A composer, a playwright and a collective of artists committed to repairing relationships between Wabanaki people and non-Natives are the Maine recipients of grant funding awarded this week by the New England Foundation for the Arts.

The foundation, based in Boston, announced it had granted a total of $250,750 to 18 recipients through its New Work New England program, which is in its second year. The program focuses on artists and the creative process, and on projects that further equity, diversity, inclusion and accessibility. The grants were awarded to support new work in dance, film, music, storytelling and theater.

“Artists continue to be deeply impacted by the economic impacts of the pandemic. This program assists New England artists directly to focus on what they do best: bringing joy, creativity, and conversations to our communities,” Foundation Executive Director Cathy Edwards said in a statement.

Playwright Bess Welden (right), with actor Denise Poirier during a 2019 Portland Stage reading of her play “Death Wings.” Photo by Lauren Kennedy

Bess Welden, a Portland-based performer and playwright, will receive $15,000 to support the production of a play she has written titled “Death Wings.” Walden said this is the first time she’s applied to the foundation for support.

“It always feels like a long shot, so this was a big surprise and a big honor,” she said.

Welden has been developing “Death Wings” on and off for seven years, but her script has already won regional awards and she said the grant will help bring it to the stage in early 2023.

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The story, told largely through music and poetry, focuses on a main character, Grand, during the last 100 minutes of her life, which she spent making “death wings” out of physical materials in people’s lives to help connect them from the physical world to whatever is next.

In addition to the theatrical production, Welden is creating an art installation, in collaboration with other local individuals, that will serve as the set for her play, and is planning a series of workshops where people can make their own death wings.

Portland-based composer and bandleader Mali Obomsawin. Photo by Nolan Altvater, courtesy of New England Foundation for the Arts

Welden said she created her own death wings after she learned her father was dying and called it an essential part of her grieving process.

“I think what I learned and what I want to share with others is that letting go can really become a liberatory thing,” she said.

Mali Obomsawin, a Portland-based composer and bandleader, also will receive $15,000 to support her new album, “Sweet Tooth, a suite for Indian Country.” The songs weave original compositions and arrangements, drawing from her knowledge of rock, jazz and folk, with archival pieces from Wabanaki First Nation at Odanak in Quebec, where her community is from.

“It’s really a deep dive into the Wabanaki experience over several centuries,” she said. “I haven’t really shared that before as a musician.”

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Obomsawin, who plays upright bass in addition to composing, leads a six-piece jazz ensemble that will soon begin touring. She hopes to present her work throughout the Northeast, focusing on areas where tribal communities are based.

“I think that a lot of musicians and touring acts, they don’t come to areas where there are a lot of tribal folks, especially in the Northeast,” she said. “But also, because this music is really dedicated to them, I want to make sure it gets to them. And they are going to understand the music the most, too.”

Obomsawin’s album has been recorded, but the grant will support putting it out publicly and also creating a visual component to accompany performances.

The arts foundation awarded $9,400 in grant funding to In Kinship Collective, a group of mostly Maine-based artists: Lilah Akins, Devon Kelley-Yurdin, Emilia Dahlin, Cory Tamler (who now lives in Germany), Darren Ranco, Tyler Rai (of western Massachusetts) and Jennie Hahn.

Hahn said the proposal grew out of fellowship through her nonprofit, Open Waters, that invited individuals to engage in the tradition of Wabanaki guiding. Artists learned directly from Wabanaki people during a four-day retreat and cultural exchange on the Penobscot River and then developed a way to share that with the public in whatever form suited them. The result was a full-day performance last fall.

With the foundation grant, the collective will continue its work, Hahn said, but will branch out geographically to learn about the Kennebec River watershed. She said the broader goal is for the collective to be more practically engaged in rematriation, a term that refers to the long-term repair of relationships between people and places.

“I think the creative process and accessing creativity allows people to problem-solve,” Hahn said.


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