A major investment by the Libra Foundation is turning Monson, a nearly forgotten town, into a place where creativity flourishes and art is born.
Celeste Roberge first visited Monson in the 1980s, photographing the abandoned quarries and buying black slate for her artwork. Years later, when she caught wind of an ambitious, art-centric revitalization taking place there, she wanted to see it for herself. Roberge contacted her friend Todd Watts, a photographer with deep roots in the Monson area, and asked him to show her around. When she saw what had happened to the Piscataquis County town, Roberge says, “I was stunned.”
In June of 2018, Monson Arts welcomed five visual artists and five writers from around the country to their pilot residency program. It was only two years from the program’s initial conception and barely one year since the first Libra Foundation-funded construction crew rolled down Route 6 into Monson. Since then, the charitable entity has purchased about 30 properties—most in varying states of disrepair—to renovate or raze for their impressive Monson Arts project.
“After I saw [the studios], I thought, ‘Oh, my God, this is serious,’” Roberge says. “I wanted to apply right away.” She wanted to look at the photos she took in the 80s, visit the slate mines again, and rethink the same spaces. The South Portland sculptor, whose Rising Cairn was the first piece in Portland Museum of Art’s sculpture garden, was accepted for a 2018 winter residency. “I love snow and northern environments,” Roberge says. “It snowed every other day. I was thrilled.”
Christina Lihan’s studio during her residency was next door to the newly renovated general store, in the building Monson Arts is also using for their offices and a public gallery. The paper artist from Fort Lauderdale, Florida, had covered two large tables with scraps of thick white paper and the tools she uses to cut and carve. The 40-foot-long studio has big windows that overlook Lake Hebron and was, she says, the best space she’s ever had during a residency. “It is truly amazing what the Libra Foundation has created,” she says.
Libra Foundation supports economic development through philanthropy in the arts, agriculture and recreation and invests in projects throughout Maine. In 2016, they identified Maine’s poorest county, Pisquataquis, for a substantial, arts-focused investment. Alan Bray, a well known painter from Monson, and Watts, who had worked with the mid-20th century photographer Berenice Abbott, were both early advocates. Abbott spent her later years in Monson and nearby Blanchard, before passing away in 1991. “We really became intrigued with the stories of the people up there,” says Craig Denekas, chairman and CEO of Libra Foundation. “The stories were often intricately involved with the arts. It goes all the way back to when most of the slate in the United States was being mined in Monson.”
Monson, like so many rural Maine towns, has a hardscrabble past. The mines drew large populations from Finland, Sweden and Wales at the end of the 1800s, infusing the town with an international undertone that remains to this day. Monson is the last provisioning stop on the Appalachian Trail before hikers hit the notorious Hundred Mile Wilderness, the final stretch before Katahdin. But more recently, business closures and job losses have led to a dwindling population (in the area of 650) and even the elimination of Monson’s school in 2010. Most of Monson’s downtown was for sale, whether posted or not. “We just started asking owners, ‘How much can I buy that for?’” Denekas says. The lack of a fully developed strategic plan wasn’t necessarily intentional, but the message Libra was getting from locals was clear: Don’t tell us what you can do with 20 years of effort. Tell us what you can do now.
While construction crews—all local—began demolition, Denekas and his team were talking with Jessica Tomlinson, director of Artists at Work at Maine College of Art, about developing a residency program. The heads of programs around the state, including Skowhegan School of Painting & Sculpture, SPACE, Hewnoaks Artist Colony, Monhegan Artists’ Residency and Haystack Mountain School of Crafts, came together. Stuart Kestenbaum, Maine’s poet laureate and former director of Haystack, offered Denekas some advice, simply as a Maine resident. “I suggested the program engage the community,” Kestenbaum says. “It shouldn’t just be artists coming in. That’s great for artists, but [Monson] has a heritage. It has people who live there.”
Denekas agreed wholeheartedly. “It was never intended to be a program from away superimposed upon an area,” he says of Monson Arts. “It’s intended to integrate.” As Kestenbaum finished up a year as MECA’s interim president, Libra hired him to consult and design the program. A charismatic, Philippines-born chef named Marilou Ranta was on board to feed residents at The Quarry, a downtown restaurant space renovated by Libra and leased to Ranta (the public can eat dinner there Thursday–Monday by reservation; the residents have a private lunch and a standing dinner reservation at a large common table). The next hurdle was how to populate all the beautiful new residential spaces and studios for the year-round residency. Kestenbaum used his extensive connections, including identifying several art-centric graduate programs and asking each to send a student. Monson Arts continues to reserve a few spaces each year for alumni from partnership schools and writing associations.
Parvin Peivandi, an artist from Iran who immigrated to Canada in 2009, was awarded one of those spots through the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. She works in textile and metal and her sculptural pieces, she explains, represent softness juxtaposed with the aggression of war machines; as a child, Peivandi was dramatically affected by the presence of U.S. military forces in the Middle East. She remembers displaced Kurdish women protecting the border of Iran. “They were brave and strong, and also beautiful with colorful clothing.” She’d never been to Maine before, and in Monson she was surprised to find a deep connection with local women, many of whom have also struggled in what can be a very challenging physical and emotional environment. “I felt a closeness to them,” Peivandi says. “A connection. It was easy to share stories.”
