LEWISTON — Amy Stacey Curtis is concerned about tracking dirt into her exhibition space at the Bates Mill, what may seem like an odd worry in a place where, decades after people stopped making bedspreads and blankets, the air is still thick with an oily, musty smell that holds the memories of heavy machinery and human toil and, today, the scent of hops from a brewery nearby.
She asks visitors on a tour to stick to a path of shiny wood that wends its way through her exhibition, “Memory.” Her request is understandable: She spent most of the summer scrubbing the floors, walls and windows of this 30,000-square-foot space in preparation for the show.
“Memory” is the ninth and last of what Curtis calls her solo biennials. When this installation closes Oct. 28, Curtis will have designed, constructed and installed 81 audience-activated art pieces in nine mill spaces in eight Maine communities. She began the project in the Bates Mill in 2000 when she was 28, and ends it here at age 46, because it felt appropriate to end where it began.
“This is my opus,” she said. “It feels amazing to see it all the way through.”
“Memory” explores how and why we remember the things we do. As with all of her installations, Curtis demands that visitors participate in her work. These are not contemporary art pieces to ponder, but riddles to solve and games to play.
Each piece in the installation includes specific directions, and Curtis expects – insists – that people follow the directions. That involves interacting with the art: picking up a wooden block in one part of the exhibition and placing in another spot elsewhere in the mill; or sitting at a desk and writing a memory from a specific year in a journal that remains part of the exhibition.
The work isn’t complete until people participate, and it only exists during the run of the exhibition.
Curtis explores the balance of chaos, order and repetition. The element of human participation introduces chaos into a process that is predicated on order and repetition. All of those elements were at play when millworkers mass-produced blankets, shoes and paper. The mills operated with precision and order, and their success was based on the repetition of efficient practices. The human element introduced uncertainty.
“These things they did, they did them over and over for years and years,” Curtis said. “But each time they did it, they did it slightly differently. They were not robots, and their movements were never exactly the same,” she said.
Curtis sees her art as honoring the millworkers of Maine, and it begins with her decision to clean the exhibition space on her hands and knees.
HONORING THE WORKERS
Cleaning a mill means removing decades of dirt and grime from dozens of columns, washing windows, and sweeping and scrubbing endless tracts of wooden floors. The cleaning is part of her artistic process. It connects her with the workers who made their lives here. She is doing her own kind of mill work, repeating movements and processes – sweeping, scrubbing, wiping – over a space nearly the size of the floor of the Cross Insurance Arena.
It’s performance art that no one sees.
“It’s almost a sacred act,” she said. “I feel immense joy while I am doing it. It’s just like detailing a car – a really big car.”
She begins by cleaning physical objects out of the mill – “wood, metal, glass and dead things.” The metal, leftover machinery and or mill parts, she relocates elsewhere in the complex. They are part of the bones of this place, she said, and should not be removed. The dirt and the dead, she gathers. She reaches up as high as she can on the interior columns and brings down all the dirt and grime, which piles on the floor around her. She sweeps it into orderly columns, bags it and removes it.
Then she begins to scrub.
She began cleaning on June 1, and since July 5 has spent every day at the mill creating and installing the nine pieces in “Memory.”
“Memory” occupies a portion of the fourth floor of the Bates Mill complex on Canal Street. It’s kind of like a maze, except you can see where you are going.
All of Curtis’ previous biennials have explored specific themes, senses or experiences: movement, sound, light, matter. This one asks us to think about memory, and how, what and why we remember the things we do.
For the piece “Memoir,” Curtis built 99 white desks and chairs, each with a white pencil and a white 300-leaf book. The 99 books, each designated with a different year, span 99 years from 1918 to 2016. She wants each participant to write up to 9 memories in corresponding years’ books. She wants the memories to remain anonymous and undated, other than the year.
