Topsham artist Ian Trask.

TOPSHAM — Local artist Ian Trask found his defining moment while working as a hospital groundskeeper, picking up trash in a parking lot, with an expensive biology degree from Bowdoin College and a desire to understand what it means to be an artist.
Trask is many things: a scientist, a sculptor, an installation artist, a purveyor of found objects, a collector of stories, and an observer of systems. With a scientific mind and an artistic spirit, Trask began dabbling in sculpture by bending forks and spoons into works of art during college.

Trask started to think differently about how he wanted to spend his time after accompanying John Bisbee, Bowdoin professor and local sculptor, to Bonnaroo Music & Arts Festival in Tennessee with 80 young artists, whose mission was to create interactive artwork in the field. This experience showed Trask hat it meant for an artist to be in his element as a professional, which added context to a profession that he had not yet considered for himself.

After college, Trask pursued different professional experiences using his background in biology and eventually found himself drawn to the idea of becoming ingrained in a vibrant arts community. While working as a groundskeeper to save up money for a fresh start in New York City, Trask began to use his scientific mind in a way that would launch his career as an artist.

Trask’s defining moment acted as a catalyst for his career as an artist in several distinct ways, one of which was merely practicality. Without having the resources and the network to dive into a career as a successful artist, Trask began to think in terms of feasibility: What kinds of free materials could he access to create art?

Trask’s artwork has since been driven using found objects and materials that occur within waste streams; he has chosen to focus on finding access to those waste streams, using that criteria as his creative spark.

“It forces you to be more creative because you’re always finding new materials. You’re never going to run out of inspiration because it’s literally all around you,” Trask said.

After growing frustrated with how recklessly people disposed of garbage, Trask began to explore the concept within a larger ecological context, considering how materials accumulate and how systems are developed.

“I started to think about the moment in which people decide something is no longer useful,” he said. “The goal, in some ways, is to make people see the things around them differently, think about that potential and change their mind about how they dispose of it, and, on a very small scale, give them an option to give it to me.”

He consistently finds ways to source through the community to encourage collaboration and values the role of individuals in the creative process. While preparing a proposal for an installation exhibit in New York City, Trask calculated that he would need five thousand plastic packages and quickly began involving the public with the use of collection bins at various art centers and schools. His strategy was successful, and he was able to collect enough materials before the deadline. By encouraging individual interaction in New York City and now in Brunswick, Trask manages to build community, one plastic package at a time.

Trask’s latest project brings individuals together in a way that illuminates the concept of storytelling while challenging the notion of nostalgia: Strange Histories: A Collaborative Art Book is a collection of short stories and collages and a collaboration about storytelling. An old storytelling medium has undergone a transformation through an art process to create a new surreal storytelling format.

The book is three years in the making with the help of one successful Kickstarter campaign ($16,000 raised) and is currently on its way to being published. There are 39 stories written by 29 people, primarily Trask’s colleagues, friends, and fellow artists, each of whom selected an image to write about. There were no guidelines for submissions; fictional short stories, autobiographical excerpts, poems, political rants, and funny fabrications are all included. This collaborative concept allows individuals to take this fusion of two images and create their own narrative, giving them the opportunity to interpret and expand upon their own impressions. Each slide has a history, which is interpreted based on the individual’s personal experiences.

“When you give someone the opportunity to write based on images of strangers, it opens the door to write about something more personal without seeming like it’s just about you. It breaks down that barrier,” he said.

Strange Histories began with the acquisition of an extensive collection of 35 mm slide photographs dating from the 1950s to the 1980s; the collection was donated by The Trachtenburg Family Slideshow, a musical group (a father, mother, and daughter) who wrote songs about and showed the slides during their performances in the early 2000s.

Trask has since accumulated 15,000 slides through donations; some slides depict life in faraway places with the Peace Corps and the military, while others show a 1970s snowmobile party in Maine’s North Woods with hundreds of people and tables full of hot dogs.

The project began with only one format: a slide viewer and two layered slides.The two layered slides are carefully selected to create the effect of a double exposure and are matched based on several factors, including the presence of negative space, content, context and timing

“It’s so much about serendipity, when I have so many slides already collected and the two happen to be in my mind at the same time,” he said. “Sometimes a pairing is just about composition, and sometimes it’s about context, and it makes me laugh. I know I found a good one if it makes me laugh.”

Trask enjoys the contradictory nature of Strange Histories, in the sense that a photograph is meant to be a brief glimpse of something real and accurate. Layering two unrelated images together, however, creates a different reality in which the threads that connect elements can be explored in a new cultural context. With this concept in mind, Trask began exploring new formats for Strange Histories that would allow individuals to create their own narratives.

Trask plans to continue his pursuit of the creative process by branching out in different directions. He said he may collaborate on small-scale exhibitions and participating in art shows and will continue to enjoy the healthy work-life balance that he and his wife have discovered here in Maine.

He hopes to explore new formats for Strange Histories, including metal prints, and is eager to develop ideas for future volumes of the book. Instead of developing themes for future volumes, Trask will focus on featuring works from diverse demographics, including children’s writing groups, foreign-born artists, and Maine writers.

“Allowing people to tell their stories in a unique way can be very powerful…It continues to unfold in new and interesting ways,” he said. “The book is a brand-new direction and really expands the collaborative aspect of it and the potential for it. I’m excited to see where it continues to go.”

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