Dancing among historic remnants of the mid-1800s; partying in full garb at a Halloween ball set in a piece of military architecture. Portland has seen its share of high-society fetes in distinctive and offbeat places. But on an island in Casco Bay that is accessible only by boat or kayak?
That happened, according to Paul Drinan, executive director of the Friends of Fort Gorges. Hog Island and its defunct military fort, the crumbling but iconic Fort Gorges, played host to a masquerade ball in years gone by.
"I've just heard so many stories, so many people have seen so many interesting things out there over the years," said Drinan.
But now, thanks to a local performance space and a visiting artist at Bowdoin College, more culturally significant events will find a home at the fort this summer.
A $6,500 grant from the Kindling Fund — a funding program of the Andy Warhol Foundation for the Visual Arts administered by Portland's SPACE Gallery — has given life to "A Long Wait," an event series and "platform for artistic inquiry" that will use Fort Gorges as its home base in July.
"It's the first artwork that I've participated in that asked me to organize around tides," said Erin Colleen Johnson, artistic director of "A Long Wait."
Johnson's art project at Fort Gorges deals with the logistics of creating a gallery on an island, and moreover in a former Civil War fort.
Fort Gorges, a monument built in the style of Fort Sumter but never garrisoned for the Civil War, has been left to slowly decay in Portland Harbor. In 1960, the U.S. government gave Fort Gorges to the city of Portland.
This year, however, the city, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and the Friends of Fort Gorges — a group formed in 2000 to advocate for the fort’s preservation — announced that they are embarking on a public-private partnership to improve safety conditions at the fort, and develop a plan for its rehabilitation and future use.
Fixing safety hazards at the fort was identified and approved by the Army Corps in the mid-1990s under its Defense Environmental Restoration Program for Formerly Used Defense Sites, but funding for the program was not made available until recently, the city reported. The Army Corps hopes to begin work in the spring of 2017 to fix the hazardous conditions and ultimately make the fort more accessible to the public.
After learning of the Army Corps’ plan, the city applied for and was awarded a $20,365 grant from the Maine Historic Preservation Commission to fund a portion of a master plan for Fort Gorges to pave the way potentially for events on the island.
"The grant that they are getting right now is to prepare a preservation plan, and that preservation plan will include public comment and other information to be used in the master plan," said Drinan.
"We are compiling this preservation plan into a master plan, and as part of that process we will schedule a public forum. Public input really needs to determine the use of this space."
The hope is that the public will embrace a vision of Fort Gorges as a public performance space.
Drinan said, "When I look at Fort Gorges, I see lots of opportunities for educational and cultural experiences. I don't think it's appropriate for amplified sound, I think it's highly appropriate for unamplified sound, such as a symphony or theater, unmixed theater. The fort really acts as a loudspeaker, somebody shot a rock video out there years ago and it made so much noise that people from the surrounding islands got in their boats and went over to investigate."
While the fort has found occasional use for artistic ventures, only now is the idea gaining attention, Drinan said.
"I think this might be the first time that something that's out there is getting some attention, and press, and hopefully that will be an opportunity for other people to see the potential and support the project," he said of the preservation effort.
Fort Gorges is an anomaly. It's clearly visible to passengers on ferries traveling through Portland Harbor but oddly removed and mysterious due to the lack of a ferry landing or other convenient public access. Water taxis can prove expensive, and kayaking requires a certain level of skill. For the adventurous, the island is accessible via kayak, "if you go by kayak you're not restricted by the tides," which isn't the case if you take a boat out there, Drinan noted.
Drinan said the Friends of Fort Gorges connected Johnson with the operator of a vessel to provide transport during her art installation.
"We will be using a boat for all three event days," Johnson confirmed.
Tentatively, the schedule calls for a July 9 outing, when artist Anna Wolfe-Pauly, who studied visual and critical studies at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, will showcase and lead a site-specific project with climate journalist Kevin Stark; a July 16 attraction with Johnson and dance theater troupe Knightworks, the brainchild of Jessi Knight, a dancer, teacher and choreographer from Pittsboro, N.C., and Bowdoin College's Christina Knight, Consortium for Faculty Diversity Postdoctoral Fellow in Theater and Dance; and a July 23 event with a musical sound piece by composer and vocalist Ken Ueno, an internationally renowned composer and an associate professor at University of California, Berkeley.
