Letter from Aroostook: Canvases on chain link 

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A single railroad track runs through Presque Isle from the southwest to the northeast, crossing Main Street in the middle of town.

The east side of the track is bordered by the University of Maine at Presque Isle, car and farm equipment dealers, parking lots, and the back sides of the small shops and businesses, many closed by the impact of the coronavirus pandemic.

On the west side, a chain-link fence separates the track from Riverside Pavilion, home of the summer farmers’ market, site of summer concerts, and the courthouse. It is an area that not many people notice, but this summer, the fence became a gallery of canvases painted by ordinary folks. 

Shelby Pelletier, one of five volunteers with Aroostook Partners in the Arts, a nonprofit that supports the creation and sharing of art throughout the community, said the project was developed as a way for people to have fun creating art in a safe way and for the public to view the work in spite of COVID-19.  

The partnership raises money to provide grants to schools to support art experiences for children of all ages. When the project was proposed to the city as a way for people to come together and make art in a safe way, it got almost instant approval. Pelletier has been an art therapist for 10 years, and for the past few years has run The Common Gallery on Main Street.  

Several times a month throughout the summer, the partnership set up canvases, paint, and other art supplies on the picnic tables around Riverside Pavilion, attracting participants of all ages. Many chose to create their art in the park while being able to maintain a safe distance, but also be part of a community collaboration. The finished canvases were then grommeted at the corners and hung on the chain-link fence, creating a nearly 200-foot-long gallery facing the park. Others picked up canvases to paint at home and then brought them back to be hung. 

“It was a safe, fun way for people to create and see art,” said Pelletier, who is usually at every event with the other partnership members: Filomena Irving, Heather Harvell, Jennifer Crandall, and Beth Ann Cummings. They all contribute to the collaboration of making community art, and it’s not unusual to see them wandering between the picnic tables and encouraging participants in their creative venture or hanging the finished art along the fence.  

“The art has become a show that creates its own collaboration,” Pelletier said. “It captures the complexity of now and shows that kids are resilient.”  

Perhaps more important, the project has drawn community interest. On any day, people stroll the length of the exhibit, studying the outdoor display, some occasionally rehanging canvases that have been damaged by wind.  

“People get really excited,” Pelletier said. “People stop by to paint or pick up a canvas or drop off a canvas.”

The exhibit will be displayed as long as it is safe, but with autumn here and winter snow not far behind, Pelletier noted there is no certainty about the fence gallery. When that happens, they will collect the art and take it to her gallery. Exactly what will become of the creations then depends largely on the individual artists. 

In the meantime, it is an exhibit that is worth seeing, and another indication of the creativity that thrives even during a pandemic.

Jan Grieco is a retired college instructor and former reporter for The Forecaster. She lives in Perham, where she farms and lives off the land.