Gabby Schulz lives deep in the woods of Maine—it’s as far away from the city he can get.
As one of 10 participants on the floating artist residency in my story, Ten artists, two canoes and ten days down The Penobscot River, Schultz’s particular brand of artwork struck me. I thought I’d see photographs, poems, and sculptures at the artists’ reception (and I did, all good) but I didn’t expect to see hand-drawn comics with a biting tone.
Here’s an older comic, titled The only thing I know, that provides a window into Schultz’s mindset.
“I drew that comic while I was a working stiff in Chicago for a couple years,” he said. “Chicago is a really big city with a truly antagonistic stance toward nature or beauty of any kind. Every weekend I'd go mushroom hunting, which meant I had to ride my bike five miles to the center of the Loop, then catch a commuter rail an hour out of town, as far out into the suburbs as I could get, then bike another half an hour to the nearest green area on the map. It was hilarious to me that it took this much effort just to see grass without Roundup on it, but it was the only joy I could find out of life there. After a couple years of this ritual I did some research, and I learned the reason this one natural area hadn't been built up like the rest of Illinois was because it was the (unmarked) dumping ground for the world's first nuclear reactor. I guess this story is supposed to illustrate how desperate I was during this time to get to a place with trees instead of buildings, or plants instead of people, and how that must mean it's pretty important for humans to be outside of cities. But also it’s so fascinating and sad how hard it is to describe something so essential in any meaningful or articulate way.”
Part of his bio gives a clue into his rationale. “I've embraced ‘gallows humor,’ a lifelong friend of comics, as the only sane response to the forces hurrying our own kaleidoscopic collapse, and I see absurdity as one of our few remaining pathways to beauty and joy.”
“At this point it seems pretty self-evident that the world as we know it is dying, fast, and this can make an artist a little philosophical about what concepts like ‘obligation’ or ‘engagement’ or ‘posterity’ might really mean anymore,” he explained.
He applied for and secured a spot on the Village Canoe in August, an experience, he said that took him out of the woods and into a communal experiment with strangers, which is not always a comfortable prospect when one works alone.
“Overall it was just what I expected—a lot of paddling, some good nature communion, a little chaos, and some wonderful bonding with strangers,” he said. “The communal experience was definitely the highlight of the trip, as the group was such a great combination of different people with different focuses and interests and personalities — and yet, no one was pretentious or overbearing or unavailable or boring. We all gelled really nicely, and from what I hear that's a bit rare with a bunch of artists.
“I was very curious to find out how other artists might be processing our changing relationship with the natural world, but I'm not sure anyone knows what to do now. With the fresh awareness of the Sixth Extinction hanging over us, communing with nature suddenly feels fleeting, unreal. Any inspiration I can draw from wilderness now feels more like finding ways to say goodbye -- to the ocean, animals or plants soon to be altered forever by climate change. It makes one feel obligated to document this very special moment in our history — likely a final chapter, as I see it — but that's also a hell of a thankless job. You have to laugh to keep from crying, and luckily that's a talent cartoonists have honed for generations now.”
Out of his 10-day paddling and camping experience, Schultz created three comics for the final artists’ show; one titled Biolumes, one titled Time Capsule and one, untitled featuring a hug.
I guess the Biolumes one is pretty self-explanatory, but the Time Capsule comic was just a statement of despair on everything,” he said. “You have a wonderful trip camping on some islands, but really, how is it contributing to stemming the tide of doom? Even with our minimal impact, how can we hope to ally ourselves with the natural world instead of further poisoning it? Looking at our efforts with a wide lens, it all just feels so hopeless, and decades from now our consumptions and comforts will probably seem criminally dumb, and all our big plans to save the world is just so much comically impotent hubris. Ironically, I feel like if more people were willing to see ourselves in this way, maybe meaningful change could happen. But while holding my breath waiting for that to happen, maybe it's all I can do to at least try to make us laugh at ourselves a little.”For more information about Schultz’s work visit: gabbysplayhouse.com and for more information about the project visit:villagecanoe.org
‘A drinking town with a fishing problem’
BELFAST—Penobscot Falls is not a real town in Maine, but it is very much a real place in the latest 3-D artwork of artist Eric Green. It’s a train set town set in 1/48th scale surrounded by buildings, tiny people, rural settings and of course, electric trains. It was constructed in a converted-attic room on the third floor of Green’s house in Belfast. Measuring nearly 14 feet across and taking up half the room, the mill town meets the ocean.
“The town motto is ‘A drinking town with a fishing problem,’ ” said Green.
Sprawling under tracks, every single building and tiny figurine, every piece of landscape and water feature have been made by hand by Green, a process that has taken three years.
