You Can't Get There From Here: The 2015 Portland Museum of Art Biennial

Hear how they got there from here. Selected Biennial artists share the story of their work: where the piece began, how it evolved, and what you see in the gallery today.

Biennial curator Alison Ferris shares how this exhibition evolved.

"I’ve never curated an exhibition like this before, so it was really exciting. The shows I curate tend to have either a conceptual theme or I might be exploring a specific kind of medium like photography or fiber and this exhibition was much more open ended. Really the only… rule I had was that the artist needed to have a significant connection to Maine. This allowed me to consider all kinds of artists, all different ages, all different mediums, it was really just about looking hard at the artwork. Um. You can’t get there from here. It’s a saying about being lost… uhm, and it’s about being lost specifically in the geography of Maine, which is indeed… it is hard to get from point A to point B sometimes. Artwork is, in Maine, is often intrinsically linked to the landscape and what I liked was that this was sort of a little bit of a twist on that in that we’re still talking about the Maine landscape but we’re talking about how easy it is to get lost in it. Uhm, and I thought it was just an interesting metaphor for the artistic process because… it’s really important as artists to allow yourself, you know just let yourself get lost, in order to make the discoveries that you need to make for your art."

Anna Hepler shares the story of Reveille.

"Especially when you’re working on a large scale, there are always surprises. So, with this piece the way it existed in a drawing, oh that’s so easy. You can draw any form into the space but when it translates into the, uh, into a material and a surface, and having its own sort of tension and kinetic qualities, and… I just couldn’t have known any of that until I was in the space and putting it all together. It was funny because we… we hoisted it, you know, thinking we were going to replace each rope with a cable and as it was just hanging there and I was seeing the cleats on the wall with the rope coming down to it—which I love—it just, it all of a sudden felt finished, I guess.

Every piece has kind of a… almost like a restless presence that I feel I have no control over. Yeah, Reveille is another one of these creatures that, that both exists for me just as a pure form, but, in its becoming, has all of these other sensibilities in terms of calling it “reveille,” with a trumpet, or the idea of a wakeup call, or some crazy object that makes noise. And then with the ropes and the hoisting and this feeling of like, as a viewer, you can just imagine yourself going over and undoing a cleat and raising, hoisting the sculpture yourself. It’s… it is wonderful how these associations come and play upon the original form and complicate it."

Caroline Lathan-Stiefel shares the story of Lagan.

"You know, people bring me plastic. I also travel a lot and, in traveling, come up with all these different plastic bags and I always save them. And, so, the piece Lagan has plastic from all sorts of different places in it. Um, I mean some of them are just beautiful to me. And I like that some of them have graphic elements and words, parts of words, um, and when I look at them, they kind of remind me where I was when I got the bag. So, the title of the piece is Lagan, and “lagan” actually means goods that have been thrown into the ocean with a buoy attached to them so that they can be recovered at a later time. And, to me, it’s this idea of trash kind of being taken out and made almost into treasure later."

Emilie Stark-Menneg shares the story of When We Land.

"Alison had visited my studio which is…always kind of in this like—I don’t even know how to describe it—like this circus state of experimental play, with just sort of finding materials and often times, like, it’s like, like a combination of narrative and like, total impulse. And seeing like, “What will happen if I put spray foam in spandex?” kind of thing. And then the narrative, like, weaves back in and out.

For me, this whole piece was…I feel like, built off of the ocean. And I mean the raft was completely made from, like 90% of it was made from things that floated in on the tide. So it went through these like, crazy, different forms, from like paintings on panels to bringing the boat, which is in the video into the show which in my mind was like, a lot smaller than it actually is, and it would’ve taken up like an enormous amount of space. And then there was the issue of it like, smelling, because it’s been living in the ocean. So it’s being open to that kind of impulsive energy…and being surprised."

John Bisbee shares the story of Thicket.

