Munjoy Hill is changing. Single-family homes that have stood for generations are being demolished and replaced with condos. Historically cheap rents and regional dialects are being replaced with nearly inaccessibly expensive housing and a vernacular of American English with much less distinction. In the midst of all of the new development, there is a structure as much a part of the city’s landscape and culture as the grueling incline of the hill itself.
The Abyssinian Meeting House is that place. As Pamela Cummings, President of the Board of Directors at the Abyssinian tells us, the group is looking to raise $67,000 to complement a grant from the state of Maine to restore the building. To raise awareness of the project, and the Abyssinian's role in supporting and preserving African-American art and culture in Maine and New England, the non-profit has brought in a signature artist to help with their mission.
That person is Daniel Minter. For Daniel, a painter and Maine transplant, the seeming impracticality of art and artistry is being used for practical means. For the month of May, Minter will show an installation of paintings and illustrations, work he's made over the last 10 years collected in a show titled A Distant Holla. Along with other local artists in an affiliated Black Artists Forum, Minter's work will be shown in Munjoy Hill's historic building as part of a month-long series of events meant to bring together artists of color from all over the area, and raise awareness for the importance of maintaining culturally-significant landmarks like the Abyssinian.
Mr. Minter and I shared a park bench on a picturesque Saturday morning in late April to discuss the event at the Abyssinian, and his role in helping to develop a sense of community in Portland for other artists of color.
Jason Cunningham: I appreciate you offering up your time for this interview, Daniel. I was doing some research on you, and noticed that in a TEDxDirigo talk [from 2012] you say you’re from “... a place where nothing new ever happens…” Can you tell me more about that?
Daniel Minter: I say nothing new ever happens because everything that ever happens there [in the South] has clearly happened before — in the ways families interact, in the ways the culture is structured. It may happen to a generation and then not happen to the next generation and then happen to the generation after that. So there’s a timelessness about it.
JC: What brought you to Portland and how does it feel being a black man “from away” in the whitest state in the country?
DM: Well, I came to Portland indirectly. I didn’t come straight from Georgia to Portland. I moved around a bit. And once you leave your community — whether you are black, white or what — you begin to try to reform community wherever you go. And the people who you choose to form community, it really doesn’t matter the color of those people.
But when there is no black community it can be much more difficult, because all of the rules are different. It’s a learning of new rules for building community, and for building relationships. That’s the difference.
JC: What specifically led you to this city?
DM: I moved here from Chicago with my wife 14 years ago. She got recruited to [work at] L.L.Bean and we picked up and moved here.
JC: Excellent! So there’s a month of events coming up at the Abyssinian that feature your work. Can you talk about that a little bit and why you are so involved with the Abyssinian?
DM: The Abyssinian has been under restoration since I moved here—
JC: —since I was a kid—
DM: —yeah, and it’s always been a really powerful symbol of the African-American community in Maine. Now it’s mostly the effort of artists that I feel are needed to bring a sense of functionality to the building so that it’s not just being restored because it is old, because it's historic. It has a function. It has a purpose. I wanted desperately to demonstrate that it doesn’t have to be pristine and perfect and finished in order for it to function for the community. That’s the idea behind wanting to get artists involved inside that building.
JC: Why “A Distant Holla?”
DM: “A Distant Holla” is a very loose term. I’m sure it will mean different things to different people, but for me, it’s one call that I’ve always been listening out for and listening to and trying to respond to and react to in a positive way. It is also my call, my ask of the universe, of the world. And I wonder if anyone hears it. I feel like now everyone is listening and that distant holla is louder than ever. I mean that for all of the country. It can’t be ignored. How can you ignore a cry for help? How can you ignore a beautiful song that you hear? It’s responding to your environment, your situation. The situation with the Abyssinian, and with the artists of color here, is that we need to combine our efforts. We need to create things together. We need to exchange ideas. We need to build on each other’s ideas.
JC: Do you think that there’s a considerable level of fragmentation to the community of artists of color in this city? Do you think people work well together?
DM: Artists will work on their own no matter what. It’s what we will do. But we’re stronger when we have an environment of artists. In Maine, it’s difficult to get that environment of artists of color. It’s difficult for us to bounce ideas off of each other because there’s so little contact, and there’s no place or no given time for that. That’s why over 10 years ago we formed the Black Artist Forum. It’s to share ideas and grow our craft and our skill in art. Our creative practice was in an environment that understood the context in which we’re working. Not working toward the art world’s goals, but working toward our goals.
JC: I’ve seen some of your work and one of the things that struck me the most is that there’s a very high level of organization to what you do. Everything is very intentional. There seems to be very little you do in the way of going off the cuff. It’s like you have a vision when you sit down to do something and you work toward creating that vision. Has your work always been like that or is that something you’ve consciously tried to work toward?
