Why They Moved to Maine
Maine’s small cultural, environmental, and artistic institutions play an important role in attracting the best and the brightest
- By: Edgar Allen Beem
- Photography by: Mark Fleming
Ask someone who moved to Maine how they came to that decision, and you’ll hear the usual reasons people choose to resettle during their working years: a change of jobs, a need for adventure, a new relationship (or the end of an old one). Dig a bit deeper, though, and you might start hearing the same names coming up again and again: Outward Bound, the Maine College of Art, the Island Institute, the Maine Media Workshops and College, the Haystack Mountain School of Crafts. For decades a handful of Maine institutions — small colleges, environmental programs, art workshops, and assorted nonprofits — have been the unsung heroes of the state’s push to attract new residents. Here are five stories that show how the decision to spend a week or two in Maine led to a life-changing decision to move here full-time.
Daniel Stephens, 40
Brought to Maine by:
Maine Media College
Daniel Stephens always intended to make films. In college at the University of South Florida, however, the self-described “computer geek” got sidetracked into Internet security, developed a firewall program for small businesses, and left school to start NetWolves, a Tampa-based Internet access and services company.
In 2000, he left NetWolves to sail the East Coast for two years, during which time he resolved to return to his first passion — filmmaking. Stephens looked into film schools from UCLA to NYU, “but this little place in the wilds of Maine kept coming up.”
Maine Media College is an outgrowth of Maine Media Workshops, and the school’s one-year certificate program was designed for people like Daniel Stephens who are in the midst of a career change.
“I had never been to Maine before. I enrolled sight unseen,” says Stephens. “I just paid the tuition, got in the car, and came to Maine. I literally set foot in Maine and never left.”
New York might have been a more likely choice for a fledgling filmmaker, but Daniel prefers the laid-back nature of coastal Maine.
“You can walk down the street in Maine and just feel free. There’s a level of pressure that doesn’t exist here. That allows me to feel jubilantly creative.”
Stephens met his fiancée, Brooke Brewer, at the Rockport workshop and the couple is now partners in Good Focus, LLC. Good Focus has made documentary-style promotional films for Bowdoin College and the University of Southern Maine, but Stephens has ambitions beyond commercial film.
Currently, he has three projects in the works. He is shooting a documentary film about Pie Lab, a Greensboro, Alabama, project that uses a bakery as an instrument of community development. (Pie Lab, too, has a Maine connection, being the brainchild of Project M, a design activist program that has held summer sessions in Belfast.)
He is also planning to film Anatomy of a Tide, a coming-of-age movie set on a Maine island and based on a script written by Mainer Joel Strunk, in July. In September, he will travel to Omaha, Nebraska, to make a low budget film about amateur wrestlers.
In addition to his filmmaking, Stephens teaches lighting at Maine Media Workshops. And in all of his projects, he says he is able to draw generously and collaboratively on the diverse talents of local visual media professionals.
“Maine,” says Stephens, “is the only place I’ve ever been where I feel like the film community is really a community.”
Jenny Begin, 51
Brought to Maine by:
Common Ground Fair
Jenny Begin was studying organic farming at the New Alchemy Institute on Cape Cod in 1981 when she first came to Maine to attend the Common Ground Fair, the Maine Organic Farmers and Gardeners Association’s annual fall festival of alternative, sustainable living. A Pittsburgh native with a degree in zoology from Duke, Begin had found folks in Massachusetts a bit unfriendly. Her visit to Maine persuaded her this was where she wanted to be.
“I came up and I saw all these folks growing organic food and making things, and I knew this was my community,” she says. “These were people like me.”
In 1982, Begin drove up the coast, rolled into downtown Damariscotta, and thought, “Oh, I’m home.” She’s lived in the charming midcoast village ever since.
Like most Mainers, Begin has done a little of this, a little of that in order to get along. Her first job in Maine was as a reporter for the Lincoln County News. She volunteered as a botanist on Maine’s Critical Areas program, investigating plant communities in peat bogs, then spent a decade working for the State Planning Office. She even tried her hand at oyster farming.
In 1995, she met her husband, David, while the two were repacking dried apricots at the local Rising Tide food co-op. Together, Jenny and David opened Salt Bay Trading Company and River Café in downtown Damariscotta. (Salt Bay Trading has since relocated to Route One in Newcastle.)
