By Brian Kevin
From our April 2023 Animals issue
Depictions of animals are central to much of James Francis’s art, but he’d never describe himself as a wildlife artist. “We have a creation story about how Glooskap took an arrow and shot it into an ash tree,” says Francis, director of cultural and historic preservation for the Penobscot Nation, of which he’s a member. “And when that ash tree splits open, it creates all the animals of the landscape, including people. So we were created at the same time as the moose, the deer, the bear, the butterfly, the eel. For me, then, I wouldn’t call any of them ‘wildlife.’ They’re brothers and sisters, fellow creatures.”
Francis is what Hollywood types call a multi-hyphenate: a historian-photographer-filmmaker- painter. In 2021, the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service commissioned him to paint a piece for what will be a central exhibit at the federal agency’s museum in Shepherdstown, West Virginia, now in the process of reinstallation. His piece depicts a school of Atlantic salmon and an eníkahkwak, a Penobscot fishing spear, using clusters of acrylic dots reminiscent of beadwork or cells beneath a microscope. The plentiful dots symbolize the thousands of salmon that have returned to the Penobscot River to spawn in the decade since two key dam removals. It’s a style he’s used before — the dots stand up off the canvas, giving the fish a three-dimensionality, and to preserve it, Francis doesn’t make prints of such pieces. He’s consulting with USF&W staffers on the exhibition, titled The First Stewards, which the museum hopes to open within the year.
Growing up on the Indian Island reservation, Francis has paddled the Penobscot and its tributaries plenty. When he thinks of particularly significant Maine places, his mind goes to an iconic portage in the Penobscot watershed — Mud Pond Carry, at the edge of the drainage, where it overlaps the Allagash Wilderness Waterway. “You know, you’re walking a trail that is thousands of years old, connecting two major waterways,” he says. “The two-mile portage is gouged into the land, maybe three feet in some places. For that to happen means there had to have been some traffic. That’s the beauty of these portages that link one river system to another, these places in this world that are carved into the landscape. For me, that’s what Mud Pond Carry represents, and the times that I’ve been there have been just magical.”
Headshot by Ryan Hagerty, courtesy of USF&W