‘We call the campaign Waterfall Rising; ponder that and you'll understand its relevance’

A Home for the Arts in Belfast

Thu, 11/21/2019 - 9:30pm

Waterfall Arts is the city's community arts center. It is the one place where art of all kinds is made, taught, viewed, heard, embraced and enjoyed. Waterfall is, then, our home for the arts. It is welcoming to all as a fine home should be, and as it matures as a community resource, there comes a time, which is now, that improvements are due. We will soon be asking our friends and neighbors, including you, to help us. Why should you help? Here’s a bit of history – a reminder for some, and a quick education for others.

As a journalist covering Belfast in the 1970s and '80s, I watched the city transform itself from a hardscrabble factory town complete with chicken feathers and foul odors to our current perch near the top of must-see communities in Maine. The changes have been both purposeful and serendipitous. At several junctures we voted as a community to restore water-related uses to the waterfront, even as well-heeled condo developers were eyeing our shore. Then, Eureka!, Front Street Shipyard came calling. Walmart and Lowe's circled Belfast on their development maps and, gratefully, Renys expanded and Ocean State Job Lot and Goodwill arrived instead. We somehow retained our character in the face of the global movement toward sameness.

A key ingredient in the city's veer toward redefinition and rebirth was the unplanned arrival of a colorful palette of painters, musicians, photographers, writers and culture-seekers who quickly  formed a community of their own in our midst. The Artfellows Gallery was at the center, and it brought a cooperative, creative, friendly spirit that energized other new-people creations as well, like the Belfast Co-op, the UU Church, the Belfast Cafe and the Waldo Independent. These alternative institutions existed among, even alongside, their traditional iterations and added to rather than divided the emerging community.

Belfast has always supported a small arts presence, usually individual artists who maintained studios and teachers who operated out of their homes or small storefronts. What it did not have  was an arts center where residents could partake of the transforming practice of a variety of arts. That changed in 2006, when the City Council asked The Arts Center at Kingdom Falls in  Montville to purchase the vacant Governor Anderson School on High Street. Al and Lorna  Crichton of Liberty and a handful of creative friends rounded up the $215,000 purchase price and within months classes, exhibits, performances and discussions filled the 85-year-old building with the power of art.

Today, Waterfall Arts is a busy place most every day. Within its walls students learn to play the guitar, use gold leaf, make and fire pottery, pull prints from modern presses, watch images emerge from blank paper in the photo darkroom. A terrific after-school program encourages kids to turn what's in their heads into accomplished art.

And then there's the community piece. The monthly meeting of the Belfast Co-op is held at Waterfall. The Belfast Fiddlers rehearse here, the low-power radio station WBFY broadcasts here, the Friday Farmers Market attracts hundreds of shoppers each week. Hundreds more attend the Glow Show, the Hand-Made craft sale and exhibit openings and the annual free outdoor concert.

Just as much as Belfast needs its community arts center, Waterfall Arts needs to update and improve its facilities to serve more people better. These two realities are joined in a $2.65 million capital campaign that will remake Waterfall into the community arts center for the 21st century. We call the campaign Waterfall Rising; ponder that and you'll understand its relevance.

Specifically, the campaign will fund handicapped access to public floors of the oddly structured building. It will install energy-efficient windows, making the heat pumps we introduced in 2017 more productive: we are moving towards a net-zero-energy building! The campaign will improve the old school's exterior and provide attractive landscaping and signage. And we will actually have a fabulous lobby with information desk to improve interactions with the public.

Making these improvements costs money, and Waterfall has been working with donors and funders for the past three years in the “silent” phase of the campaign. We have raised more than $1.3 million, including a $350,000 grant from the Environmental Protection Agency that will help us identify, remove and dispose of some original building materials that no longer pass muster, without which the improvement plan couldn't happen. Waterfall's new Executive Director, Kim Fleming, assesses the two funding initiatives this way: “We’re thrilled by the timeliness of this funding from the EPA and thank (Belfast economic development director) Thomas Kittredge and Senators Collins and King for their support. It couldn’t come at a better time as Waterfall moves forward with our plans for capital improvements for our beloved facility.”

On Nov. 12 Waterfall presented to the public renderings of the project by Belfast architecture firm OPAL, along with other details that demonstrate our commitment to public access, community integration and the environment. I was part of the audience that filled the Clifford Gallery and heard local officials Sen. Erin Herbig, Rep. Jan Dodge and Belfast Mayor Eric Sanders and Waterfall leaders speak to the manifold benefits of the campaign. It was the beginning of the “loud” campaign to raise $1 million more to bring our vision of a modern, accessible community arts center to reality.

To me, Waterfall Arts and the Governor Anderson School represent a winning synthesis of the old and the new, of history and the future, of the power of art and the meaning of community. As a long-time Waterfall board member and current member of the capital campaign committee, I've spent many fruitful hours watching, listening, participating in all sorts of activities at 256 High Street. 

One day I came in through the side door to attend a meeting and I peeked through the window in the door to the Clifford Gallery. Seated and kneeling on the floor were a dozen or more kids, maybe 8 to 10 years old, open-mouthed, rapt. I moved a bit and saw Bridget Matros leading a discussion of an artwork on the wall. Connection 101.

Over the next few months you will be hearing from the Waterfall Rising Committee about contributing to our capital campaign, which you can do by going to our website www.waterfallarts.org and clicking on the Donate button. I hope you will say yes and be generous, as I have been. An emerging community like Belfast must have art available to all. That's what Waterfall has been providing for years and, with your help, will continue to do so far into the future.

Jay Davis, an art lover, is a retired journalist and co-author of the History of Belfast in the 20th Century with Tim Hughes.