“It’s only a quarter of the way done,” he said.
His plans include lengthening the track and carving tunnels through the walls of the house so that the train can circumnavigate several rooms on the attic floor. So, it will never leave the confines of this house; if anything, it will morph into the bones of the house. Very few people will be lucky enough to see this train set in person.
This isn’t just a train set; this is Green’s childhood world set in 1956, the year Green was born, on a day in October. The trees are all turning muted yellow and orange colors. Having grown up in a mill town in Maine, Green recreated in miniature the down-and-out the buildings, the depressive atmosphere of a working town which doesn’t know that the primary engine that runs it–the mills– will eventually die out.
“This is the kind of world I grew up in, that I feel so comfortable in,” he said.
“From about the late 1920s and the 1960s there was this beautiful train equipment,” said Green. “The steam engines were masterpieces.”
In this town runs historically accurate Boston & Maine (B&M) trains, box cars, and passenger cars as they hum through tunnels and above water features on both two-foot gauge tracks which interchange with standard gauge tracks.
I’ve always loved trains, but this place reminds me of my dad when we’d drive through the town underneath the tracks and get fresh bread from a tiny bakery, really early in the morning, when he was still sober,” said Green.While he admits his relationship with his father was scarred, this train set and town is a tribute to the good times they had together. A column he wrote for PenBay Pilot provides much more context to he and his father’s shared hobby of building models.
“I started building train sets when I was seven years old,” he said.
It has been a lifelong hobby that he still derives deep satisfaction from.
“There are train nuts, people obsessed with trains and I think I know why,” he said. “When you’ve had a chaotic childhood, there is something calming to the relative levelness and predictability of those train tracks. I really feel good when I’m riding on railroad tracks in real life.”
There is also something soothing to making a miniature train world piece by piece, tiny building by building.
In Green’s Penobscot Falls, there is a wee diner that looks as though it’s open til 3 in the morning; an adult bookstore, a decrepit pool room, a biker bar with two choppers out front that Green had to painstakingly craft by hand. There are two train platforms, numerous brick mill building, a hangar, even a small spot down by the bay—Hobo Jungle—where Green’s miniature bums drink and tells stories over a trash fire.
“These people want to leave Penobscot Falls,” he said of his diminutive characters.
Because he is also a writer, this town is populated with tons of back stories; each character, hand-forged by him, has a purpose and they all have a reason for being there. In the diner, for example, the cook is the bent over the hot grill and the one lone man sitting there (recalling the Edward Hopper painting) is based on a White Tower hamburger spot Green had once, while riding freights across the country, tried to patronize in Minneapolis when it closed at 1am.
The trains, with one flick of a switch, come to life and the passenger cars reveal tiny people in various poses, reading, staring out the window, while the boxcars chug along through tunnels over bridges.
“This has been an obsession,” he said. “It’s a world I want to live in and every time I go up there and spend some time on it, I’m right back in that world.”
All photos courtesy and ©Eric Green.
BLUE HILL—If you’re looking for a fun little road trip this summer no farther than an hour from the Midcoast, Fairwinds Florist, a shop in Blue Hill, is an artistic destination with a whimsical attraction. On the left side of the shop stands a vintage cigar machine. Instead of cigarettes, however, the glass partition for each knob reveals a tiny piece of art made by a local artist. For $15 you get a token to feed to the machine; the choice of artist is yours.
There’s a childlike feeling to tapping a coin in the slot, pulling the knob and watching a little white box slip out into the metal tray. You don’t know what you’ll get exactly, but the surprise is worth it.
On Monday, July 22, Fairwinds held an “Art Box Party” to celebrate the sixth anniversary of The Art Box and to invite people to try out the vending machine.
The Art Box is the idea of Michele Levesque and Michael Rossney, owners of EL EL FRIJOLES Mexican food a taqueria in Sargentville and Makers’ Market Shop & Studio in Brooksville.
“The cigarette machine dispensing art is not my idea,” said Levesque. “It’s an idea we came across in Chicago from a machine in a place called The Artomat and I was really intrigued, so I bought a piece. It stayed in the back of my head for awhile and we decided to find our own vintage cigarette machine and offer art that was more local. We wanted to do something for the artists of the peninsula and advertise their work a little, as well as provide an affordable way for people to collect art. We’ve got kids who come in here and are already art collectors because of the Art Box.”
Levesque and Rossney are artists whose work The Art Box dispenses.
“We currently have 11 artists that are involved with the project and sometimes we have artists who rotate through, but 11 is about all I can handle,” said Levesque. “ Every artist except for one lives here right here on the peninsula.”
