Hundreds of revelers head to Peaks Island every fall for Sacred and Profane — even though the anything-goes celebration of the creative spirit is a big secret.
By Will Grunewald
Here’s how Sacred and Profane works: from the wharf in Portland, follow the crowd onto the Peaks Island ferry. Then, parade en masse across the island, past a menagerie of costumed performers, to Battery Steele, an abandoned artillery bunker. By the flicker of candles and torches, wander the murky-dark labyrinth full of avant-garde art installations, dancers, actors, musicians. And afterward, head above ground for a moonrise dinner.
Photographs by Mark Fleming
Here’s the catch: there’s no website, no number to call, no flyer on bulletin boards that tells you the date. Last fall, one hopeful individual started a Reddit thread asking for info and got zero responses. This year, I asked at museums, galleries, and coffee shops — no one could say when the festival was happening. But it didn’t used to be such a secret.
In 1995, Michael Libby, now of Lewiston, was working as a housepainter on Peaks, making abstract paintings of parking lots on the side. “I was pretty hungover one morning, and just between sleep and waking, this idea to show my paintings in the bunker occurred to me,” he recalled recently. “People on the island said, ‘Well, no one’s going to come.’” He and a few friends ran with the idea anyway, and some 70 guests showed up.
“When you’re in the middle of that tunnel, there’s this darkness that you don’t experience anywhere else — it’s almost buoyant,” he said. “I don’t know what overshadowed what — nature, food, moon, art, music. It was all breathtaking.” Organizers promoted ensuing festivals with posters and ads, attendance grew, and now they don’t need to publicize the event at all.
Libby, who took a 15-year hiatus, got involved again a few years ago. “It kind of freaked me out how many people were there,” he said. “It’s honestly a bit of a surprise it’s still going at all, but there must have been 700 people, all word of mouth.”
“I really like stories I hear about the origins, because people don’t get it right,” he noted. “There were these kids talking a couple of years ago — they were 17 and 18 — and they said, ‘I’ve been here since the first one.’ I mean, they weren’t even born yet, but am I going to tell them otherwise? Maybe that’s why it’s been so successful. People have their own stories — it’s not about the facts.”