Andy Curran, “Fleet at Fort Gorges” Photos courtesy of the artists

Abby Johnston’s untitled photo printed on linen shows Fort Gorges from a distance, largely silhouetted despite the daytime summer-scalloped sky off Portland Harbor. The fort is seen from a distance, and the image has the feel of a daguerrotype – silvery gray, flat and tiny. The darkening maybe isn’t the coming of the night, but the fading of memory. It’s a lyrical image, more dreamy than nostalgic. But it is dark by design.

Johnston, a graduate of the Maine College of Art, owns and operates Arta, a small gallery and frame shop on Route 1 in Falmouth. She typically mounts four exhibitions a year, two of which are benefit shows. Half of the proceeds go to the artists; half of the rest, in the case of “Fortitude,” on view through July 20, will go to the Friends of Fort Gorges, the historic 1858 fort – an island unto itself – in Casco Bay, just off Portland.

In some ways, Fort Gorges is the fort that wasn’t. Built on Hog Island in Casco Bay from 1858 to 1864, the D-shaped granite structure saw no battles and never housed troops. It is now a park on the National Register of Historic Places, and the only way to get there is by boat.

“Fortitude” features about 35 works by 18 local artists. The show is led by photographs, but they are joined by woodcuts and paintings. Together, the works comprise a surprising portrait of the fort. It’s not sprinkled with the powdered sugar of jingosim. It’s a fort: a tool of war, a reminder of danger, threats and enemies.

Dave Wade, “Fort Gorges 1858”

That is not to say that the fort is implicated as a bad place. Rather, it’s a dark marker, like a monument for battles that never were. The artists who venture to the fort show its weight. Dave Wade’s “Fort Gorges 1858,” for example, is a color photo showing a sign announcing the fort as an arm of the City of Portland, though barely. While the stone wall rises up blue through the top of the image, the sign itself is rusted to the point of illegibility, dysfunction, exhaustion. Ann Tracy’s “Ghost Light” is a black and white photo out of a tall vertical window cut for a gun. The light burns out the slit so that it grows into a slender ghostly form.

Some of the strongest works are Scott Anton’s prints on metal made from his collodion wet plate images (old school photography that predated silver gelatin printing made as positives on glass or tin plates). These have a feel of period photography but are rendered with a sensibility infused with distance. The fort is old, as is the photographic style. The success stems from Anton’s earnest awe in capturing a sense of historic aura. It is no mere documentation photo. It’s a work of art – subjective and personal.

There are a few friendly and unblinking tilts of the hat to the fort, but these tend to treat it as a nautical fixture of Casco Bay. Andy Curran’s “Fleet at Fort Gorges” shows a regatta of 10 triangular sails racing about the harbor on a windy summer day, with the fort looking on as a clear point of recognition. David Connor’s “Summer’s Leap” is a linoleum cut scene of kids jumping from the pier into the wake of a departing ferry. Considering the context, we know the direction of the fort and we might even imagine the ferry heading toward it, but it is a scene of Portland’s harbor, bright and lively.

Kevin Fahrman, “The Bowdoin”

Connor’s “If Not for the Sea” is a linoleum cut that depicts a rowing fisherman looking over his salty shoulders. It is one of several images that acknowledge the area’s nautical roots and remind us that the fort (named for Maine’s colonial proprietor – and founder – Ferdinando Gorges of Plymouth, England) is a landmark monument to Portland’s maritime importance throughout history.

Even what seems to be straightforward nautical imagery, such as Kevin Fahrman’s two photographs of Portland-based wooden boats, is steeped in unsung history. Fahrman’s detail of “the Bowdoin’s” sails appears primarily as an elegant image but his detail of the “Harvey Gamage” reveals the historical detail, expertise and time-honed sophistication that went into engineering, designing and building wooden ships. The hand-carved and painted star serves no functional purpose other than to underscore the thought and human touch that went into the shipbuilding efforts.

Andrea van Voorst van Beest’s “Portland Harbor #1” is a work in gouache that falls into that space between painting and sketches. Her view is from the water back toward the Portland peninsula. Her style reaches back toward the early 20th century. This work does have a subtle flavor of nostalgia, but it’s in honor of the style of observation and rendering more than any historical circumstance.

“Fortitude” features quite strong works by several artists whose art isn’t well known to the local audience – in particular, Scott Anton. Despite its dreamy romantic overtones, it’s a humble show – earnest, fresh and worthy.

Freelance writer Daniel Kany is an art historian who lives in Cumberland. He can be contacted at:

[email protected]

Andrea van Voorst van Beest, “Portland Harbor #1”


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