Johnson said she had not been to Fort Gorges until she made her grant proposal.
Johnson said there's no shelter or electricity, and generators must be used to furnish power.
"The fort is a very dramatic visual landmark," she said.
Describing the artistic process in this setting as "quite beautiful," Johnson expects to use the fort "as a lens to have a conversation." That means finding a fresh use for the site. "The fort was not able to fulfill the specific expectations" of its origins, but site-specific works can create new applications, Johnson said.
Drinan said he always relished the architecture of the fort and embraced its history.
"The moment a person steps into the parade grounds at the fort, what they see are old archways," and what that reminds him of is the old Globe theater in the era of Shakespeare.
Nat May, executive director of SPACE Gallery, said the summer art installation is a perfect fit for the Kindling Fund.
"Any time an artist works at an underutilized site, it broadens our art experience and our conception about where art can go," May noted in an email message to The Phoenix. "I can't speak to what else might happen there, but Fort Gorges is a beautiful space and has all kinds of potential."
The Kindling Fund, he wrote, is "an exciting extension of SPACE's mission to support artists, giving them resources and encouragement to do projects on their own." That's in keeping with the mission of The Andy Warhol Foundation for the Visual Arts, he added, noting "they model good funder behavior by trusting the grant recipients and letting them take risks. "
According to the artistic narrative developed by Johnson, Fort Gorges will blend with its art installation.
"Transportation to and from Fort Gorges will be provided to ticketed event-goers," Johnson explained in her application. "All events will take place at Fort Gorges or in transit to the island and, because the kind of artworks being shared will be varied, the programming will appeal to a wide range of the public. Fort Gorges cannot be visited via ferry, and therefore is rarely experienced by the larger public. By inviting artists to use the fort as context, material, and site, people who have never thought to make the trek to the fort will have a new and exciting reason to visit the island and in turn engage with the rich and layered history of the site and surrounding area."
According to her narrative, Fort Gorges "was first proposed following the War of 1812, but was not completed until after the end of the American Civil War, more than 50 years later. In a strange twist of fate, by the time it was completed, modern explosives had made the fort obsolete. A modernization plan was begun in 1869, but funding was cut off in 1876, with the third level of the fort still unfinished. After this it was stripped of its artillery and used as storage until it was acquired by the city of Portland in 1960."
A city narrative further explained that Fort Gorges is named for Sir Ferdinando Gorges, who, according to historical records, is an English colonial entrepreneur and founder of Maine as a province in 1622.
"Construction of Fort Gorges began in 1858 and was the third of a trio of forts built to protect Portland Harbor, Fort Preble and Scammell having been built prior to Fort Gorges," the city narrative noted.
Johnson noted that "A Long Wait" takes inspiration from similar programming at other historic sites. "Governors Island in New York is a decommissioned military site that now hosts art events and exhibitions," Johnson explained in her narrative. "FOR-SITE commissions large-scale, site-specific installations in parks and historically-rich sites throughout the San Francisco Bay Area; and The Drift produces projects and events on the rivers of Pittsburgh, inviting residents and visitors to explore a part of the city often overlooked." Fort Gorges boasts some odd history of its own. Local historian Herb Adams recalled that Mississippi U.S. Sen. Jefferson Davis spent the summer in Maine and actually saw the early construction on Fort Gorges, a bit of trivia with its own inherent irony. Decades later, in the early 1960s, one of the local business charities threw a Pirates Ball at the fort where everybody showed up in a "pirate car" and danced away the evening, Adams recalled.
As the city and its partners hammer out a master plan for Fort Gorges, "A Long Wait" may be remembered as a testing ground for other ambitious artistic and cultural events in Portland Harbor.
"I would love to see this happen every year," Johnson said.
For more information about “A Long Wait” and the Kindling Fund, visit kindlingfund.org/projects/project/a-long-wait.
For more about SPACE Gallery, visit www.space538.org.
For more about the Friends of Fort Gorges (FoFoGo), visit http://www.friendsoffortgorges.org.
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