She hopes this piece continues beyond the life of this exhibition. Her goal is to install “Memoir” in different scales and configurations every one to three years. The installation will be complete, she said, when the books hold 29,700 memories or at the end of 2069, the year of her 99th birthday, whichever comes first.
For “Undoing II,” Curtis stenciled 49 memories on a white, 54-foot pedestal, with 4,410 letters. Each participant erases nine letters until all memories are undone. Another piece involves removing small, white cubes from a wall, memorizing a number revealed behind the cube, and then placing the cube in its corresponding slot on a similar wall elsewhere in the exhibition.
These aren’t tests, Curtis said. There is no right or wrong. There is order and there is chaos, and there is balance between them. Both are part of the human condition, which is the root of Curtis’ 18-year experiment.
During that time, Curtis has raised $150,000 to pay for her exhibitions. She earned about a third of that money from the sale of drawings that she makes related to the themes of each exhibition, and she’s received more than a dozen grants, including several from the Maine Arts Commission. It’s fitting, she noted, that her final installation occurs when the Maine Arts Commission hosts its Maine International Conference on the Arts Oct. 6-7 in Lewiston at Bates Mill and the Franco Cultural Center.
PAYING IT FORWARD
She is also making a 400-page catalog, “9 Solo Biennials,” that will document the project. If enough people contribute by purchasing an advance copy of the book, Curtis will use some of the money to create a grant program to support other Maine artists, which will be called the Forward Fund. The Biddeford arts organization Engine will administer the fund. If Curtis receives 1,500 donations by the end of 2016, $9,000 will go into the Forward Fund. If she receives 3,000 donations, $27,000 will support the fund.
She’s worked with hundreds of other artists over the years, employing some to help build, design and manufacture the pieces. Many others have volunteered. Her husband, Bill, is an engineer and has lent his expertise.
Generally, about 750 people visit each exhibition. “Light,” which she installed in Sanford in 2008, drew the most people, 902. This being the final year, she is hoping to top 1,000 visitors.
Sharon Corwin, director of the Colby College Museum of Art, said Curtis is unique among contemporary artists because of the amount of labor she puts into her work, as well as the commitment she requires of participants. This is not an exhibition that people breeze through. It takes time to complete it, and the more time that people spend with it, the more they get out of it, Corwin said.
“In today’s world, the time that people are willing to give to any experience is challenged by the lives we lead, the digital lives. Amy’s practice requires people to commit to it in a durational way,” Corwin said. “It’s not a video that you can look at and walk away from. It’s not a painting you can look at in a gallery and move on from. It’s a piece you have to experience.”
William Low, curator of the Bates College Museum of Art, is impressed and sometimes astounded by the effort Curtis makes to acquire a space, get all the necessary permits and insurance, and then transform “vast spaces to make them safe and presentable for her minimalist components. This may sound mundane, but it is the degree to which she takes this that amazes,” he said. “It is exhausting to think about.”
Corwin called Curtis a complicated and rigorous artist. “I think the obsessiveness of her art is her strength,” Corwin said, noting the 18-year duration of the project. “She’s played the long game in this. It’s extraordinary she’s at the end of it.”
Curtis, who lives in Lyman, said she is “excited, freaked out and sad” about the end of her solo biennial process. She is interested to see how her art will change and curious how her life will change. It takes all of 22 months to conceive, design and build each exhibition, so this process has been her primary concern for 18 years. When not planning pieces, she was building them. When not building, she was installing. “I have found a lot of comfort in that structure,” she said. “It has been my life for a long time.”
She admits to feeling scared with the uncertainty of the future, and she imagines that’s how the millworkers felt when they realized the mills were closing.
She wonders what the millworkers would think of her work, after all these years.
“I think they would respect it,” she said. “I try to work as efficiently as I can, just as they did. There were no wasted movements in their work, and I try to do the same thing in mine.”
Her voice drifts across the stale mill air as she considers the question again.
“What would they think? Maybe I’ll ask. I always feel like their energy is still here.”