Making Art, Making a Life

Midcoast “nature people” Kate and Jonathan Mess push boundaries in the gallery, keep it real at home.

By Edgar Allen Beem
Photographed by Molly Haley

Like countless artists before them, Jonathan and Kate Mess are inspired by Maine’s wild, rugged landscape, but their work manifests that terrain in subtle ways. “We go for walks and just soak it all in,” says Kate. “Then we use elements of the landscape in ways that are not representational or literal.”

Consider her elegant jewelry, which pushes the envelope conceptually and materially. One collection of enameled rings, earrings, and wall objects, called “Barnacle,” takes its forms from marine fauna, such as mussels, oysters, and the sticky arthropods for which the series is named. Burnt, fossil-like patterns distinguish her “Charred” collection of earrings and pendants, which she makes by applying cupric oxide and metal dust to glossy black enamel surfaces. Sometimes she etches enamel with a laser, using a process she first tried at Haystack Mountain School of Crafts in 2013.

“I believe I’m charting new territory with these techniques,” says the 34-year-old, “and I want to continue exploring and pushing these material discoveries.”

Meanwhile, Jonathan, 42, uses other artists’ leftover clay, glazes, and slips to build raw, elemental ceramic sculptures that seem to replicate the forces of creation. “I saw a lot of waste and a lot of possibility,” he says. “And being frugal, I saw a lot of free stuff.” His works resemble slices of earth with sedimentary deposits, layers, folds, and striations, suggesting tectonic plates, perhaps, or shell middens, or landfills. “I’m a landscape artist in a very crude and different way,” he says. “I sort of like playing geology in reverse. My work involves fire, earth, metal, water, weather, moisture, and the sun.”

This summer, the couple presents Symbiosis, an exploration of the similarities and differences in their work and the way their practices intertwine, at The Good Supply, an arts-meets-housewares boutique in Pemaquid. It’s their first dual exhibition.

Since moving to Maine nine years ago, the Messes have made a mark on a young arts scene that places a premium on living ethically and sustainably. They live with their 2-year-old daughter, Josie, in a converted barn high above Damariscotta Lake in Jefferson, where they grow their own food and make their art in a daylight basement. They’re expecting their second child in the fall.

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“They’re in the middle of the Maine arts communities,” says Maine Sunday Telegram art critic Daniel Kany. “Their combination of education, personality, range of work, abilities, and community engagement puts them right at the place where the lines between craft and art have dissolved.”

Nothing the Messes do demonstrates that blurring of craft and art as well as Kate’s “Loaded” collection of delicate, lacy earrings, bracelets, and necklaces. Look closely and you’ll see the dark, intricate forms are actually layered silhouettes of handguns, a sly reference to our complicated gun culture from a young woman who grew up in a family of hunters.

The pair met as graduate students at the State University of New York at New Paltz, one of the country’s leading MFA programs. After graduating in 2008, they moved to Portland, where Jonathan, an Ohio native, had a one-year position teaching art at Waynflete School. Kate, who grew up in Wisconsin, made jewelry and worked as a graphic designer. They found Portland’s arts community vibrant and welcoming, though it wasn’t the lifestyle they wanted long-term. “We loved Portland,” says Jonathan, “but we didn’t move to Maine to live in a city. We’re nature people.”

So in 2010, when he was hired to teach art at Newcastle’s Lincoln Academy, the couple happily moved to Jefferson. Kate was blown away the first time she saw the view of Damariscotta Lake from Bunker Hill, and she and Jonathan quickly fell in love with the beauty and culture of the midcoast. “Everybody we know here is making things and working with their hands,” she says.

Kate’s designs have been included in two exhibitions at Boston’s Society of Arts and Crafts, as well as in shows from coast to coast and abroad. Jonathan’s distinctive use of salvaged materials has earned him a 2015 Maine Arts Commission Fellowship, and in 2016, his sculpture was selected for the ceramic biennial at the Henan Museum in Zhengzhou City, China.

Rockland’s Center for Maine Contemporary Art carries Kate’s jewelry in its shop. In 2012, director Suzette McAvoy chose Jonathan’s sculpture for that year’s CMCA biennial. She was drawn, she says, to his “fully sculptural work, rich with texture and a superb color sense.” And she’s equally impressed by the couple’s drive and general well-roundedness.

“The Messes represent the best of contemporary art and craft here in Maine,” says McAvoy, “living a full professional and family life and making work they believe in.”

Symbiosis: Creative Exchange Between Kate & Jonathan Mess opens with a reception at 5 p.m. on July 22 and runs through September 3. The Good Supply, 2106 Bristol Rd., Pemaquid. 207-607-3121.


Edgar Allen Beem

Contributing editor Edgar Allen Beem has been writing for Down East since 1983.