BERWICK — Erin Duquette was on the scene before most firefighters arrived.
It was before midnight on a cold November night. Flames were shooting 30 feet from the second floor of the house. A young couple stood in the road in the their pajamas. The woman was screaming. Their dog, which had awakened the couple, was still inside. So, too, might have been a roommate.
Duquette, who lives just a few houses down on Old Pine Hill Road in Berwick, watched in numb horror. Her fiance is a volunteer firefighter, and she has always felt awe “for this man who runs toward things that most of us instinctively run away from.” Duquette, 43, stayed on the scene most of the night, serving no purpose other than being there in case she was needed.
Two hours into the blaze, a mayday went out. One of the firefighters had fallen from the second floor. It was not Duquette’s fiance, and the firefighter wasn’t badly injured. But it shook Duquette enough that the next day she put her painting career on hold.
“Art seemed futile,” she said, “a sad attempt to contribute to society or community. It suddenly seemed like such a selfish endeavor and that I should rethink everything I do.”
As she tells this story, Duquette stands alongside one of her recent paintings: Four waist-high barn boards, each hung vertically, independently of the others, side to side. She repurposed the boards with greenish-gray paint and distressed the edges for character. On each, she painted a skeletal human figure in drippy, black paint. The untitled wall hanging, which watches over her family’s dinner table, evokes motherhood, strength and home. Those characteristics define Duquette’s life and work, and their shadows flickered in the flames the night of the fire.
Despite her initial instincts, Duquette did not give up painting after she watched her neighbors’ house burn to the ground and claim the life of their pet. Instead, she used the experience to reflect about why she paints and what she does.
That means many things in her studio practice: daily discipline, commitment to new ideas and experiments with technique – as with the barn boards, which were re-used out of necessity. “You run out of supplies and money, you use whatever you’ve got,” she said. For Duquette, being a better artist also means being a better neighbor and becoming more engaged in her community and active in her town.
Since the night of her self-doubt, Duquette has realized a deeper purpose with her work. She views herself as a storyteller whose obligation is sharing her experiences. Whether it’s the tragedy of a neighbor’s house fire or something more minute and private, art heals, she said. Being an artist, observer and commentator “is an important contribution for a society when picking up pieces of a tragedy. We need to be reminded of life’s beauty when something ugly like this happens,” she said.
Duquette writes a regular arts blog, participates in the local art association and advocates for the arts in Berwick. She is part of what she calls Maine’s rural avant-garde: people who are driven by creative spirit, who live outside the cities and share a desire to shape their communities in Maine’s evolving post-industrial economy, where art and community-oriented agriculture mix as easily as leather, shoes and sawmills once did.
Central to many of her paintings is the human figure, and a common theme is human touch. There’s contact and connections between people in Duquette’s paintings: a mother nurturing her daughter, tangled lovers, congregants bowed in prayer.
She paints with soft colors and dramatic, extended brush strokes. Her canvases feel sculpted, and suggest both movement and sweeping winds of change. One of her recent works, “The Three,” shows three figures huddled in robes, their faces obscured in white. Behind them, sloping hills are ablaze in rust, orange and yellow. It could be a painting of the fall season, or it could be a family huddled in sorrow with the glow of a house fire reflecting on the hills behind them.
“I think she is one of the most authentic Maine artists,” friend Nancy Kureth said. “She is passionate about creativity, and she is very driven. Nothing stops her. She never has an excuse for why she is not creative.”
YORK COUNTY ROLE MODEL
Duquette cites Kureth as a model in art and life. Kureth, an artist, opened a coffee shop in downtown Biddeford long before Biddeford began its revival. She hung art on the walls, and through her actions became “the force that motivated people to do something,” Duquette said.
That’s leadership, Duquette said, and something she strives to do more of with her art and art-related activities in Berwick. Duquette helped launch the Berwick Art Association, which organizes art shows across the region, and is active in the community’s largest co-op, the Blackbird Studio & Gallery in North Berwick. As Berwick debates what to do with its downtown eyesore and environmental hazard, the closed Prime Tanning plant, Duquette is involved in the conversation to re-imagine and reshape the town center, ensuring that art is part of the discussion.
Her involvement is not token. Next to a painting in progress in her home studio is pinned a rough architectural drawing of a building for Berwick’s new downtown. One of the development ideas calls for canoe rentals on the river, and Duquette offered her design vision an existing building to accommodate that idea.
She began the blog MODspoke as a way to connect with other artists about process. She’s interested in art-making practices, and posts videos, photos and stories. She writes about artists in southern Maine. On a good week, 1,000 people read her blog, which has become a consistent outlet for her expression. This winter, when the owner of a prominent Portland art gallery wrote a letter to the newspaper that cited his upbringing digging potatoes in northern Maine, Duquette issued a call on MODspoke asking artists to make art using a potato. “Artist Not a Potato” generated 28 submissions – a modest but respectable number for a spontaneous, light-hearted contest.
She would love to open a bricks-and-mortar gallery, and sees one in Berwick’s near future. But short of cash and a feasible business plan, Duquette’s next-best option for sharing information about artists she likes is MODspoke.
She translates the name to mean “modern speak,” with the word “spoke” also conjuring Duchamp’s spoked wheel and the idea of disseminating information through networking.
Art is part of her lineage and has always been a part of her expression and salvation.
Her father made his living working a factory shift, but made time for art on the side. When Duquette faltered in school, she aligned herself with artists and poets to help her find her way. She has always worked, and taken jobs in fields related to art. She currently works from home as a designer.
Duquette grew up in Monson, Massachusetts, near Springfield. She’s been in Berwick 15 years.
“For a long time, I thought I was the only artist in town,” she said.
Lately, she’s learned she is not alone.