Maine Makers Spotlight: M.J. Bronstein

Maine Makers Spotlight: M.J. Bronstein

One of our favorite children's books at the PMA Store is Photoplay!, a book of clever, photographic prompts that encourage creativity in kids. The book was designed by Belfast, Maine, artist M.J. Bronstein, who has been kind enough to appear at the PMA Store to help with activities and signings around the book's publication. Since then, the book has become a big seller around the world—and locally, like so many great art books and art-based activity books, it's available right here in the PMA Store. Purchase it here!

I recently reached out to her for a brief interview so that PMA visitors and members could get to know her a little bit better, and discover how Photoplay! came to be.

PMA: Can you tell us a little bit about your background?

Bronstein: I've been a full-time studio artist—photographer, painter, designer, educator—for nearly thirty years. I'm the author of three published books and the creator of a number of large-scale public works. From 2011-14, I was Art Educator and Education Coordinator at the Center for Maine Contemporary Art, where I helped establish the program, creating and facilitating dozens of workshops and designing collaborative community projects. I have a special interest in using prompts, as a teacher and in my own studio work. I’m an insatiable traveler, which has always been a source of inspiration for my work. When not out at sea, I live and work in a reconstructed barn with my family, in Belfast, Maine.

Where did the idea for the book come from?

The inspiration for the idea was years of fascination with children’s drawings, which led to two large-scale public commissions to create art incorporating children’s drawings into my photographs. At that time, I visited elementary school classrooms and presented my projects so kids could draw pictures for future projects. I also had drawing parties at my house for my young son and his friends. Watching so many kids draw, the idea for the first Fotoplay book began to evolve…

From there, how did you go about developing the concept?

Altogether, I spent five years creating the book, testing pages on kids, designing and redesigning, watching carefully to see what was most inspiring and exciting. In 2010, I received a “SmART” grant to be an artist-in-residence at a local preschool. I spent a year making art with kids. It was there that instead of using blank paper, I began giving kids pages printed with my photographs or fragments of my photographs, so they could draw directly on or around them. This led to a focus on creating photo-based pages that were irresistible “prompts.” What became clear to me was that photographic prompts (in comparison to the more common hand drawn “doodle” prompts) elicit especially focused creative responses. Perhaps because photographs are “real,” (a photograph of an animal represents a real, living thing), there’s instant empathy or connection.

In the spring of 2011, I created Fotoplay!, which was the-first-of-its-kind photo-based prompt book, which I self-published in March of 2012. I created all of the pages using my own archive of photographs from 25 years of photographing while traveling. My original Fotoplay book went on to a second printing in June of 2012, and sold out quickly thereafter. Then, I was contracted by Chronicle Books to create a new PhotoPlay book; I designed 108 new pages, and in the process of curating and composing my photographs, I honed my voice in the written prompts.

Can you share with us a few of your favorite responses?

There are so many excellent pages there that it’s hard to choose just one. So allow me to indulge myself. ;-)

I did a PhotoPlay workshop with some teens in a residential therapy center. This page below really took my breath away. I had seen how PhotoPlay could be used in classrooms, but this really showed the potential for PhotoPlay in a therapeutic setting.

What I really love is looking at a group of responses to the same page:

These pages below were actually created at the Portland Museum, at my book signing there last year:

These are beautiful. Thank you for your time!

Thank you thank you!

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September 10, 2015
Director of PMA Store

Sally is a Baltimore native and a holds a degree in design from Rhode Island School of Design. In addition to design, she has an extensive background in retail, having previously owned Eli Phant, a beloved Portland boutique. She lives in Portland with her husband and young son.