Maine artist Amy Stacey Curtis makes number punches on cubes as part of her interactive installation piece called “turn V.” Photo by Shawn Patrick Ouellette/Staff Photographer

It began with an email and ended with a dooryard visit.

“Hi, I hope you and your family have been healthy and safe. I’m still recovering, but making art happen any way I can has been a big help! Any hoo, the big book about my biennials is finally at the printer. What is your physical address?

“I’d really like to give you a book (we are delivering many of them); in case you’re not home, where should we place your book?”

A few days later, Amy Stacey Curtis, with her husband Bill behind the wheel of their newish Subaru Outback, pulled into a driveway in Berwick to hand-deliver her self-published and long-anticipated limited-edition book, “Amy Stacey Curtis: 9 Solo Biennials,” one of many stops they made on a warm Saturday in early October. The book documents in remarkable detail every step along the way of her nine solo exhibitions of large-scale participatory artwork that she conceived, built and installed in nine empty mills across Maine over 18 years, an undertaking that “is more than just remarkable, it is almost unfathomable,” writes Owen F. Smith, her former University of Maine art professor, in the book’s foreword.

Soon after that project ended in 2016 and after she began preparing this book for publication, Curtis was felled by a neurological disorder, which doctors believe was caused by untreated Lyme disease, that scrambled her mind and body and left her bedridden, suicidal and unable to walk or speak clearly.

She has been inching her way back since going public with her struggle, through medication, two stints in psychiatric wards, rehab and a steady regimen of art, which she conceives and designs and hires others to help build. The publication of her book and her decision to deliver many of the books in person are a demonstration of her wellness and a message of her perseverance. Curtis, a conceptual artist whose work is based in math and predicated on human behavior, is back on her feet – and back on the road – speaking for herself and giving people a reason to celebrate triumph and hold out for hope.

“It feels really incredible having finished the book, both because I completed another big thing that I set out to do, but I finished it in spite of what has been happening to me,” she said in an interview.

Plus, it’s good just seeing people again, pandemic or not. She’s been cooped up at home in Lyman for four years, and had to learn to talk, walk and function again with self-sufficiency. “It’s very nice seeing people’s half-faces,” she said after a weekend of delivering books across Maine, New Hampshire and Massachusetts. “I can tell they are smiling under their masks.”

Amy Stacey Curtis planned her driving routes for delivery her books. Amy Stacey Curtis

Befitting her reputation as an artist obsessed with order and making sense out of chaos, she orchestrated deliveries of her dense tome almost as a well-timed piece of performance art, with a web of driving routes mapped out on a white board with sticky notes in her office.

She shipped 150 books to 130 people in 91 cities or towns in 21 U.S. states, and delivered, in person, 138 books to 113 households in 49 cities or towns in Maine, New Hampshire and Massachusetts. One recent weekend, she and her husband, Bill, planned a delivery route that went from their home in Lyman down through Sanford, Berwick, Eliot, across the border to Rollinsford and Dover, then down to Boston and back up through York and the Kennebunks.

Because of her condition, Curtis can’t drive, but she’s an ace navigator. She wears a mask when she delivers the books, often leaving them on a driveway, deck or steps so she doesn’t have to directly interact with people. The visits, however brief, complete a circle. As an artist, Curtis conceives and engineers artwork that requires the participation of an audience to complete it. As a writer, she is not finished with her book until she hands it off – in a pandemic-safe manner – to as many people as possible.

“A lot of these people are people I haven’t seen since before all of this started,” she said, referring to her illness, which began early in 2017. “Most people had heard something. They knew I was sick or had heard I was sick, and they are all commenting how they glad they are that we have gotten through this, and ‘I’m so glad you are making your work again.’ And I always say, I have been making work since this started. I have been very fortunate to get the support from the art community. I never lost my ability to conceptualize my ideas and write about them.”

Amy Stacey Curtis and her husband Bill drop off books in Berwick this fall. Staff photo by Bob Keyes

Curtis also left 62 books for people to pick up at Engine, the community art space in Biddeford, which served as fiscal sponsor for the book project and is hosting an exhibition of her work through Nov. 21, an interactive piece called “Swap.”

She began planning the book in 2000, after she started her exhaustive exhibition routine, and began writing it in 2008, committing herself to writing for one hour each day. She stopped abruptly when she became sick and returned to it as she regained her health. Her book is an autobiographical catalog that documents her nine “solo biennials” in empty mills in eight Maine towns; the Bates Mill in Lewiston hosted installations twice. Each consisted of nine participatory pieces, for a total of 81 over nine exhibitions. She considers the totality of her work over nine exhibitions to be one single installation.

