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Maine Farmland Trust artist residency program promotes agriculture through visual arts

Rolling Acres Farm in Jefferson now serves as Maine Farmland Trust’s Joseph A. Fiore Art Center, where four artists each spent a month last summer completing an art residency.

By Lauren Abbate, BDN Staff

Posted Feb. 14, 2017

With a rich farming history, 130 acres of rolling fields and forest, a renovated farmhouse, and a stellar location on Damariscotta Lake in Jefferson, Rolling Acres Farm is just the type of land Maine Farmland Trust made its mission to save.

Maine Farmland Trust (MFT) sought to purchase the farm several years ago with the intent of putting a conservation easement on the land and selling it to a farmer at a lower price.

But during the buying process, the grant that would have allowed MFT to lower the selling price fell through, meaning they would not be able to sell it to a farmer for an affordable price.

“I fell in love with the place,” Anna Abaldo, curator of the MFT’s Belfast gallery, said. “We didn’t want to sell out by selling to a developer.”

Instead of putting the farm back on the market at a high selling price, MFT and the Falcon Foundation, of Damariscotta, teamed up to devise another way Rolling Acres Farm could embody the ideals of conserving farmland and promote Maine’s agrarian heritage: through art.

In the hands of MFT, Rolling Acres Farm was reborn as the Joseph A. Fiore Art Center in 2015. The farm now serves as the home for MFT’s artist residency program, which hosts selected artists during the summer with the goal of having them create artwork that captures farm’s landscape.

The Falcon Foundation is the trustee of Jefferson artist Joseph A. Fiore’s work and has contributed the funding for the artist residencies, as well as pieces of Fiore’s art that are on display at the center. Albado and Falcon Foundation director David Dewey serve as co-directors of the Joseph A. Fiore Art Center.

“The whole idea is to connect the creative worlds of art and farming,” Abaldo said. “Farmers are makers, and artists are makers, and they seem to have a lot of shared passion for our rural environments and heritage here in Maine.”

This past summer the center hosted its first round of artists, including Susan Smith, of Dover-Foxcroft; J. Thomas R. Higgins, of Readfield; Robert Pollien, of Mount Desert Island; and Therese L. Provenzano, of Wallagrass.

The work each artist created during their month spent at Rolling Acres Farm is on display at the Maine Farmland Trust Gallery in Belfast. The exhibition, In Dialogue with Nature, will run until March 24. An artist reception is planned for March 17.

Higgins, a landscape painter, felt at home at the environment provided by Rolling Acres Farm. Growing up in rural Pennsylvania before embarking on a career as an art professor, Higgins said the integration of agricultural scenery into his artwork is an act of promoting the preservation of such landscapes.

“For me it’s a matter mostly of preservation,” Higgins said. “I would like to think that in response to such subject matter, that people would further appreciate the aesthetic of the land.”

For Smith, the opportunity to take part in the MFT residency program aligned perfectly with her mission as an artist to create pieces of art that convey a social message or issue important to her, as preserving Maine’s agricultural landscape is.

“I think that so many times, we think of art being a separate entity, and there are so many ways whether it be science or farming, that art gives an opportunity for people to be exposed to, or enter into, some kind of issue,” Smith said. “[Art] is an entry point that can really be more universal and subtle.”

Smith said her artwork is site specific, meaning that she lets the environment she works in direct her creative process. Knowing that MFT’s mission is to reclaim farmland, leading up to her residency in August, Smith collected dirt samples from empty farms she passed in her travels. However, she had no idea how she would incorporate the soil into her art during the residency.

Until the farm inspired her.

The soil took shape in Smith’s artwork in a variety of ways. She incorporated it with paint, and used it as one of her mediums. Then she mixed some of the samples into an old garden bed in front of the farmhouse’s kitchen window. Most striking was her placement of the samples in muslin bowls she had formed and dyed with rusty bolts found in the farm’s barn.

“As far as my art, [it] is not about pretty picture it’s really about the political or social issues,” Smith said. “To be able to incorporate art with dirt and farming was a really great opportunity for me.”

Pollien, who like Higgins is a landscape painter, appreciated the untouched agricultural scenery offered by the farm. He likened an artist’s careful observation of land to how a farmer views the same landscape.

“For myself, as an artist who is interested in the land over a long time frame, in a long observation, I don’t paint any man made structures,” Pollien said. “In that way [art] is a lot like farming in that you have to look long and deep and appreciate what it brings to you.”

Fifteen years ago, Provenzano moved from Manhattan to her family’s homestead along the Canadian border in Wallagrass, and since has been inspired by Maine’s landscapes and farms. The opportunity to spend an entire month submersed in a new farmscape excited her.

“Repeated familiarity of my own homestead can somewhat put blinders on. A farm environment at Rolling Acres provided a welcomed continuum for my work,” Provenzano wrote in an email message.

The time spent at the farm also surprised Provenzano, as she went into the the residency thinking she would incorporate her own collection of sycthes into her artwork, but discovered that digesting the authentic landscape at Rolling Acres Farm took precedence over her initial idea.

MFT intends to bring the farm back to a working status to promote greater cross fertilization of art and farming. The second round of artist residencies will be held this summer, with March 1 marking the application deadline. Paired with the artist residency, will be an opening for a resident gardener, to begin working the land, growing a selection of vegetables and poultry. A writing residency at the farm will also be offered, as MFT is seeking a writer who can chronicle the history of the farm.

After a successful first round of resident artists, Albado is hopeful that the Joseph A. Fiore Art Center will serve as an added voice in helping promote agricultural connections.

“The artists that come here are influenced by the visual beauty of the land,” Abaldo said. “The farming itself needs those voices to speak out and bring people in. There’s a deep agrarian connection that needs to be nourished.”

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