ROCKLAND — It gets late early this time of year in Rockland. Dusk begins settling in mid-afternoon, and by the time people head home from work at the end of the day, the sky drains to dark.

But this year, Main Street is aglow, thanks to the installation in the front windows of the Farnsworth Art Museum. Wanting to bring light to downtown during the darkest days of December, the museum commissioned artist Annie Bailey to create a site-specific art installation for the window display as part of the museum’s annual Share the Wonder seasonal celebration. In collaboration with artist and maker Andrew White, Bailey created a 60-foot moving panorama that illustrates a three-minute story of local heroine Abbie Burgess on a continuous scroll of tightly woven cotton sailcloth. The scroll is 42 inches tall, and about 25 feet of the story is displayed at a time, looping between two mechanical spools.

Bailey, the daughter of a ship captain who studied illustration at Rhode Island School of Design, tells the story using mostly India ink and black acrylic paint. Lit from below and behind until 9 p.m. nightly, the panorama, known as a crankie, glows long past dark, drawing crowds to the windows just as in the days of old when the same building was home to a J.J. Newberry department store that glowed bright during the holidays.

The piece, “Abbie Burgess, Lighthouse Heroine,” begins scrolling every day at 10 a.m. and will remain on view through Jan. 15.

The project represents the convergence of an old-school form of entertainment with the modern maker’s movement, and comes at a time when people young and old increasingly are balancing their reliance on technology with a desire to unplug and return to analog days. Bailey’s crankie is not entirely old-school. Back in the day, the scrolls were cranked by hand. Bailey’s is motorized, powered by an adapted motor from a treadmill.

There’s also a little bit of feminine heroism at play. The widely known local history story of Abbie Burgess gets a timely retelling during this moment of female empowerment. Burgess was a 16-year-old woman who tended to the Matinicus Rock Light with her father, when in January 1856 the family found itself desperately low on supplies. Abbie’s father set off for the mainland in his dory in search of food, medicine and whale oil, leaving the lighthouse to Abbie, who also had to tend to her unwell mother and siblings. Severe weather delayed her father’s return for four weeks.

The final image of Abbie Burgess on the ‘crankie’ made by artist Annie Bailey in a window display at the Farnsworth Museum in Rockland on Friday, December 7, 2018.

She kept the light burning, and even rescued the chickens when their coop was swept up in the waves.

She married a captain’s son and remained on Matinicus as an assistant keeper for 14 years, and later she and her husband became keepers at Whitehead Light off St. George.

Bailey, who lives in Tenants Harbor, has loved this story for a long time, and believes in keeping local history and folklore alive through art.

“This specific story feels appropriate right now, too, because of its themes of integrity, determination, self-reliance and keeping steady amidst a storm,” she said. “It is a story about staying the course and an individual who maintains focus during a period of chaos, which resonated with me in a personal way as well as in a larger cultural context.”

The moving panorama gained popularity as a storytelling device during Burgess’ lifetime, so it felt like a historically appropriate way to illustrate her story, she said.

Artist Annie Bailey at work on her crankie.

As a form of entertainment, the moving panorama first appeared in the late 18th century and became popular in America in the mid-1800s, when citizens gathered in public spaces to watch giant painted scrolls unwind spool-to-spool behind a proscenium. They told epic stories of conquest and greatness, often with the accompaniment of a narrator or musician. They had a brief run of popularity and were made obsolete by one technological advance after another.

They’re becoming popular again, on a much smaller physical scale, thanks in part to the folk duo Anna + Elizabeth, who began making crankies in 2010 and incorporating them into their performances. In November, they performed with crankies at Carnegie Hall. “My god, can you imagine? Crankies at Carnegie Hall,” said Sue Truman of Seattle, a leading proponent of crankies and a national expert on their history and resurgence. In addition to making and performing crankies, she operates the Crankie Factory, an online museum of sorts that includes a history of moving panoramas and examples of their modern revival.

What’s happening in Rockland is part of a growing national movement that Truman has been chronicling since 2011.

There are crankie festivals – the nearest is in Vermont – and museums are raising money to restore old and almost forgotten scrolls, which often have been sitting in storage for decades.

In 2012, the Saco Museum capped a years-long project to restore and replicate an 800-foot scroll dating to 1851, and last year, the New Bedford Whaling Museum in Massachusetts finished the conservation of the 1848 “Grand Panorama of a Whaling Voyage ‘Round the World,” which, at 1,275 feet, may be the world’s largest painting.

Truman attributes the revival of the art form to its organic nature and the resurgent interest in all things artisan and authentic. “Kids who grew up with screens are enthralled to see something hand-cranked,” she said. “It really holds their attention. I think this goes along with the return-to-analog trend that we’ve been seeing in so many other parts of our culture.”

The ‘crankie,’ a painted scroll that tells a narrative story with images as it unwinds, made by artist Annie Bailey in a window display at the Farnsworth Museum in Rockland on Friday, December 7, 2018.

