Most artists who do a residency on Great Cranberry Island at the Heliker-LaHotan Foundation are drawn to the island’s landscape.
For decades, the combination of mountains, sea and forest has proven nearly irresistible to artists of all media and the printmakers, painters, and sculptors that participate in the residency program are no exception.
But Janet Badger, a printmaker out of Bangor, and Becky Buyers-Basso, a photojournalist from Bar Harbor, have turned away from the landscape and are looking at another even more critical aspect of the island experience. Together the two are creating printed and verbal portraits of year-round residents in an effort to preserve a piece of Cranberry Isles history.
“The goal,” says Badger, “is to leave an artistic snapshot in time of these residents.”
It’s a project that has been several years in the making. Badger had visited Great Cranberry during a foundation reception for a friend several years ago became interested in both the island and its residents. She also met Buyers-Basso at the same reception. For several years Badger had specialized in creating portraits of her family and from photographs she purchased in antique stores. At the time, she was in the midst of printing a series of portraits of young Bangor musicians. After she completed that series, she realized that the people she had met on Great Cranberry would be wonderful portrait subjects. Patricia Bailey, the president of the Heliker-LaHotan Foundation, agreed.
From her musician series, Badger learned she wanted to know more about her subjects. “In some cases, I didn’t even know their names,” Badger says of the musicians. “I thought, ‘This time I’m going to get it right. I’m going to get their names and stories about them. I work with these faces, and they are a total mystery. Wouldn’t it be more interesting to know who they are?'” So she suggested that Buyers-Basso could interview subjects simultaneously. Buyers-Basso, who had years of experience writing for local papers and had once taught gymnastics classes on Islesford, immediately agreed. “I was thrilled to be involved,” she says. “I loved the concept. There was no way I could say no.”
The actual process has multiple steps. Buyers-Basso and Badger work simultaneously; Badger sketches her impressions of the resident while Buyers-Basso conducts an interview and photographs the islander. At this point, Badger’s sketches are intended to serve as reference, a way to “capture the spirit of the person.” The final print is created from one of Buyers-Basso’s photographs. After the initial sittings, Badger returns to her Bangor studio to begin work on the plate, a process she describes as “working backwards in the dark,” while Buyers-Basso returns to Bar Harbor to shape the interviews into short biographies. Eventually, the written portrait and the printed portrait will be displayed together at the Great Cranberry Historical Society and printed in portfolios, one of which will be donated to the society. Each participating islander will receive a copy of their own portrait.
Islander Phil Whitney enjoyed his experience working with Badger and Buyers-Basso, “I was very pleased to do it. It was very nice to have a chance to record some of my impressions of the island and my memories of it and to explain my feelings and roots a bit.” As vice president of the Great Cranberry Island Historical Society, which partnered with the Heliker-LaHotan Foundation for the project, Whitney sees the historical value in it as well. “As a program overall, I think that it is extremely valuable, especially, to meet with the older folks and get their impressions. It’s a great way to do it through both portraits and written history.”
So far Badgers and Buyers-Basso have sketched and interviewed a dozen island residents ranging in age from seven to 87. The range of resident stories is as broad as their age. “Some of the people we interviewed have hardly left the island,” says Buyers-Basso. “Some have been all over the world. Whether they’ve stayed or left, they all are a part of this island experience. What I’m looking for are the traits that make them islanders.”
In conjunction with the Great Cranberry Historical Society, the project was recently awarded a Maine Arts Commission Artists in Maine Communities Grant to continue the interviews throughout the summer. “There isn’t any set number of residents we would like to see done,” explains Bailey. “Our goal is to keep working as long as it’s working and see where it goes. I hope it can be continued long enough to capture everyone on the island.”
Badger and Buyers-Basso are equally enthusiastic about the project and value the relationships they are building with islanders. “I’m not a professional portrait artist; I’ve never liked any portraits of myself,” laughs Badger. “I hope they will like their portraits. I’m happy with them.”
Cherie Galyean is a freelance writer who lives in Bar Harbor.