“Cherryfield, July 2015” Photo by S.B. Walker

S.B. (Sam) Walker grew up in Massachusetts, but his ties to Maine run deep. Walker’s great-great grandmother, Florence Brooks Whitehouse, lived in Portland on Deering Street and was a painter and writer instrumental in the state’s women’s suffrage movement. His grandmother owned a sheep farm in South Paris; childhood summers were spent at her camp in East Raymond.

S.B. Walker Photo by Greta Grant

By the time Walker made Portland his home in 2015, the 33-year-old photographer was already one year into an artistic adventure documenting life across the state. Armed with a DeLorme Atlas & Gazetteer and an abundance of curiosity, Walker has spent the last six years traversing thousands of miles and meeting thousands of people, from farmers and fisherman to entrepreneurs and affluent summer residents.

“Nor’east,” an exhibit featuring dozens of Walker’s favorite images from his epic journey, was slated to open next month at Rockland’s Center for Maine Contemporary Art to coincide with Maine’s bicentennial. With museums closed by COVID-19, the show has been postponed for a year. While some artists would be upset by such a delay, Walker, who leans toward the philosophical, sees it as an opportunity.

Q: What was the impetus for the Maine project?

A: The whole thing came out of a deep curiosity about the place and wanting to see as much of it as I could. There are lots of pictures that have been made in Maine over the years and a number of photography books. I’d just never seen a book that really got it all as I understood it. I wanted to do something that had a lot of layers and dealt with as many different people as possible. I wanted to make something hyperdimensional. I tried to push myself in terms of the amount of geography and types of views I was covering.

Q: Maine is an enormous state geographically. How did you decide where to go?

A: It was a pretty intuitive journey. I followed local news stories and went to lots of big rural events. I just looked at the Gazetteer and tried to cover as much ground as possible. Whatever happened along the way, happened.

Q: Any idea how many miles you’ve covered?

A: I can never keep track but it’s tens of thousands of miles. I’ve been to every county. I marked everywhere I went in my Gazetteer. I traveled on most of the Maine state roads and plenty of the back roads as well.

Q: Could you share a strange or memorable experience from your travels?

A: I photographed a sign for a business that says, “YMI.” I had driven past it a million times, and it was like this little existential joke. I would read it and be like, “Why am I? I don’t know.” As I was photographing it, this guy pulls up in this really beat up car, which looked like it was spray-painted camo. He’s got a bandana on his head and called himself “Sting Ray.” He was curious why I was photographing the sign.

When he got out of the car, he had this big Uncle Sam puppet that he wanted to show me. He wanted me to take his picture with it. I asked him where he was coming from and he said, “I’m coming from Hacker’s Hill,” which is a little hill nearby with an outdoor chapel. I said, “Oh, I’ve been up there. I photographed a rock that said, ‘God give me the serenity to accept the things I can’t change,’ ” but it was all misspelled. And he said, “I wrote that.”

There was just something about that experience for me, with all those crazy things coming together. Whenever that happens I know I’m on the right track. Serendipity is an affirmation of my intuitive wanderings.

“Sting Ray, Casco, July 2015” Photo by S.B. Walker

Q: The CMCA exhibit was timed to the bicentennial and supported by a bicentennial project grant, but now it’s been postponed for a year. That must be disappointing after working on this project for so long.

A: Of course I’m bummed about that, but it’s out of my control. In one way it’s good, because I get another year to prepare the show, and maybe there’s some more pictures that will be made in between. But right now, I’m just taking it month by month and seeing how things go and treating this as a good time to look inward.

Q: Have you been making any art since the stay-at-home order?

A: To be honest, I haven’t picked up the camera since the pandemic started. There are people driving around and walking in the park, but other than photographing people in their masks, there’s not that much interesting going on. I’ve been focusing on my other interests. Photography is a way to express my thoughts and feelings about the world, but it’s informed by many other things.

Q: Like what?

A: At the moment, I’m studying agronomy, and trying to figure out how to be a good tree steward. I’m actually hiding out on Vinalhaven right now. My family has a place here, and I have a little orchard and got a delivery of trees around May 1. I came up to put them in the ground.

That’s led to some other things in terms of photography. There’s a side of the Maine project I was pursuing before the pandemic happened, where I was going to homesteaders and farmers and people involved in agriculture. A big part of that is my wanting to learn about the practical side of how all those things are done, and to spend time with people who have been doing this stuff for 30 years or more.

Q: Is the pandemic affecting you financially?

A: I had some income selling prints right before the pandemic hit. I also work part-time for the archive of the late photographer Todd Webb, so that keeps me busy. I’m lucky it hasn’t been a huge strain on me, but I don’t know about the next year.

Q: On the CMCA site, your project is described as an epic poem about Maine. After traveling Maine for the last six years, what do you love about it, and what have you learned?

A: Like a lot of people, I always romanticized Maine. I spent time here as a kid in the summer – first at my grandmother’s camp and later in Vinalhaven. I also spent time on my grandma’s sheep farm in western Maine at various times of the year, and she always had a lot of friends who were characters. I really love the people here. It’s hard not to fall into the clichés about Maine, like the rugged individualism of the people. But this is certainly a challenging state to live in, so people really are forced to carve out their own niche and do their own thing.

At the same time, from what I’ve seen, it’s a place just like anywhere else, heavily influenced by globalism and all the various mechanisms going on with trade. There’s a bit of homogenization – though people in Maine have been bemoaning that since the ’40s, maybe longer.

Q: Another Maine cliché is our rugged coastline, which has been romanticized by artists over the past 200 years. You seem to have managed to mostly stay away from that in your documentation of Maine so far.

A: Actually, when I started the Maine project, I also began photographing the coast at night, which hasn’t been done so heavily. Silhouettes with the spruces and the water. I thought about doing that out here on the island. But I’ve been so focused on dealing with the trees; I’m so tired by the end of the day, I haven’t picked up the camera. But it’d probably be a good way to ease back in.

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

“Portland, January 2017” Photo by S.B. Walker

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