A wildly inventive artist takes on yet-another role as manager of a summer artists’ community in Lovell
Most artists make art, and no matter how devoted, all-consuming, or even obsessive, that is the end of the matter. A few rare others seem to be art, their very lives a creation, everything a surprise, from where they live, to how they live, to what they do. Pamela Moulton takes things one step even further. Her imagination brings worlds into being.
At Hewnoaks Artist Colony in Lovell, where she is the on-site manager for a lakeside summer artists residency, she creates a mood where writers, performers and visual artists (including herself) can be inspired. She’s the den mother, the “wondrous greeter,” as one past resident put it. But her world-building history dates back decades. Like the time she wrote a poem about an abandoned house on Swan’s Island that came true. It was the mid-1990s and Moulton was the chef and general helper for the annual Sweet Chariot Music Festival on the island in Jericho Bay.
Everyone who lived on Swan’s Island at that time knew the large abandoned house on Atlantic Loop Road. But only Moulton imagined the house overlooking Acadia’s Cadillac Mountain might have an inner life. One summer, she stayed with friends who lived in a cottage next door to it. She’d recently met Alban Maino, a French filmmaker, on an airplane—”in limbo” she says—and invited him to the festival. Together, they crawled through a broken window to explore.
The visit inspired Moulton to write a poem, one in which the house and an oak tree converse, the house upset about its ongoing violation—windows broken, critters entering and now this couple. Only in the poem, the couple break in for loving reasons. They tend the property, bringing it back to life.
After she wrote her piece, and with encouragement from Maino, who would eventually become her husband, Moulton—an exuberant sculptor, choreographer and installation and performance artist—visited the town clerk to learn who owned the abandoned house. Name and address in hand, she mailed off her poem (accompanied by illustrations). Two months later, while sitting in Manhattan’s Central Park, she received a phone call from the owner, E. Taylor Chewning, who lived in a Newport, Rhode Island, mansion. He wanted to come to New York to meet her. A meeting was scheduled at the Sherry Netherland’s Hotel. Chewning arrived with his wife. Understatedly elegant, charming and somewhat formal, he struck her as an old-world gentleman. He offered Moulton and Maino his island house for the summer, insisting a lawyer draw up a contract to solidify the arrangement. The couple would pay Chewning $1 every five years as they restored the house. Each year, a different significant improvement would be made—a well dug, a foundation laid. Until new electric and plumbing were installed, Moulton and Maino bathed in the island quarry and showered at their friends’ house next door.
The arrangement continued over 15 summers, with Chewning sometimes arriving on his yacht for a visit. Moulton would cook a fancy French dinner for his family at the house. The next night, Chewning’s chef would present an exotic dinner on the yacht. At season’s end, when they closed the house and boarded the windows, Moulton painted clouds on the wood, so the structure would not look too forlorn. Though the property has since been sold, people on Swan’s still refer to the home as the Cloud House.
When Moulton began spending winters in France to be with Maino, she brought worlds into being in a different way, creating sculptures, installations, and ephemeral works of art. Maino had been living in Paris but they knew they couldn’t afford a studio for her frequently oversized work there. Instead, the couple landed in Clapiers in the south of France, again through a generous offer. A chance meeting at the international art fair FIAC led Moulton to invite two elderly men for tea, one who owned a castle overlooking a vineyard. By the end of the visit, the owner had invited Moulton and Maino to live on his property.
The couple stayed for the next eight years, fully immersing themselves in the life of the chateau and its surrounds. Later, the couple and their son Matice moved to Pontlevoy in the Loire Valley, to be closer to Maino’s family. There Moulton became the on-site director of cultural programming at the village’s ancient former Benedictine abbey, staging numerous ambulatory, multi-disciplinary, multi-sensory collaborative art projects. In one, she created the illusion that the abbey’s interior had been turned upside down by hanging chairs and tables from the ceiling and cloaking the space (and the students) in black, save for fluorescent dots on the students’ bodies. Visitors entered over a floor of orange and lemon peels to witness a dance of colored dots. After eight years at Pontlevoy, family moved to the Portland area.
