Last summer, when Susan Bickford hosted the performance art piece “(stillness)” at the reversing falls of the Sheepscot River near her home in Newcastle, something magical happened when spectators arrived at the riverbank. They stopped talking.

You could hear their happy chatter as they hiked down from the parking area up top and along the woodsy path to the river, their voices growing louder and more spirited as they drew closer. And then when they arrived at the end of the path and emerged from the trees and out on to the open riverbank, they just stopped talking, sometimes mid-sentence, and allowed the kiss of nature to silence them.

The theme of “(stillness) 18” is “All Water Is Connected,” a reference to the midcoast’s streams, rivers, lakes and ocean. The performance art piece features movement, music and visual art, including drawings by founder Susan Bickford.

Of course, it wasn’t silent at all. The wind whistled in the trees and the tidal water lapped at the rocks and rustled the seaweed. The birds overhead called out loud, and somewhere on the other side of the river, a dog barked.

But it took people becoming in tune with the nature, and tuning out the rest of the world, to hear all of that. That stillness set the stage for Bickford and her merry band of artist-performers, who used the river, rocks and nature’s captivating presence as a canvas for their creative expression, which can be described as equal parts movement, rhythm and improvisation in nature.

On Saturday, Bickford will gather again with her friends to create “(stillness) 18,” the latest incarnation of her seasonal offering. This year, Bickford will move it to the Joseph A. Fiore Art Center in Jefferson on Damariscotta Lake, just a few miles from her Newcastle home.

“(stillness) 18” is a participatory outdoor performance that celebrates both community and a connection to nature. Among the active participants are dancers and movers, vocalists, musicians, writers, visual artists, foragers, an astrologer and a cook. They will spend most of this week together in retreat at the Fiore center to plan and prepare Saturday’s event, which will evolve based on how the participants respond to being in nature and among one another.

After the performance, there’s a shared meal of food foraged from the grounds during the week. Bickford, co-director of the Danforth Gallery at the University of Maine at Augusta and a certified Forest Therapy Guide – more on that in a moment – said the idea behind the event is to show “gratitude for the season of summer, of light, land, water and all of the beings inhabiting this place.”

This year’s theme is “All Water Is Connected,” a reference to the interrelationship of the midcoast’s streams, rivers, lakes and ocean.

The performance is open to the public, and in many ways, the 100 or so people who will gather to watch the spectacle are themselves participants – in their own silence and stillness and in their own response to being in nature. Last year, many spectators arrived via kayak and canoe.

The job of spectators is simply to be, Bickford said – just be still.

“We try not to impose ourselves on the landscape, and allow ourselves to be directed by it – to listen until we hear what is needed to help us come in sync with nature,” she said.

The public participation aspect includes a walk across the land, the lakeside performance, the seasonal feast and a fire. It begins at 4 p.m. and will end around 9 p.m.

Bickford has lived most of her life in Maine and comes from a family with seven generations of roots in the state. She learned to be in sync with nature as a youngster, when she allowed the woods and the ocean to draw her in and guide her. She’s a multi-disciplinary artist who draws and paints, makes sculpture, jewelery and videos, and works as a teacher, curator, shaman practitioner, kayaking guide and forest therapy guide.

Her foray into forest therapy began when she heard the term “forest bathing.” Research led her to the internet site of the Association of Nature and Forest Therapy Guides and Programs, where she learned that the self-care that she had practiced for as long as she could remember was something she could become certified in, so she signed up. Forest bathing, she said, is essentially making contact with nature, becoming aware of the atmosphere of the forest and blending with it. It’s about slowing down and allowing your inner senses to awaken, she said.

Bickford made the ink-on-paper sketches at the Joseph A. Fiore Art Center in Jefferson in November 2016, her first visit to the center, where “(stillness) 18” will be presented on Saturday.

The program introduced her to a structured format that she could replicate to help other people connect or reconnect with nature. “(stillness)” grew out of that awareness. She created her first “(stillness)” in 2015, bringing her interest in art and nature together.

On the Sheepscot, Bickford presented the piece around the natural phenomenon of reversing falls that are very near her home. The reversing falls are so named because the rising water of an incoming tide is forced against the prevailing flow of the river, resulting in stillness on the water for brief moments during each tide cycle. When presented on the Sheepscot, her piece celebrated that moment.

