WATERVILLE — Delicately setting up pieces of art for the upcoming Common Street Arts exhibition Earth-Art-Maine: In the Presence of Wildness, program manager Rachel McDonald couldn’t hide her excitement.
“Our goal has always been to have a happy collaboration between the studio and the gallery and to have the two sides work together and complement each other,” McDonald said as she worked at the gallery on Common Street, across from the Opera House.
The space has an open gallery and separate studio space.
McDonald said the exhibit, which opens Friday and also includes artists’ workshops, “is our first real push to make it one entity.”
“You can learn in the studio what you see in the gallery and what you see over there can inspire your learning,” she said.
An opening reception for Earth-Art-Maine will be held from 5 to 7 p.m. Friday and will feature more than a half dozen Maine artists.
The exhibit focuses on art made from hand-made paper.
The craft is an intricate process that requires growing plants and harvesting their fibers, soaking them and cooking them to create a pulp that gets shaped into sheets and then dried for several hours.
The end result is a unique, slightly textured paper that often resembles in color or shade the type of fiber it was made from. Paper made from collard greens fibers took on a green hue; denim fiber, a slight blue; and artemisia, a smoky gray.
“It’s the kind of art that blurs the line between craft and what people traditionally call art,” said Christine Higgins, a Readfield-based artist and one of the exhibitors. “There’s a lot of technique required to make the process.”
The end product of the paper is beautiful enough to be considered art, but the artists worked to transform the handmade paper into sculptures, canvas paintings, books and bags, among other things.
“You can do whatever you want to it,” Higgins said. “What people don’t realize is how strong paper is.”
At the gallery, handmade paper comes in all shapes and sizes. There are colorful landscape portraits hanging on the walls, painted on handmade paper. There’s a hanging paper structure that’s reminiscent of forest vines hanging overhead like an umbrella, with shades of green and streaks of blue and pink. Green cut-out paper leaves lie on a pedestal beneath the paper canopy.
“There are about 30 pieces in the show,” said McDonald, 24, who has been program manager since August after leaving a position at the Portland Museum of Art.
Unique to this art form, some of the pieces in the exhibit are encouraged to be perused and looked through.
“They’ll feel texture to paper they’ve never felt before,” said artist Cynthia Ahlstrin, of Winthrop.
Pieces that can be touched and looked through will be designated as such, and white gloves will be provided so that oils and acids from fingers don’t get on the artwork.
“There’s so much detail in so many of these pieces that it’s nice to have that intimate relationship with it,” McDonald said. “I think it’s a really cool option for the show.”
The exhibit at Common Street Arts, which runs from Friday to June 28, is premiering in Maine for the first time.
THE PERFECT VENUE
While it’s the Maine premier, it’s not the exibit premier. In January and February, the exhibit, organized by Higgins, was on display at the Paper Circle: Center for Paper and Book Arts in Nelsonville, Ohio.
With the impetus of the show being about Maine and its vast array of geography, Higgins was committed to bringing the show to Maine. Needing a venue, Higgins emailed Common Street Arts, to McDonald’s delight.
“We ask in proposal forms how the idea speaks to our mission and why it makes sense to show it here, and this show really does that,” McDonald said. “We think it’s really relevant to the community and the state of Maine.”
The theme, Earth-Art-Maine: In the Presence of Wildness, is meant to represent the way people perceive the environment around them.
“What is your response to wildness? For some, it’s something as small as a seed,” Ahlstrin said. “For others, it’s the expanse of the ocean. It’s interesting to see what people are influenced by.”
In Readfield, near the bank of Torsey Lake, Higgins studio is a circular building made up of 15 8-foot walls, the perspective of the environment changes depending on your location. It’s a brief walk through the woods to her home, a good place to get lost on purpose for inspiration from the surrounding environment.
“When you think of environment in Maine, what do you think?” Higgins said. “The pieces in the exhibition are responses to what they care about in Maine. Hopefully, it will open up more people’s eyes to the gifts we have in Maine.”
Dialogue between Higgins and McDonald started about four months ago and has evolved from an exhibition and maybe one workshop to the exhibition and classes from three of the artists scheduled throughout May.
“I think we’re particularly excited about this workshop-exhibit combination,” McDonald said. “I think it’s nice when we have group shows because we have artists from throughout the state who will be able to pull their own crowd.”
McDonald hopes that the combination of exhibit and artists workshops can act as an outline for more workshop-exhibit events.
“It will be something we hope to build upon,” McDonald said. “This will be a jump-start to having more workshops involving what’s in the studio, maybe an artist offering a one-day workshop. It’s such a great resource having the art in here when you’re taking a class.”
Ahlstrin will hold three classes, including paste paper workshop, which uses acrylic paint, glue and water to create decorative papers that can be used in book bindings and other projects. Higgins will be teaching a pulp painting and handmade paper class, in which participants will use natural fibers to make sheets of paper and create images using colored pulps, stencils and other objects.
“This turned into a much larger project than we originally expected,” McDonald said.
Since opening in 2012, Common Street Arts has grown steadily in the amount of shows and exhibits it hosts. In addition to about eight art exhibits a year, the center has hosted nearly 80 other events, including film screenings, poetry readings and live musical performances. It already has art exhibitions booked through next March, and its partnership with the Maine Film Center and its annual Maine International Film Festival, called MIFF on Edge Vol. 2, is on the immediate horizon.