Matt Barter in Barter Art House, where he and his father are displaying artwork that harkens back to Downeast Maine’s sardine canning industry. (Kelli Park photos)

BRUNSWICK — Local artist Matt Barter found unusual inspiration for his latest creative endeavor — memories of his home town’s gritty, once-thriving canning industry. 

Cantown Company Store is a collaborative installation exhibit between Matt Barter and his father, Maine artist Philip Barter, on display at Barter Art House in Brunswick through Aug. 15.

Matt Barter depicts the Downeast experience using symbols from his life: His father’s lunch during Red Sox games (crackers with sardines and Budweiser); shopping at The Dunbar Store in Sullivan for Wonder Bread, pickles, blue bait gloves, fishing tackle, shotgun shells and soda. The exhibit reflects nearly mythic stories about lobster boats, fishing families and workers who could pack more than 5,000 cans of sardines in just three hours — all day, every day.

Barter spent his childhood in the fishing communities of Downeast Maine, where the canning industry thrived for more than a century. In one of these towns, he and his father spotted a museum relic that sparked an idea. 

IN THE CAN

Barter and his father visited Lubec Historical Society and Museum last fall, where a cannery company store token on display caught their attention. 

“A lightbulb went off in my head, and I thought it would be really cool to use a vibe similar to the company store [for the installation],” Barter said. “Then I started to think, what do Downeasters like? Hunting, fishing, Red Sox … . I started making all these different items for the show based on what I would find in that store.”

The father-son artists decided to collaborate on a tribute to the canning industry in the form of an art installation, an idea that would eventually evolve into Cantown Company Store. 

Barter found vintage can labels at an antique store and adhered them to cans from his recycling bin. The cans took up residence in his studio and inspired him to build Cantown. Barter built Cantown one can at a time using cedar — cutting, priming, painting and labeling 70 wooden cans. 

He started out with canning labels for fish products, but later realized Cantown would be incomplete without B&M Baked Beans, One Pie Pumpkin, and a reference to Warhol’s painted Campbell’s tomato soup can. Barter included an old-fashioned time card punch clock, designing labels for Cantown Hunting Gear (repurposed hunting hats) and fired and glazed his own ceramic milk jugs. 

“The end of the fish cannery is another piece of Maine history that’s disappeared,” said Philip Barter. 

Maine’s canning industry began to support local economies in the 1870s and reached its heyday during World War II, when large orders of canned food were sent to American troops. Thousands of jobs were created at more than 50 canneries, many of which were filled by women. 

“I used to paint lobster fishermen, mostly men,” Barter said “It’s exciting to define a whole industry where women worked really hard and were super fast and really skilled.”

Maine’s last sardine cannery, in Prospect Harbor, shut its doors in 2010, bringing an end to what was once among the state’s most lucrative industries.

Matt Barter created everything in Cantown, in collaboration with his father, Maine artist Phillip Barter.

BARTERS AND TRADE

Philip Barter supported his family by fishing, clamming, harvesting mussels, lobstering and scallop dragging — all while supplementing that work through his art. 

Matt Barter roamed his father’s studio as a teenager, helping stretch canvases and build frames, giving him access to the creative tools he would need to one day establish himself as a sculptor and painter. With his father’s guidance, Barter learned to paint and create wood relief carvings. 

“I love working with my dad. We work well together,” Matt Barter said. “There’s no competition — it’s just fun.”

After spending time out west, Barter and his wife returned to Downeast Maine, where he started working on a lobster boat. 

“That cemented what it is to work on the waterfront: the gear, the guys, the boats. It came together,” he said. “When you’re away for a while and you come back, you see it through fresh eyes and see how exciting it is. It’s so different from anything that anybody else does.” 

Barter and his family eventually made their way to Brunswick, where they transformed a carriage house into Barter Art House, an arts venue where they could let their imaginations loose.

Barter explores the mythology of the livelihoods that were built upon the canning industry in Downeast Maine based on the stories passed down from generation to generation. Cantown illuminates elements of the isolation of living Downeast and working at a cannery — not only the days spent in the factories, but also the home life, the dreams, the feeling of stepping back in time in towns that are marked only with sign posts. 

“It’s like a lost memory,” Barter said. “You’re talking to people who worked in an industry that’s gone. You’re getting this secondhand information, these stories. I fill my mind with it when I’m working on a piece, not only what it would be like to work there, but what would it be like to dream?”

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