DM: It’s always been that way because I’m always searching for something. When I start these, I have an idea of what I’m searching for. I don’t know where I’m necessarily going to end up with it, but I do know what I’m searching for and I’m trying my best to get there. Sometimes I end up saying less than I want to and sometimes I say more. I also never forget that I am not speaking only for myself when I create artwork. I’m speaking for my sisters and brothers. My mother and father. My grandparents. My ancestors. I’m speaking for them too. I’m speaking for the community.
I’m not saying that because I’m making a really conscious effort to speak for the community. It’s just that we are judged, black people. We are all judged by each other’s deeds. Say for instance, you hear that some crime happens on the news. You hope he wasn’t black, because we are judged by every deed. And I don’t forget that when I’m creating work. It is just a condition of where we are. It doesn’t annoy me anymore. I just realize the world is a little different when people think they can create artwork just for them.
JC: How did you first hear about Malaga Island and do you know any of the descendants?
DM: Oh yeah! I’m friends with some of the descendants. I found out about Malaga upon moving here. There was not very much information about it. Then [when I was] working on the Portland Freedom Trail, I found out more about Malaga Island working with the Maine Historical Society, John Mosher’s pieces he wrote a long time ago [Ed: See "No Greater Abomination: Ethnicity, Class, and Power Relations on Malaga Island, Maine 1880-1912" by John P. Mosher, 1991 Masters Thesis, University of Southern Maine].
There were a couple people, distant relatives, who had done research on that, but it still seemed like a story that was not being told. So we decided to have a small convention of people who have interest in Malaga Island here, and talk about it and give presentations. Different people gathering different information doing different projects who would share that information with each other, so we had a good body of knowledge and could destroy all of the myths and propaganda that had been built up over a hundred years. It culminated in the Maine Coast Heritage Trust puting somewhat of a walking trail around the edge of the island and adding an information kiosk and making it a Malaga Island preserve. Also, Governor Baldacci gave a formal apology out on the island.
JC: Aside from being surrounded by people who likely can’t understand your personal struggles, what would you say is the biggest hurdle for an artist in this area?
DM: A lot of artists struggle with trying to make a living. It’s really difficult to make a living as an artist. You have to make some decisions. 'Okay, do I do artwork to sell when tourist season comes to make some money? Do I [make] what they expect to see?' I feel like there’s a place for that and it should be done, definitely. I enjoy that there are images that conjure Maine that artists can create and manipulate. That builds the Maine identity.
But artists don’t want to feel like they have to do that. There aren’t a lot of options outside of that for artists to do. Also, the arts community is difficult to navigate in this country and the world because artists are generally underappreciated. It’s just not valued; it's the types of things artists do. The fact that artists are expected to give their work away or do things for free, and only have their work valued if it has been declared valuable by someone else. That’s difficult for artists to handle.
JC: I’m a member of the Theater Ensemble of Color...
DM: TEoC (TEE-ock)!
JC: Yeah, TEoC! What was it about our organization that first drew your attention?
DM: Youth. Youth and a strong sense of identity. The sense of teamwork. Those kinds of things are necessary if you’re going to create any kind of artist community. You need young people involved. You need people who are willing to make mistakes, who are willing to do things wrong. Who don’t know how to do things. Who are finding out and discovering how to do things. That kind of energy to me is very inspiring. Very encouraging. It helps me, too. It affirms to me that young people understand my world. That’s important to me. It gives me gratification if young people can build off of my work.
JC: What do you see in the future for people of color in Portland insofar as life and art? What do you think the future’s gonna hold?
DM: I really think that because it is a small community, the energy that we can generate, I think it will be notable around the country. I think that people all around the country will begin to recognize the artists of color in Portland just like they recognize that Portland is an art-friendly city. I think it can be even more so. As it becomes more of an art-friendly city, I think that artists of color can become stronger and be viewed in a more active light. And [it will help] to be seen as a place where a young artist of color can find a community of other creative people that will collaborate and not be [like] the bizarre struggle of New York.
I see only positive things for artists of color in Portland. For instance: David Driskell, a premier African-American artist and scholar in the country, has been living here for years. He is a resource. And he has always offered himself as a resource, but there has been no way for the community of artists of color to take advantage of that resource.
JC: Do you think that with the Abyssinian being highlighted like it is this month could help to work toward having that place where artists of color can come together and really find those resources that maybe they didn’t know were there? Like mentorship and access to a facility where they can work?
DM: That kind of place can’t be the Abyssinian. But by helping the Abyssinian, it becomes clear that we can work collaboratively from lots of different disciplines.
JC: It’s seems to me that the history of the struggle of black people in this country has really been one of people coming together to produce great change. Do you feel like Portland is a great place to begin to implement that sort of collaborative community group effort and just push?
DM: I don’t know about it being a great place, but it’s the kind of place where it’s necessary. It’s necessary to our survival to do that and I think we all know that. So that’s why I’m positive about it. We know it’s necessary. It’s do this or disappear.
A Distant Holla, paintings, illustrations, and assemblages by Daniel Minter | Through May 31 | Abyssinian Meeting House, 75 Newbury St., Portland | www.abyme.org | 207.828.4995
Black Artists Forum at the Abyssinian Meeting House | May