last spring for proposals to participate in the museum’s Winter Windows Project, Rockland-based artist Annie Bailey knew she wanted to put Abbie Burgess back in the spotlight with her work.
Burgess gained fame in 1856 as the 16-year-old girl who was responsible for protecting her family and keeping the Matinicus Rock lighthouse going during a series of storms that blasted the rocky outcropping located about 20 miles off Maine’s coast.
The story of Burgess has since been remembered in children’s books, as well as in the name of a Coast Guard cutter stationed in Rockland.
But Bailey did something truly magical with her interpretation of Burgess’ story: She illustrated the tale on 60 feet of sailcloth and put it in motion using a moving panorama that is currently operating inside four of the Farnsworth’s Main Street windows.
“This linear forward movement [of the panorama] seemed appropriate as a way to represent Abbie’s character. I also just thought it would be magical to have this illuminated illustration moving on Main Street,” Bailey said. “It’s been really fun to see people enjoying it and taking it in.”
Bailey’s moving panorama is the first installation of the Farnsworth’s new Winter Windows Project. The project is a way for the museum to highlight the work of contemporary Maine artists, according to the museum’s creative director Anneli Skarr,
Through this project, a selected artist’s work will take residence in four of the Farnsworth’s Main Street windows from the weekend after Thanksgiving through January. The portion of the Farnsworth where the windows are located used to be a department store and Skarr said the project aims to riff off the tradition of department store window displays.
“We really want to bridge to contemporary work and local artists, young artists and emerging artists, in a way that makes them visible,” Skarr said. “And it’s fun. You have a lot of people walking around on the sidewalks doing shopping during this season. There is a lot of visibility.”
Bailey was chosen from 12 artists who submitted proposals to the Farnsworth last spring. While the submission process was open to any type of maker, Skarr said the museum staff did not anticipate receiving such a hyper-local artist and installation theme.
Bailey said she felt drawn to Burgess at a time in her life about a year ago when she was searching for a female hero.
In the 1850s, Burgess’ family lived on Matinicus Rock, where her father was keeper of the barren island lighthouse, Bailey said. In January 1956, Burgess’ father went to the mainland for supplies, leaving Burgess to tend to the lighthouse and her family, including her sick mother.
The incoming storms stranded her father on the mainland and left Burgess to care for her family and the light for several weeks. With no other dwellings on the island, Burgess moved her family into the lighthouse while the storm swept away a part of their home.
“There is something about the power of a female heroine, particularly Abbie’s ability to be a very steady sort of metronome. To keep the structure of the lighthouse going, while also tending to all this other chaos that was happening, as a young female is very inspiring,” Bailey said.
Bailey, who has a background in animation and illustration, felt the saga lent itself to being told through a moving panorama, a type of storytelling that was popular during Burgess’ lifetime. The moving form of art has since come back into popularity in the last decade, Bailey said, with the mechanism being commonly called “a cranky.”
While Bailey had experience making these types of panoramas, she had never made them to the large size that she proposed for the Farnsworth project.
Another local artist, Andy White, helped Bailey create the mechanism that moves the panorama. The mechanism consists of a moving cylinder powered by a treadmill motor on one side of the scroll and a non-motorized cylinder on the other side of the scroll, which keeps the 60-foot-long piece of painted sail cloth continuously moving in a loop.
As darkness sets in on Rockland’s Main Street in late afternoon, the installation is illuminated to create a warm glow behind the panorama.
While originally the piece was only supposed to be on display through the middle of January, the Farnsworth has extended the display time to the end of the month. Bailey said she is still working on finding the next home for the Burgess panorama.