Warning: Artists Among Us!
When I say "big" ... well, the largest marionette, called the Big Giant, weighed in at 2.5 tons and towered 9.5 meters (that's about three stories) over a crowd of 1.5 million Germans. He came by water, sloshing through the city's network of rivers and canals wearing scuba gear made of truck tarpaulins, finally rising from the deep to lumber down wide avenues to the Brandenburg Gate, which once marked the dividing line between East and West Berlin, and in a larger sense between the Communist and democratic worlds. Needless to say, the logistics of maneuvering the Giant were herculean, requiring the services of 31 street-theater technicians and a battery of immense cranes and other equipment.
Reaching the Gate, the Big Giant was reunited with his niece, the Little Giantess, slightly smaller at 5.5 meters and a svelte 1.75 tons, who'd been wending her own way through the city. (According to the show's story line, the pair had been separated by a wall thrown up by "land and sea monsters.") The pair embraced, the Giantess climbed onto her uncle's lap, and the two fell into blissful slumber.
Now here's what I find most amazing about this story — aside from the obvious technical achievement of building and operating those enormous puppets. To start with, the show itself was staged by, of all people, the French, Germany's historic adversaries. And the occasion was the 20th anniversary of the breaching of the Berlin Wall.
There are many ways of marking a great civic occasion — speeches, parades, firework displays — but somehow this one feels at once more splendid and more heartfelt. (Check out this stunning photo series by the Boston Globe to get a sense of it.) Titled "The Berlin Reunion," the grander-than-life puppet show was a triumph not only of poignant symbolism but of the immense, and often unappreciated, power of art.
Here in Maine we ought to be especially conscious of the place of art in our lives and our unique regional culture. It's not just a matter of history or of local tradition (though, certainly, art weaves its way prominently through both of those). It's a matter of everyday life. It's a vibrant part of our economy, weathering economic downturns and culture wars and every other kind of upheaval. It's a big part of who we are and what makes us, collectively, Mainers.
Art, after all, is what brought many of us here to begin with. Winslow Homer may not have started the trend, but he was among the most prominent 19th-century artists who relocated to Maine, arriving in the 1880s and quickly going native. According to one account:
"A reporter once came to Prout's Neck to interview the famous artist. He went up to one of the men on the town dock and said, 'I'll give you a quarter if you'll tell me where to find Winslow Homer.'
"With a quick glance at his companions, the man said, 'Let me see the quarter.' When the reporter produced the coin, the man said, 'I'm Winslow Homer.'"
That same kind of story might be reenacted in nearly every Maine town on any given day. I've met artists of one stripe or another — painters, poets, novelists, musicians — tending the counter of a toy store, standing in line at the local quick-mart, working on a boat-restoration crew, dropping off kids at school, dating friends, attending community meetings, living two houses down the road, grubbing about in the garden, and fixing my bathroom. Some of these folks are Maine natives and others came from far and wide for the chance to live more happily, and more productively, on our craggy coast.
My ex-partner and I moved up from Washington, DC, more than 20 years ago. We were looking for a better place to write novels and, in due course, to raise children. I remember telling an old friend how amazed I'd been to discover so many others of our ilk already living here. "You couldn't set off a hand grenade on the village green," I said snarkily, "without taking out a Pulitzer Prize winner and destroying the local art gallery."
Naturally, I understated the case. Even very small towns, especially along the coast, have many art galleries. The pocket-sized city of Rockland (pop. 8,000) boasts no fewer than 24, in addition to the renowned Farnsworth Art Museum. There's also a beautifully restored old theater, countless private studios, and a sizable workforce of full- or part-time artists, all of whom pay taxes and otherwise contribute to the community. This kind of thing — in a town once chiefly notable for the smell of its now-defunct fish-processing plant — might fairly be called an economic renaissance.
Maine has a small but capable Arts Commission which, in addition to the usual grants for artists and organizations, runs a remarkable effort to sustain and nurture traditional arts, and has since 1979 been funding a "Percent for Art" program to place art works in public spaces in every corner of the state. You can see a gallery of these works here: be warned that it is vast.
All this is very cool. It would be even cooler if more people were aware of it.