"Yeah, I have been working with nails for 30 years and one would think that that would be a rather pathetic and diminishing pursuit, but it’s it’s quite the opposite. And so my motto is “only nails, always different.” This particular piece is called Thicket and it’s the first realistic piece I’ve ever made. It’s the first piece that’s um… actually evocative of a specific thing, in this case: the tendril-ed flower. It was a total accident, and… It was just what have I not done with my power hammer and so I just held the nail head at an angle that I’ve never held before and as soon as I thwacked it, it looked like a petal and I was like, “Oh my God, I’m about to make a flower.” And I so, I rarely set out to do anything. But I work all the time, and uhm, things tap me on the shoulder  and say, “It’s time to come here.” If I’m lucky."

Michael Kolster shares the story of Magalloway River as It leaves Aziscohos Dam, source of the Androscoggin River, ME.

"The process is, uh, one that harkens back to the very beginnings of photography, it’s the second process that was invented after the daguerreotype. The sensitivity of the materials is limited, it’s not, um, seeing all of the colors of the visible light spectrum and it primarily sees ultraviolet radiation. In other words: wavelengths of light that we can’t see. The exposures are actually fairly long, so the length of the exposures actually lends to a certain look to the pictures. And um… I don’t know how things that are moving that are moving, like a river, or things near it, might actually appear in the picture when I have to expose it for anywhere from ten seconds to, you know, a couple of minutes. And so I like the fact that it’s hard for me to predict or previsualize how things are going to work.

I also discovered over the course of using it that the forces that gave rise to the invention of photography are really similar forces that gave rise to industrialization and the alteration or the adulteration of these rivers. Um, the Androscoggin specifically was one of the ten most polluted rivers in the United States. In 1970, uh, a biologist that I talked with did a study of the water quality and he said that it was completely dead. And that was after, you know, 100 plus years of a lot of industrial activity along its banks. Most of the mills and a lot of the other industries along the river—and even the municipalities themselves—would allow waste to go in the river and it would be taken away.
So, what I was pleased about, as the images started to emerge, was this way in which the history and the story of these places started to become more referenced and more present in the pictures themselves."

Randy Regier shares the story of A Machine to Dispel Sadness, X1.

"The, the unbearably long title is The Machine to Dispel Sadness, X1. It’s a piece I made trying to get through having lost my father. He was… unabashedly would emote about any form of beauty he saw in the world. If he liked something, he’d just say it out loud. He’d get emotional about the color of a car. The piece has a narrative, which is that the ship is very, very fast. And you can see the streamline and all these propulsion attributes. And the whole role of the piece is to lift the spirits of the little blue man who’s in the aircraft. So how do you do that mechanically? Well, flight’s something that we think about as lift. The magic of flight, the wish to fly, the dream of flight. And then there’s aspects of the piece I could show you if we were looking at it, you know this character does this and this. And the airplane comes back over the sea and the ship slides up underneath it. And with any luck, our little blue man feels better. So, it’s… it’s also, on a deeper level, it’s a way to address depression without using pharmaceuticals. Like, could we do it with a Ferris wheel, you know? The US Space and Flight Agencies have always put an X in front of any aircraft or any rocket that’s an experimental piece. So, X means it’s experimental… which is to say that it may not work. And so the X allows for that factor that if someone says, well “I don’t think that’s completely plausible.” Well yeah, sometimes experiments don’t work out, sometimes they do… So I just call it the X1."

Theresa Secord shares the story of Trinket Basket.

"My work is probably the most traditional looking work in the group. So it’s more traditional weaves and shapes. And… I have some trinket boxes in the show and I also have a barrel shape in the show, but one of the works that I really appreciate is the Acorn basket and it’s unique to me, in that my great-grandmother’s tools and wooden forms were used, you know, for me to weave that piece. Like it’s interesting because, um, people will look at some of the contemporary weavers and you know, like Jeremy’s work, and he’s extraordinary anyway he’s an extraordinary artist and weaver and the symmetry is amazing. But also, he’s weaving on wooden forms that he has created. So he’s got these really exciting styles and shapes, but also, um, great, you know, symmetry and precision—whereas some of the forms that I’m weaving on were made, you know, as long ago as almost 200 years ago. So they don’t have that. Sometimes they, you know, they appear a little bit off, off center, and the reason being that that’s what I prefer. You know, it’s just I really like to kind of use those forms to as like, a touchstone back to my family, my great grandmother, my ancestors."