Buzz Masters, “Corn Hill/I Remember Her,” 18x18x2, mixed media on wooden panel, 2019. Photo by Ken Woisard

These days, if someone told you, “I was out late last night,” you’d probably look at them with shock and serious concern. Artist Buzz Masters has a good excuse: For the past 24 years, she has volunteered with her local ambulance corps on Deer Isle. In addition to being an EMT, Masters, 62, has also worked with the Red Cross in disaster relief, and her experience in Puerto Rico following Hurricane Maria led to a powerful series of narrative paintings about the people she’d met and the poignant stories they shared.

To create her highly textural, mixed-media works, Masters employs a process similar to that used in Renaissance frescoes, a form she studied as an art student in Florence. She first slathers a homemade cement of clay compound, crushed shells, and polymer binder onto a primed wooden panel. Before the mixture has fully dried, which takes a couple of weeks, she grinds down the surface until it’s smooth and applies paint while still porous, allowing the cement to absorb the pigment. Additional paint — acrylic, casein emulsion, gouache, gold leaf, watercolor — is layered on the surface, along with bits of paper and varnish.

As both an artist and an EMT, Masters can speak knowledgeably about the impact of the coronavirus crisis from two very different vantage points. As an islander deeply involved in her coastal community, she also has some considered advice about how to approach seasonal populations during a pandemic.

Deer Isle artist and EMT Buzz Masters. Photo courtesy of Buzz Masters

Q: I know you travel all over the world for residencies. Were you at home when the outbreak started affecting us in the United States?

A: Originally I was on an art residency through AgArts in Iowa. It’s a unique program that merges artists with farming and agriculture. You are put out on a farm somewhere that has extra houses, old farmhouses, some sort of lodging that they stick an artist in. I was in western Iowa in the middle the Whiterock Conservancy, which is thousands of acres of conservancy land that is being farmed in a sustainable way.

So I’m out on there in the middle of nowhere and literally didn’t see anyone for eight days. I had no cell service. I drove into the next town where I had some service and talked to a friend of mine in Maine who said that things were getting a little weird. Two days later, I was on a walk and suddenly my phone pinged, because I picked up a signal, and another friend, who’s an immunologist, had sent me a message that said, “GO HOME NOW.” I went back to the house and started calling the airlines. I left the residency the next day and went into isolation in my house.


Q: What has it been like working as an EMT during the pandemic?

A: The main change is the full PPE we’re now wearing for every call. Emergency medicine is really personal because you enter people’s homes and see how they live. You see them at their most frightened, their most vulnerable. There’s a level of trust that is assumed immediately. Wearing this bulky PPE with face shields feels like we’ve lost the ability to give somebody that trust. So we’ve had to really be creative as to how we enter a home looking like Stay Puft marshmallow people to keep it up.

We also run a community paramedicine program here on the island where we visit people in their homes every week, doing minor medical checkups and medication reconciliation. We’ve had to learn how to do this without entering someone’s home; we stand outside their houses and talk to them through their screen doors. Two weeks ago, I wore a Wonder Woman mask as my face shield, along with my N95 on and my gloves, just to bring a little smile to people’s faces.

Q: Given the vigilante attempt to forcefully quarantine out-of-town workers on Vinalhaven, has Deer Isle seen the return of any seasonal residents yet, and if so, how is the year-round community is dealing with it?

A: I know there are people who came back to shelter here. It’s understandable why they wanted to. I also appreciate that initial fear from year-round residents of people coming to their summer homes. But we need to look ahead to when we come out of this and when we see each other again. We’re all very dedicated to each other. We have built up friendships with the people who come here in the summer. It takes a lifetime to develop a friendship and 30 seconds to destroy it. We really have to be conscious that underneath all of this panic and worry and people moving around is the fact that they came here because they love it here. They came here because they love their family. They came here because they love us, and they feel safe here.

Buzz Masters, “She Took the Last Boat,” 8x8x2, mixed media on wooden panel, 2019. Photo by Ken Woisard

Q: Your work in Puerto Rico after Hurricane Maria had a huge impact on the stories you told in your paintings for quite some time. Has the pandemic affected your current work?


A: I wouldn’t say that this crisis has changed my imagery, but I think it’s allowing me to be really personal in the work. Right now, everything I’m working on is about the loss of my mother, who died four years ago. I’m not necessarily a landscape painter, but in Iowa, it was like living in a Hudson River School painting where that horizon goes on forever and no matter how far you drive, it’s still so far away. There was something about that that really appealed to me, that made me think about loss and my mother as something that’s unreachable at this point.

I think I might have been a little afraid of saying how strong this grief is for me. I think there’s been a window pane between me and trying to put that imagery down, a thick piece of glass that I can see through, but I can’t quite push through because it’s hard. It hurts. I don’t know if I want anyone to see that. I think that this situation has enabled me to paint as if nobody’s looking. That’s powerful.

Q: You had an exhibit scheduled for August at the Maine Art Gallery Wiscasset that got canceled. Had you been making work expressly for the show?

A: Well, yes, and it’s an interesting thing that we’re all so goal-oriented in that way. Without that goal, nothing’s expected of me. So all I get to do is paint, and it’s a good challenge. It simplifies and purifies everything. You really have to look at what your motivations are for being an artist to work without any outside goal. You have to go into your studio and just work for yourself, just work for the paint. I am an optimist, so in a way, this is something I’m looking at as a real opportunity. It’s an exciting thing to do, to just create.

Stacey Kors is a longtime arts writer and editor who lives on Peaks Island.

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