On the civic front, Begin is active in the Damariscotta River Association and she manages a local community garden.
“The thing about Maine,” she observes, “is that you can be a big fish in a small pond. One person can make a big difference in Maine.”
And though the Begins live right downtown with very little land to cultivate, Jenny pursues her passion for organic farming by keeping bees, growing herbs around her yard, tapping cemetery maples to make maple syrup, picking apples to press into cider, picking berries in season, and growing a wide variety of dry beans in the community garden.
“You can raise your kids so they know where their food is coming from,” Begin says. “Even if you don’t live on a farm, they can still connect with the cycles of nature.”
And the Common Ground Fair is still a big event in the Begin family. “When I first went to the Common Ground Fair, I was a stranger,” says Begin. “Now I know half the people.
When we go, it’s a reunion of this far-flung community. We all met at Common Ground.”
Rob and Sarah Dwelley, 59 & 56
Brought to Maine by:
In 1968, at age seventeen, Rob Dwelley came to Maine from Poughkeepsie, New York, to attend a twenty-eight-day Outward Bound course on Hurricane Island in Penobscot Bay. He’s never quite gotten over it.
Dwelley says the month-long outdoor survival program was one of the most difficult and most rewarding experiences of his life.
“To me, Outward Bound instructors were the best of the best,” Dwelley says. “The highest aspiration of my life was to have the hard and soft skills to be an Outward Bound instructor.”
Dwelley felt the pull of Maine both from his Outward Bound experience and because his father was originally from East Machias. After graduating from Washington and Lee University, Dwelley became the U.S. distributor for Black Diamond Foul Weather Gear and visited the Outward Bound office in Rockland in hopes of selling gear to the school. After making the sale, he discovered that Outward Bound needed volunteers, he jumped at the opportunity.
For fourteen years, Dwelley spent summers on Hurricane Island, volunteering as a boat driver. Sarah Dwelley, a registered nurse, eventually started coming along to serve on the island’s medical staff. The two would eventually marry.
Working as a building contractor in Westport, Massachusetts, Dwelley kept his love of Maine and the sea alive by directing the WoodenBoat Show in Newport, Rhode Island. He credits an instructor at Outward Bound, Lance Lee, the founder of Apprenticeshop, with helping him make the show a success.
In 1999, on the way home from an annual reunion of former Outward Bound staff in Cape Cod, Rob and Sarah Dwelley decided it was time to move to Maine. They were about to build a home for themselves in Little Compton, Rhode Island. Instead, they built their new home in Hope.
“We looked at our lives. All of our close friends, the people we love, all lived in Maine,” recalls Rob, who estimates that between 150 and 200 former Outward Bound staffers have settled in the midcoast region. “What are we doing moving to Rhode Island?”
Though Sarah had been advocating the move to Maine for years, she says the move was not without its challenges.
“For me, it was not an easy transition,” she says. “I was used to the gentle, rolling topography of southern New England. There’s a lot of harshness and rawness to the Maine landscape. It took three years for it to get into my bones. Now I embrace it. I love the power and ruggedness of it.
“My experience out on Hurricane convinced me that we really needed to serve our islands more than we had been,” says Sarah, who now directs the hospice program of Pen Bay Healthcare. “Now we serve Vinalhaven, North Haven, Matinicus, Monhegan, and Islesboro.”
Rob works as a project manager for Phi Home Designs and also serves as the volunteer director of the National BoatBuilding Challenge. “My biggest fear when we came to Maine,” he says, “was that I wouldn’t be able to make enough money as a builder. It turned out to be totally the opposite.
“I’ve died and gone to heaven. I get to use my passion, building homes. But I’m still trying to live up to Lance Lee’s challenge to communicate my experience effectively.”
Rob Snyder, 38
Brought to Maine by:
In 2002, Rob Snyder was studying for his PhD in cultural anthropology at York University in Toronto when his colleagues ran into staff members from the Island Institute at an Islands of the World Conference on Price Edward Island. The Rockland-based Island Institute’s mission of sustaining traditional ways of life exactly matched Snyder’s interests, so his colleagues suggested he look into it.
At the time, Snyder was focused on tourism development schemes in southern Asia. In particular, his research examined how people ended up having to perform their traditions in order to become modernized, a phenomenon he calls the “Disneyfication of culture.”