Art ranges from hand-painted wood blocks, mixed media, altered books, found object sculpture, textiles, photography, handmade tiny books and other personalized items that can fit into the regulated sized box. For more backstory on the individual artists visit: The Art Box
One of the artists on hand that evening was Amelia Poole, who makes encaustic collages by layering vintage book pages and drawings with wax and resin. One particular piece that Carol Gregor of Brooksville bought through the vending machine was constructed from old handwritten letters.
Poole was happy to discover that someone had chosen her artwork, so she explained what it was: “This is a son in Korea writing back home to his father, in Bangor, named Sterling Diamond in 1951.”
“Sterling Diamond! What a name,” said Gregor.
The Art Box is a permanent feature of Fairwinds Florist shop. You don’t have to wait for one of their artist receptions; you can come in at any time and purchase a token to get some art from the cigarette machine. $10 of the purchase goes to the artist.
Kay Stephens can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
CAMDEN — At first glance, the little faces Chris Gray has carved into his handcrafted guitar picks reveal big personalities. Are they pensive? Wincing? Smiling? Hard to tell, but whatever they’re “thinking” they’ve become the signature look of his most recent entrepreneurial venture, Riff Wood Picks.
Riff Wood Picks are upcycled and handmade hardwood picks for guitar, bass guitar, ukelele and mandolin. Gray and his wife are originally from Tennessee, but moved up to Union seven years ago on a part-time basis, making it permanent three years ago. A long-time woodcarver, he just started making these guitar picks as a Christmas gift for his son-in-law, who is a musician.
“Once I figured out what I was doing, I thought, this is something that others might be interested in,” he said.
Since Christmas, he estimates he’s made about 250 of these picks and began a Facebook page. After getting a great response, he just recently built an Etsy site and has said in just a month’s time, he said he’s gotten an appreciable number of sales.
“It’s taken off great guns,” he said.
Gray credits K2 Music in Camden, where some of his picks can currently be found, for help with their design. As Gray isn’t a musician, he needed input from owners Mac Economy and Harvey Curtis, who are.
“When I mentioned to them I was going to make them, I asked Mac and Harvey what were the best pick styles to use for different instruments,” he said. “They were generous enough to critique them and because of their input, I’ve made the picks better.” [See our video where Mac Economy gives a demonstration of how the picks sound.]
Gray makes each pick out of laminated hardwoods, producing a sturdy pick with a triangle shape for guitars and an arrowhead shape for bass guitar. The best part about his craft is that he uses leftover scraps of quality hardwoods he finds at A.E. Sampson & Sons and Mystic Woodworks and upcycles scraps that normally would be thrown out or burned. To make them, he first starts with a glued log of two or three hardwoods, such as maple, cherry and walnut. After he band saws a small chunk from this log, he can work four-to-five picks out of each chunk. It takes him more time to do the sanding and polishing of the pick than it takes to do the carving.
He calls the iconic look to his guitar pick faces as The Riff Master.
“I’ve always enjoyed stylized faces in my carving,” he said, noting that no two faces are alike, but all are “cousins” of the original. The darkened color and shading in the expression of the faces is actually a natural embellishment as the result of working with a dremel, a rotary tool.
“It just takes a minimum of strokes to do each one,” he said. “When the tool is sharp, it won’t scorch, but when it’s dull, the friction of the burr scorches the wood. I love the way it looks so I just do the faces with a dull tool.”
Faces aren’t the only images he carves. He’s recently been branching out with other images, such as a lobster, the Tree of Life, the sun and moon, a sunflower, a dragon fly, and custom requests. Recently a woman asked him to carve the numbers: 143 into a pick. He was happy to oblige and asked her what the numbers meant. She said it was Morse Code for sailors and each number represented certain letters in a word, such as in this case: I LOVE YOU.
Prior to making the picks, Gray also created a natural wood game called Tumblewood.
“It’s like Jenga, but it’s pieces of split wood that are stacked more like a split rail fence.”
So far, he’s sold about 500 of the games and wants to keep the business small and handcrafted.
Between the game, his picks and his part-time living at a sawmill in Union and working for LT Auctions in St. George, he’s making a living here in Maine. He also still manages his family’s gallery in Tennessee. Gray is not ready for a mass production, however.
“It’s a lot of carving and not something I’d want to do 40 hours a week,” he said. “It’s hard on your fingers.”
Still, it’s enjoyable and gives musicians something to smile about when they put one of those funny little faces between their thumb and finger. Riff Wood Picks can be found at K2 Music and Once A Tree in Camden as well as on Etsy.