Throughout her biennials, she organized her work around themes and concepts related to light, memory, movement, time and others similar, and each piece was based on variations of the idea that the actions of one impact many and the actions of one can upset the delicate balance of chaos, order and repetition, around which all things revolve. She related her effort to create her artwork and the work that was required to prepare the mills for exhibition to the experience of the long-ago laborers who worked under the routine of repetition in the mills, and her art reflected the chaos that would ensue when workers interrupted those routines. “This balance was a ‘sum of all parts,’ a sort of equation or basis for all,” she writes. “And, to affect a single component of this balance would affect the whole. And we, all of us, were part of this whole.”

For this project, her work often consisted of many small moving parts, which she designed and made from wood, metal and other materials purchased and community-sourced. Viewers were expected to engage in the work, by moving pieces around, peering through them or walking among them along a certain path with a specific set of instructions.

Of the participatory and performative exhibitions, Smith writes in his foreword, “They are like imagination itself in that they function to let us try things out, providing if you will, a kind of laboratory for experiment, rehearsal, and play. The work is fun, but it also has a serious side in that it plays an important role in asking us to act, engage, think, and explore. Through all of this what happens is that we refine our sense of touch, vision, hearing, smell, and even taste, and cultivate our imaginative sensibilities.”

Kenny Cole, a Maine artist who participated in Curtis’ exhibitions, said each biennial explored a condition relevant to being human, and her art created “the ability to be a contemporary human within a historical shadow,” he wrote in an email. “We really don’t understand the larger forces that cause seismic changes in a communal, social or economic structure. Well, actually we do understand it – technology develops and improves how we do things and make things, causing old ways to become obsolete – but we don’t understand where that leaves us. Are we really better off? There are psychological scars that never heal from societal changes brought on by the changes in technologies, a ‘future shock’ that we can never really fully comprehend.”

With Curtis’ art, people experience the basics of being human: time, memory, movement and space, and other concepts. “And we participate,” Cole wrote. “We enter a passive setup full of structures, patterns, devices and forms and are invited to reshape, add, choose or activate and then see what our action might have contributed. Here is our new healing context experienced inside the same box that asked differently of people from another time.”

“9 Solo Biennials” by Amy Stacey Curtis is a special-edition, self-published book about the artist’s ambitious exhibition history in Maine mills.

With photos and words, Curtis explains the math and engineering of each piece, offering insight into her process of conception and execution, as well as her reaction to how her pieces were received. (“It was satisfying to see participants slow down, to approach the pedestal, then add water with concentration and purpose,” she writes of her piece “meniscus” from her first installation in 2000. “Without any prompting from me, many participants counted as they added drops, wanting to add identical amounts of water to the containers, the evaporation perhaps consistent for each form. Little water was spilled.”)

There are many nearly 200 photos, as well drawings, and histories of each mill that hosted her work.

She humanizes her narrative with stories about the arduous nature of her installations – each biennial required 22 months to prepare and execute – some of the mishaps along the way, and how much she depended on her husband, whom she met in precalculus at Massabesic High School. She also writes that her counselors linked the trauma that she began experiencing after the completion of her biennial project to untreated trauma that began when she was 7 and continued for 18 years, the same duration as her biennial project. “My counselors had likely been right. My brain had protected me, kept me busy with my 18-year installation art project, as a way to put aside the more difficult aspects of my trauma until I was ready,” she writes.

Curtis lists each of the 420 art assistants who helped her, as well as each of the 561 individual sponsors, 46 organizational sponsors and 103 business sponsors. She printed 500 special-edition copies of the book, intended as keepsake for those who have supported her art over the years. With this collector’s edition out of the way, she hopes to approach a publisher to make a smaller-scale book for wider circulation.

She wasn’t ready to compromise with this one.

“I knew if I went to a publisher, they would need me to edit it way down, and I didn’t want to do that,” she said. “I wanted to include all the art assistants, all the businesses who helped, the mill histories. Those are all things a publisher might cut out to make it shorter and they might have me cut out half the images. I am very happy with how it turned out. This book is how I wanted it to be.”

It was just a few years later than she anticipated. But that’s what happens when chaos enters the equation and screws everything up.

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