Collaborative arts project brings students, organic farmers and area schools together

AUGUSTA — The Collaborative Portrait Project: Farmers’ Edition opens Jan. 16 at the Danforth Gallery in Jewett Hall on Campus at the University of Maine at Augusta (UMA), with a reception and farmers market from 5 to 7 p.m. The event is free and open to the public. Refreshments will be served.

Photo: Photographic portrait, Allison McKeen READY FOR ARTWORK — Taryn and Ben from Sheepscot General at Uncas Farm in Whitefield with gridded matrix of panels for student artworks to be made.

Photo: Photographic portrait, Allison McKeen
READY FOR ARTWORK — Taryn and Ben from Sheepscot General at Uncas Farm in Whitefield with gridded matrix of panels for student artworks to be made.

On display will be 10 large-scale portraits of local organic farmers produced collaboratively by students from nine area high schools and one elementary school, the result of a community arts project led by UMA adjunct Art Professor Susan Bickford with support from the Harlow Gallery and the University of Maine at Augusta, funded in part by a grant from the Oak Grove School Foundation. Under Bickford’s leadership, 222 students, 10 teachers and 10 organic farms from central and midcoast Maine – Breman to Winthrop, Camden to Gardiner -  have directly participated in the project with project photography by Allison McKeen of Gardiner.

Those in attendance will have the opportunity to witness the magic of community-based art in practice as each portrait is assembled on site. The Collaborative Portrait Project: Farmers’ Edition will be on view from Jan. 16 to Feb. 21.

The Collaborative Portrait Project was directly inspired by Harlow Gallery’s CSA: Community Supporting Arts project from 2012, which matched 14 Maine artists with 13 area farms (Susan Bickford was one of those artists). The artists visited “their” farms regularly and created art inspired by their farmers’ lives, work, landscapes, challenges and ideals throughout the growing season. The project culminated in a series of eight art exhibits that took place in central and coastal Maine between Oct. 2012 and Feb. 2013. The purpose of the project was to promote local art and local food, and to educate the community about the value of the local farming economy. The Collaborative Portrait Project builds on and extends the connections, excitement and goodwill generated by CSA: Community Supporting Arts.

This past fall, students in 10 art classes throughout central Maine worked on group-created collaborative art portraits depicting some local heroes: local farmers growing healthy organic food for their communities. Each portrait started with a photograph of the subject by Gardiner photographer Allison McKeen, which was enlarged to four-foot by four-foot square and then divided into a grid of 36 eight-inch squares. Each square is given to an individual student to create their own artistic interpretation using various multimedia techniques. “When [the portrait] gets assembled up on the board, a magic happens. The individual pieces come together to form more than the sum of their parts,” said project leader Susan Bickford. “The project allows students to experience the transformative power of assembly and offers an opportunity to incorporate civic lessons into art techniques and vice versa.”

From the perspective of the University of Maine at Augusta, the project is part of an effort to maintain the value of local school art education and connect to the greater community outside of the classroom. “This project couldn’t come at a better time; high school art programs across the state are being cut from schools. Many students thrive in their art classes and when programs are cut, those students not only lose their creative outlet, but also a window into their future,” said Gregory Fahy, Dean of UMA College of Arts and Sciences. “Working in conjunction with UMA and exhibiting work at the Danforth is a way for students and teachers alike to show the state of Maine the value of arts education,” he added.