Amy Stacey Curtis felt certain the rustling in the woods was big, hairy and mean.
It was pitch black, and she was making her way on foot slowly down Clarks Woods Road near her home in Lyman.
Horrified, she called her husband.
“There is a big something at the edge of the woods, and I’m so afraid it’s coming to get me,” she told him.
Her husband, Bill, assured her that the big hairy thing was more afraid of her than she was of it. Keep walking, he told her. And so she did.
The midnight adventures of Amy Stacey Curtis are chronicled in the latest “Circa” exhibition at the Portland Museum of Art. Titled “9 Walks,” the installation consists of nine videos, ranging in duration from just a few seconds to several hours, of walks that Curtis made near her current home in Lyman and her previous home in Gray.
The nine videos are part performance, part installation, and are on view in nooks and crannies all over the museum.
The videos illuminate a specific environment and one person’s place in that environment, and how both evolve over the passage of time measured in minutes, hours, days, weeks and the course of a year.
In her case, her world is Clarks Woods Road, a 41/2 mile stretch of asphalt that bends and dips. Curtis strapped a camera to her chest and moved with determined calculation, step by step, down the road.
“For me, these videos are about moving forward and thus forward progress. It’s not about where I’m going or what’s happening while I’m walking. It’s about me being present in the environment,” she said.
Curtis is known for the interactive installations she has made in Maine mills as part of a planned 18-year “solo biennial” project. She is in year 15 of that process, and has completed seven of nine installations. Her eighth will come a year from now at a mill to be determined, and the project will wrap up in three years.
The videos at the PMA are not part of her personal biennial process, but are related to it in that they explore the broad theme of finding order in a chaotic world through repetition. She embraces that theme as her artistic mission in all her work.
Jessica May, curator of contemporary and modern art at the PMA, praised Curtis for her attention to detail and rigid determination.
“She is extremely complete as an artist, and she thinks in totality about an artwork. She is not just an installation artist and not just a video artist. But she is working in a very holistic way as a complete artist,” May said.
DRAWING EVERY LITTLE THING
Separate from her videos but directly related to her next solo biennial, Curtis also is showing a series of drawings this month at June Fitzpatrick Gallery in Portland.
For “Drawing Matter,” Curtis made life-size renderings of 99 household objects: a fork, shot glass, measuring tape, flashlight, penny, crayon, etc.
The drawings, which she sells to raise money to pay for her biennial installations, represent the beginning of her attempt to draw all the physical matter in her house. That means every single thing, including herself, her husband and their many pets.
She calls her project “uber-ambitious,” which very likely is an understatement.
Between “Drawing Matter,” and “9 Walks,” people who appreciate contemporary art have a chance to experience the work of one of Maine’s most intelligent and beguiling artists.
Curtis makes thoughtful, engaging work that challenges people to consider how their everyday lives mesh with a larger world that feels fast and often out of control.
By taking a tiny-scope view of her own world, Curtis slows everything down and manages to create a sense of order and control.
“I used to worry so much about her,” said June Fitzpatrick, the Portland gallery owner who represents Curtis. “She was so intense, so obsessive, really. I used to think she was going to have a nervous breakdown. But she has loosened up internally. That’s not apparent to the eyeball, but it’s true.”
Part of that may simply be a matter of age. Curtis began her artist quest when she was 28.
She’s 43 now, and with her maturity comes a sense of confidence and understanding.
These days, she is looking toward wrapping up her biennial process, and wondering how her life will change when that process ends.
As with the PMA video installation, she has completed other museum shows in tandem with the biennial process, and hopes to find additional museum opportunities regionally and nationally. She also wants to publish a book about her work as a way to summarize what she has learned and how those lessons have influenced her.
As she looks back, she realizes how much her work reflects who she is as an artist and as a person.
With one exception, Curtis does not appear in the videos on view at the PMA. What viewers see is all that she encountered on her walks, presented with time-lapse technology.
May likes the videos because they create a sense of accompaniment.
Curtis has always involved viewers in her work, often asking them to complete a series of tasks to set in motion an action that results in the completion of her experimental work. With these videos, the viewer comes along for the ride.
Some walks are short, some last all day. Others last nine days.
Three of the videos in “9 Walks,” have been shown previously in her solo biennial project: “Forward II” from her 2004 mill installation, “Change”; “Forward V” from “Time” in 2010; and “Forward VI” from “Space” in 2012.
For “Forward II,” Curtis photographed each day of a leap year. Every 24 hours, she took one step forward on Mayall Road in Gray and made a new image, then put them together for her video.
For “Forward VI,” she also shot video each day of a leap year, moving forward 65 feet on Clarks Woods Road every 24 hours. Over the course of 366 days, that resulted in a walk of 41/2 miles.
For one of her longer walks, Curtis wanted to take a photograph for every minute of nine 24-hour periods. She stepped just less than two feet on the road every 60 seconds, shooting a photo a minute in one-hour blocks. She began at 6 a.m. Feb. 6, 2013, and ended that session at 6:59 a.m. The next day, she started at 7 a.m., and shot through 7:59 a.m. She finished at 5:50 a.m. Sept. 10. In all, she shot 12,960 photographs over 216 days.
The process forced her to tune in to everything around her, including the scary noises in the woods at the side of the road, and the coyotes more distant.
The police stopped her once. She explained the project to the officer, who must have thought, “Crazy artist.”
To prevent this from happening again, Curtis sent an information letter to the 70 homes along Clarks Woods Road, explaining, “If in the wee hours, you see a person at the end of your driveway wearing a headlamp, taking pictures with a flash (about once a minute), that will be me.”
Most people were cooperative, but not everybody, she said.
For her first nine-hour walk, Curtis walked slowly along the road, hoping to cover its length in nine hours. She hired flaggers and spotters, and ordered orange safety signs that said, “Stop Ahead – Artist at Work.”
Most drivers were polite, but many people buzzed her at high speeds or flipped her off.
Staff Writer Bob Keyes can be contacted at 791-6457 or: