Abby Johnston’s untitled photo printed on linen shows Fort Gorges from afar, largely silhouetted against the scalloped summer sky off Portland Harbor. The fort is seen from afar and the image looks like a daguerreotype – silver gray, flat and tiny. Darkening may not be the arrival of night, but the erasure of memory. It is a lyrical image, more dreamy than nostalgic. But it’s dark by design.
Johnston, a graduate of Maine College of Art, owns and operates Arta, a small gallery and frame shop on Route 1 in Falmouth. She generally mounts four exhibitions a year, two of which are benefit shows. Half of the profits go to the artists; half of the rest, in the case of ‘Fortitude’, on view until July 20, will go to Friends of Fort Gorges, the historic 1858 fort – an island unto itself – in Casco Bay, just next door from Portland.
In some ways, Fort Gorges is the fort that wasn’t. Built on Hog Island in Casco Bay from 1858 to 1864, the D-shaped granite structure saw no battles and never housed troops. It is now a park on the National Register of Historic Places, and the only way to get there is by boat.
“Fortitude” features approximately 35 works by 18 local artists. The show is led by photographs, but they are joined by woodcuts and paintings. Together, the works form a surprising portrait of the fort. It is not sprinkled with jingosim powdered sugar. It is a fort: a tool of war, a reminder of danger, threats and enemies.
That’s not to say the fort is implicated as a bad place. It’s more of a dark marker, like a monument to battles that never were. Artists who venture into the fort show its weight. “Fort Gorges 1858” by Dave Wade, for example, is a color photo showing a sign advertising the fort as an arm of the city of Portland, but barely. As the stone wall rises blue from the top of the image, the sign itself is rusted to the point of being unreadable, dysfunctional, worn out. Ann Tracy’s “Ghost Light” is a black and white photo of a large vertical window cut out for a gun. Light burns the slit into a slender ghostly form.
Some of the strongest works are Scott Anton’s metal prints made from his collodion wet plate images (old school photography that predated gelatin silver printing made as a positive on glass or glass plates). ‘tin). These have a vintage photography feel but are rendered with a sensibility imbued with distance. The fort is old, as is the photographic style. Success stems from Anton’s deep admiration for capturing a sense of historical aura. This is not just a documentation photo. It is a work of art – subjective and personal.
There are a few friendly, unflinching tilts of the hat to the fort, but these tend to treat it like a nautical Casco Bay feature. Andy Curran’s “Fleet at Fort Gorges” shows a regatta of 10 triangular sails racing around the harbor on a windy summer day, with the fort as a clear recognizable point. David Connor’s “Summer’s Leap” is a cut scene in the linoleum of children jumping off the pier in the wake of a departing ferry. Given the context, we know the direction of the fort and we could even imagine the ferry heading towards it, but it’s a scene of the port of Portland, bright and lively.
“If Not for the Sea” by Connor is a linoleum cutout that depicts an oar fisherman looking over his salty shoulders. It’s one of many images that acknowledge the area’s nautical roots and remind us that the fort (named after Maine’s colonial owner – and founder – Ferdinando Gorges of Plymouth, England) is a historic landmark of the Portland’s maritime importance throughout history.
Even what appear to be simple nautical images, like Kevin Fahrman’s two photographs of Portland-based wooden boats, are steeped in untold history. Fahrman’s detail of the “Bowdoin” sails appears primarily as an elegant image, but his detail of the “Harvey Gamage” reveals the historical detail, expertise and age-old sophistication that went into the engineering, design and construction. wooden ships. The hand-sculpted and painted star serves no purpose other than to emphasize the thought and human touch that has gone into the shipbuilding efforts.
“Portland Harbor #1” by Andrea van Voorst van Beest is a gouache work that falls into this space between painting and sketching. Its view is from the water towards the Portland Peninsula. Its style dates back to the beginning of the 20th century. This work has a subtle flavor of nostalgia, but it is in honor of the style of observation and rendering more than any historical circumstance.
“Fortitude” features some pretty strong works by several artists whose art is not well known to local audiences – in particular, Scott Anton. Despite its romantic and dreamy overtones, it’s a humble show – earnest, fresh and dignified.
Freelance writer Daniel Kany is an art historian living in Cumberland. He can be contacted at: