Eleanor Kipping used to joke that she was an “accidental Mainer,” the product of parents originally from elsewhere. Her only bones in Maine, she said, were those of her father, who died when Kipping was 6 and is buried in Alton, the small Penobscot County town where Kipping grew up. She is 30 now, living in Queens, New York, and engaged in an art practice that concerns the black experience as “the other” in America.

She learned about being an outsider as a person of color growing up in Alton, the site of her self-portrait photograph in the new exhibition “The Way Life Is – Maine Working Families and Communities” at the Portland Media Center, presented by the Union of Maine Visual Artists and curated by member and artist John Ripton. Bowdoin College art librarian Anne Haas served as a juror, with Ripton in selecting work.

The exhibition, opening Friday and on view through Feb. 22, features the work of 38 artists from across the state and across media. They look at the reality of Maine workers, families and communities with paintings, sculpture, installations, prints and photographs, offering commentary on the challenges of living in Vacationland. Their work examines issues of racism, displacement, gentrification and the tenuous blend of traditional and emerging economies in urban and rural Maine.

Kipping’s photograph, which she titled “I Hate It Here,” intersects the themes of economy, family and community. Woven into this story of poverty and labor, she writes in her artist statement, “are the complex and often unchallenged traditions of sexism and racism that inform the experiences of Maine’s invisible population of color.”

She is a “third-culture” kid, which refers to people raised in a culture other than their parents’. Her father was black and her mother white, and growing up “stuck in between” in rural Maine created a sense of extreme alienation and isolation, she said. “I Hate It Here” explores the contempt and frustration that Kipping felt as a black woman raised in Maine and her attempt to reconcile what it means to call home a place where she never felt at home. As much as she loves Maine, she also understands it as a source of pain, discomfort and isolation. Kipping said her experiences were directly informed by class, gender and race, all of which are at play in “The Way Life Is.”

In her self-portrait, she sits behind a large mirror, her body hidden by the mirror but for her arms and legs. The mirror reflects the trees of the 21-acre rural estate where she grew up. She asks the viewer to look in the mirror and think about the Maine that’s reflected back.

Kipping received her master’s degree from the University of Maine last year and attended the Skowhegan School of Painting and Sculpture. She also is showing in the Center for Maine Contemporary Art Biennial. Ripton saw her installation in Rockland and invited her to submit work for “The Way Life Is.” Her piece at CMCA was composed of scores of hair picks highlighted with stains of gold paint, each comb hanging from filaments of varying lengths with a white outdoor rocking chair in their midst, the kind of Adirondack-like chairs one sees on patios and lawns of affluent homes. “It seemed to reference gender, African women, and I felt it also referred to slavery and the Middle Passage with the combs seeming to float in space as if in water,” Ripton said.

Her piece in the Portland show explores the lives of non-European Americans, especially people of African descent, in Maine. “Our state has one of the lowest percentages of non-white population of any state in the U.S., and I am personally familiar with prejudice against people of African descent in Maine. I can’t imagine what it would have been like to grow up poor and of African descent in my hometown in central Maine,” Ripton said.

Broadly, the exhibition is meant to call attention to Maine’s working people through the issues of living wages, affordable and adequate housing, education and training.

TRUE GRIT

There are a lot of photographs in the show, among them “Worm Digger” by the late Maine photographer Tony King. Ripton called King’s black-and-white photograph of a worm digger on the mud flats “one of the most dramatic works in the exhibit” because of its rawness and immediacy. Photographer Dave Wade has three black-and-white images, all related to Portland’s working waterfront. In one, two older fishermen sit with a deer hanging from the rafters in a small shack. One fisherman is trimming the hair of the other.

Curator John Ripton called Tony King’s “Worm Digger” “one of the most dramatic works in the exhibit.”

The photograph, taken on the Portland waterfront many years ago, embodies the make-do nature of working people, Wade said. There’s no pretension, no airs. “They don’t think anything about sitting on a lobster trap getting a haircut while a deer cures from the ceiling,” Wade said.

Wade hopes viewers see dignity in his photographs. He made them out of respect of the strength and dignity of his subjects, he said.