Kay Stephens can be reached at email@example.com
He scours basements for items such as beat-up old doors and cabinets that were intended for the dump, and paws through half-empty paint cans with paint that is hard as a rock.
“Every day I go into work, it’s like Christmas,” says Belfast artist, Eric Leppanen. “People throw things away that I find tons of value in. I’m always trying to find a way to make discarded stuff into something that someone else finds value in, as well.”
Leppanen’s journey as an artist has a familiar ring to it, particularly in this recession-weary state. He was laid off from his corporate job more than three years ago. Governor Angus King, who recently spoke at the Juice Conference 3.0, also found himself downsized at one point in his career before running for governor. For both King and Leppanen, facing a lay-off became the catalyst for finding their true calling.
Growing up in Owls Head and Rockland, Leppanen moved to Boston to attend college at Suffolk University. He worked on getting his degree in business and marketing, taking all of his electives in the art fields. During this time, he experimented with creating oil paintings. He’d clean the house of his art professor, who’d then give him discarded canvases to work on.
“I loved the cultural mix of the city, the excitement of it, but ultimately, I wanted to move back to the Midcoast to be near friends and family,” says Leppanen, sitting casually on his back deck. He is soft-spoken, laid back. With his beard and dark cap, he looks as though he fits easily in the world of fishermen.
In the past couple of years, his work has been featured in Rockland’s Asymmetrick Arts gallery, which he’ll return to in December for a group artist show. At the time of this interview, Leppanen’s artwork is on display at Belfast Co-op throughout November. One wall features a grid of mini pint-sized paint cans. The variegated colors that have slopped down each paint can are messy, vibrant and strangely harmonious. His other pieces feature found or reclaimed materials, such as a piece of driftwood his grandfather kept for a number of years, which Leppanen lacquered in shiny black.
Perhaps it’s no mistake that the logical grid-like formation of the mini paint can piece reflects Leppanen’s analytical side. Coming back to Maine in 1993, the first job he took out of college was with MBNA and he stayed there 10 years before moving on to Bank of America.
“The corporate world is very analytical, black and white, 1s and 0s,” recalls Leppanen. During this entire time, he didn’t make much artwork. “I was tired at the end of the day. I didn’t have the time, the space for it or the energy.”
Then in 2009, he found himself, along with others, laid off from Bank of America.
“It was a little shocking,” he says, “but I came home to my wife with a big smile and said, ‘hey I’m laid off. Let’s just start something new.’ She was a little worried, but I said, ‘it’s all going to be good. I feel really happy.’ Right now I’m so thankful. It was the best thing that ever happened to me.”
The Leppanens took a drive across the county and talked about what they wanted to do with the rest of their lives and by the time they returned to Maine, they’d hatched a plan. They took the entrepreneurial tack, creating a house-cleaning and property care business called aNeatNook. They’ve been doing this business together for three years.
“We often get discards, which I try to re-appropriate into art,” he says. “If I don’t use it in art, I sort through it, give it away to people who might need it, or take it to Goodwill. I try to bring as little as possible to the dump.”
As the writer Pearl Buck once said, “To find joy in work is to discover the fountain of youth.” This is Leppanen’s mantra.
“I really enjoy what I do now, since I really feel cleaning is an art form in itself,” he says in his quiet, deliberate manner. “Each day I can see tangible results, accomplishments and the thrill of making our environment a better place. It's my small part to improve the world and/or the houses of folks I come in contact with. In the corporate world, it was the exact opposite. I’d crank it out for ten hours and at the end of the day, feel as though I accomplished nothing. The end product of my efforts was not a valuable contribution to society. I was a cog in the debt machine.”
As he stands in his disheveled, paint-splattered basement, he presents multiple pieces in various stages of creation. He usually works on two three pieces at a time. Though he works 40 hours a week in his cleaning business, he spends at least three hours each night on his art in some form, whether creating it or marketing it, sleeping from 2 to 6 a.m., then getting up and doing it all over again.
“I love it. I thrive on it,” he says. “It took 40 years, but I found my passion.”
For more information about Leppanen’s artwork visit http://eleppanen.com.
The cover image shows the poppy, the logo for Hypnozine, first of one.
Rockport artist Andrew Mc Kenzie discusses his latest illustrated novel titled Hypnozine, which is described as: ”A coming of age epic, vibrating with the hormonal fury of sin, redemption, mutation, and obsession.”