Roberge had a similar experience during her winter stay in Monson. “There are so many gifted craftspeople there,” she says. Because of the way the residency is set up—which necessitates artists walk from their housing through downtown to reach their studios—she met many locals, all of whom were very glad to speak with her and, in some cases, help her with her art. “That hasn’t happened at other residencies I’ve done,” Roberge says.
This kind of organic interaction is exactly what Libra and Monson Arts are hoping for: connections, commonalities and collaborations that lead to a lasting shift in Monson’s economy. Celebrating local talent is also a priority for Monson Arts. An exhibit at the gallery on Main Street is called Artists of the Forest, curated by folklorist Kathleen Mundell and up through Aug. 11, features the work of six artists from Maine’s Northern Forest. “We’re not saying, ‘look, we brought the art in’,” Kestenbaum says. “We’re saying, ‘look, there was art here already.’”
To Kestenbaum, getting the community piece right is critical to the success of Monson Arts. That includes working with local schools. This past spring, Maine native and author Anica Rissi worked with students from a middle school in Dover-Foxcroft during a one-day writing workshop at Monson Arts, and next year they’ll run regular day-long sessions with high school students from seven area high schools. Alan Bray will teach the visual arts program, while Portland poet Dawn Potter teaches writing. “We don’t want to bring a school bus full of kids to visit Monson Arts once a year,” Kestenbaum says. “We want local kids saying, ‘Yeah, I go to Monson all the time. I’m a painter. That’s what I’m going to be.’ [We want to] show kids the possibility of thinking creatively.”
Program manager Dan Bouthot grew up in Blue Hill, went to Haystack as a teen, and came back to Maine with degrees from Rhode Island School of Design and California College of the Arts for the Monson Arts job. His hope is that new week-long summer sessions and workshops throughout the year will draw in artists who can’t commit an entire month to their work. He also sees the summer sessions, which are open to anyone, as a potential income generator.
Income is an issue at the top of the minds of everyone involved in the project. The Appalachian Trail will always draw hikers to town, and the main drag through Monson is a well trafficked road to Northern Maine. Granted, much of the traffic involves logging trucks but it’s also a tourist route to Moosehead Lake. Getting people to stop (and shop) in Monson is key.
From a funding standpoint, Kestenbaum says, “Part of my job is figuring out what mix we need to make it sustainable.” Haystack, for example, started with an “angel donor” in the 1950s and now relies on a mix of earned income, contributed income and multiple donors. When—or whether—Libra expects to step away from funding Monson Arts is undetermined; right now the foundation’s focus is to “get this up and running,” says Denekus. He hopes with some successes and positive exposure, things will fall into place. Libra has also made a commitment to pay property taxes to Monson, even though nonprofits have tax exemptions available to them. The foundation uses the same voluntary tax model at their expansive Pineland Farms property in New Gloucester, and Monson Arts is technically a program of the nonprofit entity Pineland Farms Inc. As for continuing to find artists who want to come to rural Maine, Bouthot isn’t worried. “As long as we can offer a stipend and word gets out that it’s a great place to be with amazing spaces and food, I think we’ll always have people applying,” he says.
“It was never intended to be a program from away superimposed upon an area,” Libra Foundation’s Craig Denekas says of Monson Arts. “It’s intended to integrate.”
Monson Arts is already receiving about eight times more applications than they have space for. Last year it hosted 40 artists and writers from 14 states and two from outside the U.S. (the United Kingdom and Iran). The 11 Mainers attending included one from Greenville, just a few miles from Monson. An independent jury chooses from the pool of applicants. It’s Bouthot’s job to make sure artists get the space and equipment they need. There’s a new metal shop, which Peivandi used, and a fully outfitted woodshop. In one of the buildings still under renovation, writers studios flank the second floor, with a large common space overlooking Lake Hebron.
Although the foundation hasn’t disclosed the exact amount they’ve spent in Monson so far, Denekus says a number around $10 million is “about right.” They’re not done; a medical and dental clinic in Monson’s former elementary school is scheduled to open soon. Libra wants Monson to be known as a haven for creativity, but also as a place where businesses and young families can thrive. “It is an accretion of possibilities,” Kestenbaum says of the project. “Once one thing is happening, then more things can happen because of it.”
Two years ago, the Boston Globe’s coverage of Monson Arts pointed out that rural Maine is not SoHo and begged the question: Will the artists come?
So far, the answer seems to be a resounding yes.
“We’ve done nine residencies now,” Denekus says. “That means 90 influential artists have driven up a road they never knew existed, spent a month in Monson, and are going to back to tell their friends to check it out. It’s been a great start to the whole thing.”
Sarah Holman is a writer living in Portland. She is enthusiastic about cheese plates, thrift shop treasures and old houses in need of saving. Find her online at storiesandsidebars.com.