For him, the idea of “The Way Life Is” means hard-working people making do. “They do their thing, and they are proud of it. They don’t make any excuses,” he said. “They might have to do certain things to get by, and that’s the way it is.”

BRUSH WITH UNDERGROUND

From Samantha Jones’s installation “Tipping,” focusing on the wreath-making industry of rural Maine and the brush-gathering required to sustain it.

Samantha Jones, an assistant professor of art at the University of Maine-Orono, is showing work that embodies the tradition of getting by in rural Maine. She created three bundles of balsam firm tips, arranged in totems and titled “Tipping.” Her installation references the wreath-making industry of rural Maine and the brush-gathering required to sustain it. Tipping is the name of the seasonal practice of gathering brush, which often involves undocumented cash transactions among wreath-makers and gatherers, whose work in the woods provides part of the patchwork of their annual income. She called the practice of tipping “a seemingly superfluous endeavor that could make or break a family’s survival.”

As Maine becomes more developed, access to good brush becomes restricted, tempting gatherers to trespass onto private land to do their work illegally.

Jones grew up in Blue Hill and lives on a farm deep in the woods there still. She is a university professor now who spent the early part of her working life in seasonal employment. She honors the underground brush-gathering industry by recreating an artistic version of brush-tip bundles. Using a traditional technique from the woods, she displays her fir bundles on a totem-like sapling pole, with the branches removed by an ax but for a few at the bottom to serve as a gathering bowl. In practice, the pole is sharpened at the top like a spear and stands about 4 feet tall. Gatherers place their bundles of brush on the spear and haul them out of the woods.

For this exhibition, her pole is closer to 6 feet tall, and she decorates her bundles with survey tape to suggest the tension that exists between private landowners and Maine’s underground brush-gatherers. “These will be very foreign objects to most people, and that speaks to how under-the-table this stuff is,” she said.

TOWNS IN DECLINE

Susan Smith, an activist artist who focuses her work on issues of dispossession and displacement, is showing a series of prints from her “This Is Piscataquis County” series. She has been sharing photographs from the series on social media for many years, and recently made cyanotype prints based on her photographs.

From ‘This is Piscataquis County,” Susan Smith’s series of cyanotype prints responding to issues of dispossession and displacement in rural Maine.

Smith, assistant director and member of the graduate faculty in the inter-media MFA program at the University of Maine and coordinator of the Lord Hall Gallery on the Orono campus, lives in Dover-Foxcroft and has watched her community nearly disappear in the decade that she and her husband have lived there, because of displacement.

As she witnessed her neighborhood “basically become vacated,” she shifted the focus of her art practice from being object-oriented to “how can I create work that can become a catalyst for conversation?”

Toward that end, she maintains a near-daily practice of capturing photographic images of vacant homes from across Piscataquis County, the least populated of Maine’s counties and one suffering from depopulation and decline. People leave for many reasons – incarceration, job loss, addiction and the simple need to find a sustaining life.

“Anybody with resources has moved,” she said. “We’re just left with those who have no resources to leave.”

Her work as an activist artist varies wildly. Her guerrilla gardening group of artists plants flowers in the garden beds of abandoned homes in Dover-Foxcroft. She has arranged community dinners on place settings left behind by those who have fled. When Smith was artist-in-residence at Maine Farmland Trust, she collected soil from 100 abandoned farms in Maine.

Sometimes, just the act of staying feels radical, she said.

In a few weeks, Smith, a native of Texas who moved to Maine from Austin, is headed to the Texas-Mexico border for a series of performance-art projects related to border issues and immigration and is bringing some UMaine students with her. She sees parallels between the motivations that are forcing people out of rural Maine and the motivations forcing Central and South Americans north toward the United States: a better life, hope.

“These are all stories of migration,” she said. “If you step far enough back away, the circumstances that we are seeing on the border are some of the same things that we are seeing here in Maine. In the bigger picture, there so many common threads. This is the local aspect of what is much more a global issue.”

For “The Way Life Is,” Smith is showing the cyanotype prints from her “Piscataquis County” project. The soft-blue cyanotoype medium seemed best to convey loss and the ghosts of what was, she said.

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

[email protected]

Twitter: pphbkeyes