Typically, she invites about a dozen artists and friends for a several-days retreat that involves workshops around each artist’s specialty – yoga, movement, storytelling, astrology. They meet each day to reflect on their experiences and share those experiences around a fire.

Each year, they develop a performance in collaboration, each finding a role. On the final day, she asks the public to come and watch.

Last year, the performance involved dancers climbing on the rocks, slithering through the seaweed and swimming in the brackish water. Some chanted, some sang, others made music. Bickford wore a white dress and held a bright red umbrella above her as she swam.

Their art was their gestures, gracefully articulated in concert with the tide, the fish swimming among them and the birds in the sky, including a curious bald eagle that watched the proceedings from the opposite shore. Afterward, they shared a meal prepared almost entirely from the natural resources of the river and the valley.

Bickford films each event with multiple cameras that are suspended overhead, placed underneath the water and at the water’s edge. Beginning July 13, she will show a five-screen projected installation, based on “(stillness) 15,” at the Maine International Film Festival on Edge, which runs concurrent with the film festival in Waterville, at Common Street Arts. The series explores the intersection of art and cinema. In addition to the video, Bickford will show drawings and ephemera from other years of the collaborative project as part of the Waterville installation.

The move to the Fiore Art Center will change “(stillness)” in ways yet unknown. It’s a very different landscape with different geological features and a different body of water. Bickford decided to move the performance so she could involve more viewers.

“(stillness)” simply outgrew its space on the Sheepscot, she said. “We will find another kind of stillness in Jefferson. There will be a still moment,” she said.

There will be less waiting for stillness to arrive “and more intentionally slowing ourselves down to match the pace of a caterpillar, the rhythm of a walnut tree,” she wrote in an email. “When we sync ourselves to the pulse of this place, it expands our ability to notice whole worlds of wonder. If it sounds magical, it’s because, simply, it is.”

Anna Witholt Abaldo, co-director of the Fiore Art Center and a “(stillness) 18” artist, said moments of stillness occur all the time at the center, which is part of the 130-acre Rolling Acres Farm. Fiore, a painter, lived in Jefferson, though not on this property, with his wife, Mary. Together, for many years, they supported Maine Farmland Trust, which bought the farm in 2011 to protect it from development and operates the art center. Fiore, who deeply valued environmental conservation, died in 2008.

Among other things, the property is used for artist residencies. Abaldo said that hosting “(stillness) 18” seemed like a perfect extension for the farm and Maine Farmland Trust, whose mission includes engaging conversations about the environment and the involvement of humans. The Fiore Art Center does this through exhibitions and public outreach, such as “(stillness) 18,” Abaldo said.

The land at the Fiore center lends itself to this type of event. “It’s a very different landscape than where Susan was working at the reversing falls, but the moment I started dreaming about what this place could be, I immediately saw performance in the land,” she said. “The words that come to mind to describe this land are openness, calm and stillness. This place has a natural quietude and, at the same time, a really clear heartbeat.”

The farm’s natural features include rolling, undulating fields that lead down to the lake. There are trees on the edges of the property and around the main house, mostly maples. There’s an open view from the house down to the water, and wildlife is present. “We have a fox who sits in the field and grooms itself,” Albado said. “Animals feel at home here.”

Abaldo participated last year, intrigued by the idea of creating a kind of ritual performance in the landscape as a way to connect more deeply with that landscape, with nature in general and with her community of artists. Apart from “(stillness),” she practices moving freely in nature, often with her eyes closed, while following the impulses of her body as part of her spiritual grounding. She grew up in the Netherlands and, like Bickford, learned to value nature and special places in nature at young age. Her desire to live in a beautiful, natural place led her to Maine and, eventually, to the job at the Fiore center in Jefferson.

She almost felt directed there, it feels so natural to her.

“In nature, we listen with all of our senses – to the sound of the wind, the sense of our bare feet on the ground, a cool breeze on our skin – and allow our body to respond without censorship or judgment. So much in our modern world takes us out of our body and away from direct experience. It’s an incredible practice to allow your body, like a tree in the breeze, to become part of nature and the movement of nature.”

Staff Writer Bob Keyes can be contacted at 791-6457 or at:

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