“We Walk On; Eternally” by James Eric Francis Sr. of Indian Island is part of the new “State of Mind: Becoming Maine” exhibition available through the Maine Memory Network of Maine Historical Society. Images courtesy of Maine Historical Society

“State of Mind: Becoming Maine,” an ambitious statehood exhibition that Maine Historical Society spent eons pulling together, was on view for all of two days in March before the coronavirus forced the closing of the gallery. The historical society’s curatorial and tech teams moved quickly to shift the exhibition online as part of the Maine Memory Network.

The exhibition will still be up when the gallery reopens and is available online in the meantime. With a combination of art and artifacts over time, “Becoming Maine” tells the story of Maine’s statehood from the perspective and experiences of the Wabanaki people and early settlers, including European Americans, African Americans and members of the Acadian communities. The exhibition presents what we now know as Maine in its progression as the homeland of the Wabanaki, a European province, as part of the District of Massachusetts and, finally, as the state of Maine beginning in 1820.

Curator Tilly Laskey uses documents, maps, art and artifacts to illustrate a political and social story of upheaval, conflict, compromise and community through the stories of people from distinct ethnic backgrounds, all of whom have deep ties to Maine. The Wabanaki have been here 13,000 years, Laskey said, while the French, black and English-speaking people have roots that go back 400 years.

Laskey used a new piece of contemporary art by Penonscot painter James Francis to illustrate part of the story. Francis, a multimedia Penobscot artist and Maine Historical adviser from Indian Island, created a large-scale, meticulously hand-painted copy of the 1755 Phips Proclamation, which encouraged the killing of Penobscot people on behalf of the King of England and rewarded those who produced a scalp with up to what would be about $60,000 today.

Francis, director of Cultural and Historic Preservation for the Penobscot Nation, uses the document as a background for the painting, which stands 5 feet tall and 4 feet wide. In the foreground, he paints the Penobscot word for “We Walk On; Eternally,” which is also the name of the painting, and includes the faint red rendering of a human figure ghosted in the background, arms open to the heavens, calling the rain to wash away the filth.

In a phone interview, Francis said he had to make a big painting so people could read the words. “I wanted to make it large enough for that impact to be felt,” he said. “Letter by letter, I wanted to be true to the document.”

Generally, Francis avoids politics in his art. He’s known as an indigenous landscape artist. For a previous Maine Historical exhibition, he contributed a drum painted with a sturgeon, for instance.

But he made an exception to his no-politics dictum because of the impact of the Phips Proclamation on Wabanaki people, then and now, he said. “With the bicentennial exhibition, as the Penobscot Nation’s director of history, I am in a unique position to say something. It’s important for people to realize that Phips Proclamation existed and still exists within our community.”

Francis sees his painting as a call for healing and unity. In his artist’s statement, he says to the people of Maine, “The artwork urges the citizens of Maine to join hands with the Indigenous population of Maine and walk eternally into the future and move beyond the deadly acts of the past. The use of language, color, and symbolism helps to affirm our resilience as Penobscot people historically, presently, and into the future.”

Laskey called Francis’ painting monumental. “It’s an amazing piece and an amazing offering from James for healing.”

Maine Historical commissioned and purchased the painting for its collection, continuing a trend of adding contemporary art to its collection. The historical society purchased several pieces from its previous bicentennial exhibition, “Holding Up the Sky.”

In the gallery, the painting is arranged prominently near the front entrance, placed there by Laskey to grab people’s attention in a dramatic way. Because of the coronavirus, no one can see it in person, but it lives forever online.

“The Maine Memory Network is an amazing tool,” Laskey said. “It allows us to be able to share exhibitions in a wider way. Not only are people able to see it anywhere people have an internet connection, but I am able to show items that are not in the exhibition.”

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