‘VERY SOPHISTICATED’

Truman considers Bailey, 33, a leading player in the national crankie resurgence. “I hold her in high regard. She’s one of the best of the litter of the revivalists. She’s a real artist, and she has a historical interest in bringing out these old stories, which go along so well with this art form,” she said. “Her work speaks for itself. She is very sophisticated.”

This is Bailey’s second and most ambitious crankie in scale and exposure. She made her first in 2016, a smaller crankie for the Farnsworth’s “Art of Disaster” exhibition, which told the story of the wreck of the Royal Tar, a paddle-wheeled steamer carrying circus animals that wrecked off Vinalhaven while underway from New Brunswick.

For the crankie in the window at the Farnsworth, Bailey had to overcome many stops and starts, and each step involved a series of experiments.

Along the way, she recruited a team of Rockland-area artists, makers and problem-solvers associated with the co-working spaces the Steel House in Rockland and Midcoast Collaborative in Thomaston.

The collaboration among friends and artists calls attention to Rockland’s looming presence as a place for creativity, said White, Bailey’s primary partner on the project.

“We’re a tight group up here. We’re small but powerful,” he said. “We have this great collection of willing and capable people in the area who are happy to pitch in and bring whatever their expertise to it. We have a great mix of boatbuilders, sculptors and engineers, and we all work together really well.”

This project required teamwork, and it took off when White got involved. A sculptor, he’s the guy other artists and entrepreneurs go to when they take on new challenges and need help. Bailey had worked with White a few years ago and knew he could provide the know-how the project required to turn it from a great idea into a working wonder.

Annie Bailey at her studio in Rockland.

White fleshed out an early concept design by a local engineer, Lee Zamir, who landed on an idea that involved two rollers for the fabric to loop around, clips to keep the fabric in place and a motor to make the scroll advance. White built a series of prototypes out of wood to scale up the design and began researching conveyor-belt technology to figure out how to advance the scroll around the spools. He looked at a lot of precedents, but in the old days, scrolls were hand-cranked and scrolled from one end to the other just once per performance.

A continuously operating scroll that maintained the integrity of the fabric proved vexing. Gravity being what it is, the scroll “wanted to walk off the rail,” White said. “The length was always going to be biggest challenge and the biggest question that we didn’t resolve until the end.”

He recruited his own team of helpers that included Daniel Creisher, Danny Engel and Paul Cartwright, each with a different specialty. Creisher is a boatbuilder, Engel does electrical engineering work in the yacht industry, and one of Cartwright’s areas of brilliance is bicycles. Engel salvaged an electrical motor from an old treadmill, but it ran too quickly for the mechanism that White and Creisher constructed to hold the scroll.

Cartwright came over with a box of gears and chains, and together they figured out how to reduce the speed of the electrical motor by gearing it down. They fashioned a bolt rope, borrowing a sail-making technique, to keep the fabric in place and on track as it advanced between the spools. In the final design, they left the gear and chains exposed, to show people how it works.

A practice drawing that Annie Bailey worked on before creating her “crankie” about Abbie Burgess seen at her studio on Friday, December 7, 2018.

“I wanted to keep the mechanical bits honest,” White said. “There’s a very humble feel to them.”

Dayle Ward, a traditional sail-maker and co-owner of Traditional Rigging Co. in Appleton, stitched the two prototypes and the final loop of fabric.

Friends of Bailey’s posed as models for photographic references of Abbie and Samuel Burgess.

Sailcloth as rolling canvas

Bailey illustrated the story on a 60-foot continuous piece of lightweight, tightly woven sailcloth, sewn into a long loop. She started with a controlled approach, painting scene by scene in sequence and stretching each individual section as she worked.

“But as I got to know the fabric and the materials better, I became more flexible and the process became more organic,” she said.

The scroll begins by locating Matinicus Rock Light on a map. We see Abbie and her father in the lighthouse tower lighting a lamp. In Bailey’s interpretation, the circle of the lamp becomes a suggestion of moons setting behind the island, representing the passage of time as the family waits for a supply boat.

Bailey with the first crankie she ever worked on, “The Account of the Royal Tar,” which is about a circus ship that caught fire in Penobscot Bay.

As Abbie’s father rows away in quest of supplies and the family waves goodbye, the sea and sky build. Waves crash over the rocks, and Abbie hurries to close the shutters and move her family inside the lighthouse tower and tends to her ailing mother. In a following scene, Abbie gathers the chickens into the tower.

Bailey repeats images of the lighthouse lamp and moons to suggest the passage of time before Samuel Burgess returns with a dory full of supplies. The final image is of Abbie as an older person, lighting a lamp.

Over the course of the scroll, Bailey returns to an image of a hand lighting a lamp, representing Abbie’s consistency and work ethic, an appropriate metaphor for this project and for the creative energy of the community it represents.

Bob Keyes can be contacted at 791-6457 or at:

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Twitter: pphbkeyes