Hypnozine is a serialized illustrated novel co-created by West Coast writer, Jason Squamata and Andrew Mc Kenzie, a Maine-based graphic artist. Mc Kenzie was born in Rockport and received his B.A. from Emerson College in theater studies. While in Boston, he cultivated a relationship with a fraternal gang of nomadic artists, writers and designers, a relationship that continues to this day and remains the primary influence on his work. After college, he spent five years working in Asia, and has now settled back in his home town, working out of the West Street Heritage, his design studio.
Hypnozine is not like any indie comic you’ve seen lately. Subversive with an unreliable narrator combining the surrealism of Zippy the Pinhead, the mock zeal of the Church of the SubGenius and black-and-white seizure-inducing illustrations, this isn’t an escapist comic — it’s dense reading. Like the first paragraph that sets off Hypnozine, you have to be in the right frame of mind to absorb the narrative. It’s as if the words themselves are swinging back and forth across your eyes, attempting to simulate the kind of drug-induced dysphoria that the characters in Hypnozine experience by ingesting a mind-altering 1960s drug. Here, as the illustrator, Mc Kenzie tells more of the story.
Q: You are the art side of this magazine. What was the concept behind the high-contrast black-white optical illustrations as it goes with the text?
I first started working on Hypnozine about six years ago while living in Taiwan. I had the original concept for a comic that was filled with not just great story content, but all of these amazing icons and images. I wanted to add to and build off of what my other creative partners had started. I slapped those pages down on the drafting table and traced them out on vellum, then threw those tracings on the overhead projector and mixed them with transparencies of some of my favorite black and white photos and my technical drawings and blue prints. The style really comes from a compilation of my love of OP art from artists such as Bridgett Riley, my love of the “Mod” aesthetics and what I was being exposed to for Taiwanese inking. I wanted the art and design to really stand out, to have a distinctive feeling to it. In the story line, Hypnozine is a mind-altering psychedelic, but in reality it is this consuming hybrid piece of media that really does try to possess and overwhelm the reader.
Q: How do you and your writing and creative team work together in different states and how long has it taken to put these issues together?
The entire story arc takes place over 32 issues, each issue consisting of 11 images/ text pieces. The first series is completely done and all the outlining for all the remaining issues has been completed. When Jason and I started working on Hypnozine, we knew we wanted to have something well plotted. The books move fast and when the first series concludes, we get into it quick.
Jason and I have spent hundreds of hours on speaker phone. In the final steps of creating the images, I use the computer. At this point, email takes over as we work back and forth on the text and final image; probably about four times before we are finished. When the page is done, we put it online and add mixed media elements to it. For example, Jason starts working on the audio track, narrates the series and mixes music into it. It really is an indepth process, I love it.
Q: You and your partners are also working on several other concurrent projects, all of which flow around the written-illustrated graphic novels/comix. As Jason says you are a "story-telling factory." What is it about working with visionary artists and writers that is so fulfilling to you?
Nothing is ever wasted, I love the line we float between art and media, conveniently using the rules of either to help achieve our goals. It is truly satisfying to be in a group of creators who are just hungry for each other’s work.
Q: Are you ever tempted to move away from Maine to be amongst more of these creative circles? What makes you stay and how do you still stay relevant?
I went to school in Boston, worked in L.A., and lived overseas. This is the only place where things feel real. I want to be here, and there were some definite decisions made to stay and settle here. I much rather work on changing Maine, to try to get more media made here, than leave.
Q: Hypnozine’s illustrations also function as art installations, which you’ve shown in galleries independent of the writing. How do people respond to this on its own?
Different crowds give different things back. People at comic book conventions are curious about the way the images relate to the narrative and want to get in to the story. People in a gallery setting want to know more about the process and how the posters are made. My favorite comparison I have heard so far that Hypnozine was Alice in Wonderland meets the 1960s British television series, The Prisoner.
Q: How can the public get their hands on this magazine? Is it going to be printed or electronically produced?
We have done several small independent printings of the first and second books that have done well. We have the books in a couple bookstores on the West Coast, and I would like to get in some here in Maine. In addition to the paper comics, we have presented Hypnozine as a gallery poster show as well as PDF slide shows. The images have been hung along nature trails, used to decorate club spaces and even used as political illustrations. In addition, I have been approached to reproduce the images for music festivals and was asked recently to consider reformatting some of the patterning into textiles. We try and use every bit of what we have, but we are really looking for an outlet for a larger release. We have definitely gotten to a point where we have grown beyond an indie comic, and are really interested in taking that next step.
For more information visit hypnokomix.com/projects/hypnozine
The Killer Convo
This blog is a is a killer roundup of all arts, entertainment, brewery & distillery, food trucks, happy hour happenings in the Midcoast Maine. Feel free to email me anything about Midcoast arts, entertainment & the creative economy.