September 22, 2019
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Why a Belfast man wants artists to paddle down the Penobscot River

Abigail Curtis | BDN
Abigail Curtis | BDN
Chris Battaglia, founder of the Village Canoe floating art residency, stands underneath the skeleton of the boat shed at Waterfall Arts in Belfast where he and other participants will eventually build a large canoe.

BELFAST, Maine — Starting this weekend, a puppeteer, a cartoonist, a dancer, painters and other artists are taking to two large canoes to paddle the lower portion of the Penobscot River into Penobscot Bay.

It’s the inaugural flotilla of the Village Canoe, a combined canoe expedition and floating artist residency that will launch Saturday morning from the Penobscot Salmon Club in Brewer and continue downstream for the next 10 days. It’s the brainchild of Chris Battaglia, a Belfast man who was inspired by an art expedition on the Mississippi River that he was part of in 2017.

“I’ve probably never been so creative,” the 29-year-old filmmaker, writer and photographer said of that adventure. “On the boat, there was a community.”

Those are two of the things he wants to replicate on the Penobscot — creativity and community, and so far, it seems that is happening. The project has three distinct parts, he said. There’s the trip itself, which will wind up at the Brooklin town boat launch Sept. 1, if all goes well. Then, there’s a pop-up art exhibit, showing works from the trip Sept. 27-29 at Heritage Park in Belfast.

Finally, the group will build a canoe outside Waterfall Arts in Belfast, under the cover of a boat shed, the skeleton of which Battaglia and others constructed earlier this summer.

“My hope is to see if this is a viable new art program that bridges Maine’s outdoors and environment and creative place-making,” he said.

If the details of the Village Canoe seem a bit complicated, its inspiration is not.

Battaglia was hired to be the expedition filmmaker for a 1,150-mile trip down the lower Mississippi from St. Louis, Missouri, to the Gulf of Mexico. The trip marked the completion of the Rivergator, an online paddler’s guide to the Mississippi, but it started something big for Battaglia.

“I was the filmmaker. That was my role,” he said. “But being in a 30-foot canoe with strangers, embarking on this trip in a landscape that I didn’t know all that well, I had to be a participant. I had purpose. I had to paddle, cook, put up tents.”

Battaglia, who attended the Haystack Mountain School of Crafts in Deer Isle the previous year, found that the structure of being part of a team allowed him to thrive creatively.

“This felt like Haystack on canoes,” he said. “It meant the freedom to try anything out. It was inspiring.”

The journey stuck with him. He went home to Portland, and a few months later moved north to Belfast, where the presence of the Penobscot River loomed large for him. Battaglia started imagining the Village Canoe project, and how it could help him and others connect to the state in a different way.

“I live in Maine. I want to make Maine a home, and there are rivers here, too,” he said.

As he got to know the midcoast, he learned about organizations including the Penobscot Marine Museum in Searsport, Waterfall Arts, Come Boating! in Belfast and the Belfast Creative Coalition. Those groups, which he calls the project “anchors,” plus grants received through the Portland-based Kindling Fund, have helped him turn his dream into a reality.

“The support has been overwhelming,” he said.

When he put out a call for artist applications, 32 people responded. That was overwhelming, too.

“It was incredibly surprising, humbling and heartwarming,” he said.

Larraine Brown, the executive director of the Belfast Creative Coalition, the fiscal sponsor for the project, said that Battaglia’s enthusiasm is contagious.

“It’s just such a great idea, to combine building this marvelous canoe and then having art as part of it,” she said.

The trip is scheduled to kick off Friday with a ceremonial gathering at Nibezun, a native-led nonprofit organization in Passadumkeag that works to preserve and restore Wabanaki traditions.

On Saturday, the artists from Maine, Massachusetts, Virginia and Scotland will start paddling their canoes, at first with the help of a guide. They’ll camp at night and will find out what art emerges during the journey.

Battaglia is confident.

“At the end of the day, if we get holed up because of weather or skills, we’ll just get creative,” he said.

 



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