It started like any art opening: A small crowd gathered outside, many of them holding coffee due to the early hour, standing and mingling. Some were artists themselves, others were more the outdoorsy-type wearing Patagonia jackets and sports sandals. They laughed and talked while waiting for the doors to open.
But the doors didn’t open. Instead, the Elizabeth Grace, a water taxi, pulled up to the Portland Yacht Services dock, and the laughing, talking, and mingling moved on board.
The boat was bound for Little Chebeague and Surface First Tilts West, an art show that eschews the gallery in favor of the trees, meadows, beaches, and hiking paths of an island in Casco Bay. Described as an “experiential exhibition,” Surface First is an outdoor installation, a collection of prints, sculptures, paintings, writings, and recordings left to fend for themselves in the elements. They dot the sandbar that at low tide connects Little Chebeague to Great Chebeague. They hang spinning inside the rusting fire training structure that sits atop Chandler Cove. They hide inside plexiglass boxes among the ruins of former houses and cottages. And they sit suspended from trees.
The work comes from several artists, among whom lead curator Jordan Kendall Parks is also one. She tucked one of her favorite woodcuts into a rough wooden case and left it to weather in Maine's September rains. Jared Haug sculpted huge seashells out of foam and fiberglass, then chained them to cinder blocks and tossed them below the low-tide mark, leaving them to rise and fall with the water. The words of writer Jennifer O'Connell hang on translucent fabric, draped from the spread arms of an oak tree. Isabel Neal’s words sit sandwiched in prints that twist and sway with every breeze. And Chris Battaglia’s work is ongoing, capturing the installation in stills and video, documenting the weathering of the island and its art.
What is the point of installing art on an uninhabited island? Parks says it's meant to bring visitors and add to Little Chebeague’s juxtaposition of natural and man-made, of the past and the present. Each piece was placed conspicuously, the spot chosen because of how the light fell on it, or how the trees swayed, or what ruins lay around it. And in sitting there, in filling that space, the art enhanced it. The green of grass and leaves looked greener in contrast, the black and white prints striking by comparison. The sunlight dances on draped canvas, changing as the day progressed and as the season slips toward fall. A walk around the island is like watching a dance. The light and the wind and the water and artists are playing together. Each installation flirts with its surroundings, each swaying and mirroring the other.
But the flirting is temporary. The art is tenuous, fragile, never made to last. Every breeze threatens to rip or topple; every rising tide threatens to sweep away. The end result is a teetering feeling, a celebration of the fleeting nature of things. Cast alongside the art pieces, even the foundations of long-destroyed buildings seem momentary. A print is no more everlasting than an old car chassis sitting rusting in a field. Everything we build is temporary. Only the island endures — the sand, the trees, the streaming sunlight, the giant oak with its limbs spread wide as if holding the sky.
But without the art, without each exhibit, the island fades to a backdrop. It becomes just an island again, one of so many in Casco Bay they have been compared to the days in a calendar. Surface First Tilts West draws Little Chebeague out, pulling it from obscurity to center stage. The installation might be the point of visiting, but really the art is only the opening act. The main event is an island, steadfast, quiet, and majestic.
Surface First Tilts West remains on display until September 30. But to see the show can be tricky, as there is no direct ferry service to the island. At low tide, Little Chebeague is connected to Great Chebeague by a sandbar, which makes a quick visit possible. It is best to get to the sandbar about two hours before the lowest point in the tide cycle. Casco Bay Ferry Lines runs multiple trips to Great Chebeague daily, and the sandbar is a short walk from the pier.
It is also possible to take a private boat or kayak to Little Chebeague, which is part of the Maine Island Trail Association network of islands. Camping is also allowed. More information is available at mita.org