Intrigued by the prospect of working to help preserve a traditional Maine island way of life, Snyder applied to become an Island Fellow. Over the past ten years, the Island Institute has placed almost seventy fellows in positions where they assist island schools, municipal governments, libraries, historical societies, and local nonprofit organizations.
After turning down Snyder’s application to become an Island Fellow, the Island Institute hired him as grant writer focused on access to and preservation of working waterfronts.
“We rejected Rob as a fellow,” declares Island Institute co-founder Peter Ralston. “Now he’s the future of the institute.”
“My wife and I came to Maine,” says Snyder, “because we wanted to feel we could make a difference. We didn’t think we could achieve any level of impact in China, what with the language and cultural barriers.”
For the past five years, Snyder has served as the Island Institute’s vice president for programs, directing an array of programs aimed at education, environmental, economic, and energy issues on Maine’s inhabited islands. He and his young family live just blocks from the institute offices in downtown Rockland. “He’s the one who really put Maine in the lead nationally protecting working waterfront,” says Ralston.
Snyder has been successful because he has been able to gain acceptance by all segments of island society, from fishermen to summerfolk, Ralston says. Snyder says it’s just a matter of being a good listener. “The ability to listen is valued here more than I would have imagined, and that’s something they teach you as an anthropologist — to listen,” Snyder says. “It’s taken me a long time to figure out how to fit in on the Maine coast, because I’m not from here. I’m a professional outsider.”
John Bisbee, 45
Brought to Maine by: Skowhegan School of Painting and Sculpture
Sculptor John Bisbee has taken Maine by storm, which somehow seems appropriate for an artist who originally blew into the state from Kansas.
In 1992, Bisbee, who grew up in the Boston area, had graduated from Alfred University, and was a graduate student at Wichita State University, when he discovered that Wichita State was one of the many universities in the country that offer scholarships to the Skowhegan School of Painting and Sculpture on Lake Wesserunsett in Madison.
“Going to Skowhegan was like finding an old dog,” says Bisbee, who has a commendable habit of picking up strays. “You know you’re going to love it, but you don’t know how much you’re going to love it.”
The nine-week Skowhegan School program brings sixty-five young artists to Maine each summer to work with some of the best-known artists in the world. Skowhegan is part art summer camp, part professional finishing school.
“Skowhegan is a microcosm of Maine,” says Bisbee. “You’ve got creatives of the highest order from all over the world living and working in unparalleled beauty.”
So when Bisbee met painter Mark Wethli at the McDowell Colony in New Hampshire in 1995 and Wethli invited him to teach at Bowdoin College, Bisbee jumped at the chance. He quickly became a force not only on the Brunswick campus, but also on the Maine art scene.
John Bisbee is now nationally known for welding spikes and nails into fantastic abstract forms that evolve from the properties of their individual parts. One of his sculptures won the 2001 Portland Museum of Art Biennial purchase prize and his 2008 Portland Museum of Art retrospective, “Bright Common Spikes,” won the critics’ designation as the best solo show by a local artist at the inaugural New England Awards. His band, Bright Common, is about to release its first album.
Bisbee zips around the state in an old police cruiser that identifies him as a self-appointed U.S. Art Marshal (motto “To Observe and Protest”) and you can often find it parked outside Brunswick’s Fort Andross. That’s where Bisbee maintains several studios and where he and colleague Mark Wethli have established the Coleman Burke Gallery (which also has a space in New York City) as one of Maine’s most important alternative art spaces.
This summer, Bisbee is one of ten artists selected to create new work to celebrate the fiftieth anniversary of the Storm King Art Center, the prestigious outdoor sculpture park in Mountainville, New York.
“All the top makers, the vast majority of them somehow have that stamp,” says Bisbee of the Skowhegan alums who form a Who’s Who of the art world. “Skowhegan has excellent foresight in its admissions process. They have a great eye for future core samples.”
When not racing around the state or back and forth between Maine and New York, John Bisbee holes up in Harpswell where he owns a home.
“I didn’t know, but I deeply hoped that this would be where I ended up living,” says Bisbee of Maine. “I’m never leaving.”
- By: Edgar Allen Beem
- Photography by: Mark Fleming