An outdoor social experiment, an artistic community and canoe expedition all in one

Ten artists, two canoes and ten days down The Penobscot River

The Village Canoe completed its maiden voyage Sept. 1
Wed, 09/25/2019 - 12:00pm

    BELFAST— Swanville filmmaker and artist Chris Battaglia had a bit of a “Field of Dreams” epiphany in 2017.  Working as a documentary filmmaker aboard two-month canoe expedition down the Mississippi River, he got to thinking. Why not form his own community on a canoe expedition and film it? And what better, than a pack of artists doing a canoe expedition in Maine?

    It took several years for his “If you build it, they will come” vision to gel, and, after a series of grant applications, he finally had his dream in the form of a 10-day canoe trip from Bangor to Brooklin, Maine.

    Deeming the social experiment “The Village Canoe,” Battaglia opened his vision to an international audience to apply to live, work and create upon two canoes for a summer week in Maine. Everyone would pull his or her weight, camp at night, and use the experience to foment creativity. And at the end, they would put on a multi-venue exhibition. 

    “While I loved the idea of continuing to work on the Mississippi in the future, I live in Maine and wanted to make Maine the focus,” he said. “Being in a boat was the most creative I’ve ever been and I wanted to recreate that experience in Maine. Connecting people is what I love to do.”

    “It was like 'Survivor' for artists but with fewer bandanas and kitsch and no one turned on each other.”

    Out of more than 30 artists who applied from around the world, Battaglia and a jury of three, chose and organized a group of 10 artists to be on the crew. Basically, it was an artist’s residency on the water, on the move.

    “We had such an overwhelming response that we decided instead of six artists, which was our original intention, we’d go up to 10 artists, adding a second canoe,” he said.

    The Kindling Fund in Portland provided the much-needed grant for the momentum. Originally, Battaglia wanted to build his own 30-foot canoe, but practicality required him to hire two canoes from The Penobscot Riverkeepers, each around 30-feet, for the initial voyage, along with a Registered Maine Guide.  Each participant was awarded a modest stipend. The canoes were loaded up with locally-sourced food, camping gear, (supplied by The Apprentice Shop, Hurricane Island Outward Bound, Maine Sport Outfitters and Apeiron Expeditions) paddles, and of course, each participant’s artist supplies.

    The chosen applicants came down to eight women and two men, including Battaglia.

    “One woman came from the Outer Hebrides in Scotland,” he said. “One woman came from Virginia. Three of the artists came from Massachusetts and the rest were from Maine. And the ages ranged from 20 to mid-40s. It skewed young, but an incredibly mature group of people. I felt that this group was really empathic and communicative. I think the expedition sort of self-selected this type of person.”

    On August 23, all of the artists met at Nibezun, the Native-led organization committed to preserving and restoring Wabanaki traditions, slightly north of Old Town and began the trip with a get-to-know-you dinner. Early, the next morning, they set off on The Penobscot River in Brewer.

    As with every maiden voyage into the unknown, there were challenges and triumphs.

    “The challenges were mostly internal, being away from loved ones or home, but we all camped every night, assisted in the paddling, the chores,” said Battaglia. “We had this democratic summit on the second day, which ended up being a lot of group decision-making and an intense dialogue that positively shaped the group dynamics for the rest of the trip.”

    For Battaglia, the main challenge was that he’d never done this kind of thing before and had to figure out not only how to lead the logistics of the trip as well as run a simultaneous artist’s program. Some of the participants would take photographs or notes while paddling during the day. The focus much of the day, was on navigation, communicating, and the logistics of the outdoor trip.  Each night, when they set up camp, the artists had downtime to create.

    “People got out their watercolors; painting, drawing, started doing illustrations, photography, fiber arts, art with found materials,” he said.

    At the point where The Penobscot River met the Penobscot Bay, the canoes took them to ocean-front islands as well. The group  camped each night on islands stewarded by the Maine Coast Heritage Trust and the Maine Island Trail Association.

    Now that the trip has concluded, the artists have all gone back home and have begun work on an art exhibition that will take place in Belfast from September 27 to 29. For more information visit: The Village Canoe.

    Kay Stephens can be reached at