SAINT JOHN, New Brunswick – Think it’s a hassle to cross the border in your SUV? Try crossing it with a truck full of sculptures and paintings.
An exhibit by the late Maine artist Bernard Langlais, which recently opened in the Saint John Arts Centre, aims to break down the cultural barriers — both real and perceived — between Maine and New Brunswick.
Members of Maine’s business community are no strangers to the “Atlantica” concept, which entails strengthening trade ties between northern New England and New Brunswick. But a grass-roots campaign on both sides of the border seeks to strengthen the creative connection, as well. The exhibit’s organizers are hopeful this is the first of many such exchanges involving visual art, performance, film and literature.
“Maine and New Brunswick are neighbors and we need to do more together,” Bernard Cormier, cultural affairs officer for the city of Saint John, said on a recent morning. “The only thing that separates us is that silly border.”
It may be silly, but it’s still seen as a barrier between two areas that share a common heritage and way of life. To help break down that barrier, Cormier’s colleague on the American side, Hugh French of the Tides Institute in Eastport, has worked tirelessly to get culture on the agenda for today’s meeting of Gov. John Baldacci and New Brunswick Premier Shawn Graham. The two will attend a business breakfast in Bangor before later conferring in Augusta.
“Historically and culturally, Maine and New Brunswick and the Maritime Provinces have had such similarities,” French said. “There has been a lot of business between New Brunswick and Maine, but culturally, in terms of the arts, there’s really been an ebbing in the last several decades.”
Energy will be the top priority during Graham’s visit, but Baldacci’s press representative said culture plays an important role in regional tourism and education, as well.
“I suspect it could come up,” Baldacci’s spokesman David Farmer said. “Stronger cultural ties, as well as economic ties, are crucial to the success of both the province and the state.”
Calls to Graham’s office were not immediately returned.
Cormier, French and other advocates see this as a possible first step toward a cooperative agreement between the two governments that would provide grant funding for cross-border projects.
“I think that would be wonderful,” Cormier said. “We’re so close to each other. We don’t even think twice about crossing the border to go to Bangor to shop.”
But going to see a play or take in an exhibit is another story — a reality French knows well.
He has long been an advocate for cross-border outreach, and his work at The Tides Institute and Museum of Art, founded in 2002, reflects that. In 2005, the institute partnered with Maine College of Art and Nova Scotia College of Art and Design for a regionwide printmaking project, and last summer, the museum featured the work of renowned New Brunswick artist David Umholtz.
“The border seemed a silly and arbitrary place to stop our perspective,” French said. “Art and artists, like business and businesspeople, don’t stop at the border.”
When French met Cormier last September, during an art opening in Fredericton, he learned that a show scheduled to open in early 2008 didn’t pan out. Cormier told French that if he could come up with an alternative, he’d take it. The Maine Arts Commission had already curated the Langlais show for the Capitol, and Aucocisco Gallery of Portland, which works with the Langlais estate, agreed to let it travel.
As he stood in the Saint John Arts Centre, surrounded by puzzlelike wood relief sculptures, Cormier remarked that Langlais was the perfect artist to kick off this collaboration.
“This is a very appropriate show to have in New Brunswick because of our strong forestry industry,” Cormier said. “Who would’ve ever thought you could put all this wood together and have something so beautiful?”
Nearly 350 people attended the opening, including French and Andres Verzosa of Aucocisco Gallery. Gov. Baldacci sent a letter to commemorate the occasion.
“We hope that a similar exhibition by a New Brunswick artist will travel to Maine in the near future and enrich the lives of the people of Maine through viewing New Brunswick’s artistic tradition,” Baldacci wrote. “These inaugural exhibitions should enhance arts conversations and lead to increased exchanges in the arts between Maine and New Brunswick.”
The conversation has already started.
Kerstin Gilg, the public arts coordinator for the Maine Arts Commission, has made all of the contacts necessary to ensure that the next exchange won’t get hung up at the border — no matter how many paintings and sculptures they load into a truck.
“This is a huge hurdle that will never have to be gone over again,” he said, laughing. “We’re pretty excited about the possibility of having an ongoing exchange internationally.”
In New Brunswick, Cormier already has started planning a 2009 exhibit of artists from Fredericton, Saint John and Moncton. Once the show has visited each of the three cities, he would like to see it travel to Maine.
And in Maine, French continues to push the boundaries when it comes to culture.
“Borders can be viewed as barriers or opportunities,” he said. “With regards to Maine-New Brunswick arts, we view the border as an opportunity.”
“Bernard Langlais: Abstractions and Reliefs” will be on view through March 22 at the Saint John Arts Centre in Saint John, New Brunswick.