Moulton is, at all times, multiply employed and working on numerous projects. She has designed life-sized puppets, wild circus sets, fanciful multimedia environments for toys, and elaborate costumes with a Lady Gaga-outlandishness (minus the pushy sexuality). She made a gown of quail’s eggs. She’s been a teacher and guest artist, working on projects with children in the slums of Mumbai and at an Albanian orphanage, as well as university students at the abbey. Here in Maine, she’s made large and fuzzy colorful sculptures with school children, taught wearable art to teens at Maine College of Art and co-facilitated art efforts that pair university students with elderly residents with dementia at The Cedars retirement community in Portland.
The newest line item on her dizzyingly full CV is with Hewnoaks on Kezar Lake in Lovell. Established in 1901 on an old farm, Hewnoaks was originally the location of a hand-woven and hand-dyed rug operation run by Marion Larrabee Volk. Volk and her artist husband, Doug, invited people like Frank Benson, John Calvin Stevens, William Merritt Chase and Childe Hassam to visit.
Their last heir, their daughter-in-law Jessie, left the property to the University of Maine Foundation with a request that it be used, if possible for the study and promotion of art. Starting in 2013, the Hewnoaks buildings began to be used for artist residencies. Now, each year, fifty artists are chosen from a pool of applicants (up to 200) for one to two weeks stays in the property’s four cabins. Here they can concentrate on their work without interruption (no families are invited).
As summer manager, Moulton lives in the property’s central Tudor-style farmhouse and has her own studio on a giant screened in porch on the property. Moulton settles residents in, doing everything from changing light bulbs to fetching blankets to catching bats. She maintains the gardens and puts fresh flowers in artists’ rooms. She offers tips on where to hike—“I know all the secret spots” —and has been known to lead group swims across Kezar Lake. This year is her third summer as manager but she has insider knowledge comes from long familiarity with the area. She descends from Henry Wadsworth Longfellow and her relatives (though from a different branch of the family) pepper the Lovell/Fryeburg area. Should she wish, Moulton can swim over to her cousins’ on the other side of the lake.
Moulton was a resident herself at Hewnoaks in 2016, a plus for executive director Nat May, as he wanted the summer manager “to know what it is like to be invited into a support system and given encouragement in your practice, which is a big part of what Hewnoaks is for.” May also appreciated that Moulton’s experience at the Pontlevoy abbey meant she would know how to manage a historic property with old facilities.
Printmaker Pilar Nadel, a 2017 resident, is the one who called Moulton a “wonderous greeter.” Other former residents, writer Jennifer Lunden and painter Hilary Irons, the co-director and co-founder of Portland’s Able Baker Contemporary gallery, both speak of Moulton as being incredibly warm, naturally generous and curious about others and their artistic practice. But she’s noninvasive, they say, engaging if she senses that is wished for, hanging back if not.
Moulton’s own work is sculptural, using unnatural materials to reproduce natural things and sometimes vice versa, at times as a way of engaging with the destruction of the environment. She’s made a large revolving egg, whose surface is covered with antique marbles and quails’ eggs whose interiors have been encrusted with automobile glass from fatal accidents. Other pieces include a carpet-sized wall hanging out of flattened metal Coke bottle caps; sculptures out of colorful knitted gloves; and a 14-foot coral-shaped tower covered in tiny whelk shells. When Portland poet laureate Linda Aldrich was a Hewnoaks resident, she described a circular woven Moulton wall piece as “a pattern of nest-building or the matrix of longing surrounding a heart.”
That Moulton’s art would engender more art seems just right. “Magic attracts magic,” as the Portland-based photographer Jocelyn Lee once said. The piece Aldrich describes is on loan to the Urban Farm Fermentory. (“They give me a deal on kombucha,” Moulton notes of the arrangement.) More of her work—a short-lived “yarn bomb” placing yarn and other materials around trees in the Portland Museum of Art’s sculpture garden —will briefly mark the September end of Portland Museum of Art’s In the Vanguard, an exhibition of mid-century work from the Haystack Mountain School of Craft. Sometimes Moulton is part of her own installations. But likely not this time; she finds it hard to leave Hewnoaks once she is there. “I don’t want to miss anything,” Moulton says. “I feel so fortunate to have met this community. It’s a total dream job.”
Debra Spark is the author of five books of fiction, including Unknown Caller, The Pretty Girl, and Good for the Jews. Other books include Curious Attractions: Essays on Fiction Writing, and the anthology Twenty Under Thirty. She is a professor at Colby College.