The 4,200 square feet of Coleman Burke Gallery have housed airplanes, trees and animals before—but never all at once. "Salt Water Farm," which opens tonight, brings a bevy of beasts, buoys and everything else that might be found on a backwoods Noah's Ark together in beautiful ways that are often both whimsical and haunting.
Each piece is a collaborative creation of 12 to 15 Bowdoin alumni, current students and non-College artists led by Lecturer in Art John Bisbee. The group worked together this summer in Gouldsboro, Maine for six weeks, using found materials to create simultaneously odd and awesome sculptures.
Each piece is characterized by incredible variety in terms of scale and material. The most monumental structures (and they do get big) boast some of the finest detail, and a single sculpture may contain everything from rugged tires to patchwork quilts.
The breadth of elements engaging, and sometimes warring, with one another in each piece could have been too haphazard, too mismatched. Instead, the well-considered spectrum of size and range of media makes for highly successful, unexpected marriages of unlikely partners.
The surprising combinations and clashes found in the work are due to its deeply collaborative nature. All the artists had a hand in each piece, a process that was difficult for some to adjust to.
"Accepting that was really difficult off the bat, but once you sort of let go of the individual aspect, you just open yourself up to all the possibilities," said Emily Shoenberg '10.
"Artists are selfish; they put a lot of work into what they do," added Alyssa Phanitdasack '10. Bisbee, however, was quick to undermine any protective feelings his group might have harbored.
He would send the group hiking and use the time to "smash all of our projects together," continued Phanitdasack. "He'd drill into Emily's house, he tipped mine over, shoved mine in things, and he just completely made us rethink what we're doing and not be so attached to it."
According to the artists, the intensity of the collaboration was not only difficult during the process, but also in terms of envisioning a cohesive body of work toward its end.
"That was definitely the hardest part: trying to make everyone's brilliant ideas seem brilliant together," said Sam Gilbert '10. "It was very hard to make everything work together, because everyone obviously has their way of thinking about aesthetic and materials."
"There was a long time when we had no idea how it was going to come together, because things were so different, so disparate, it was like, 'Well, we've got this mess of really different things, how do we make it look like it's supposed to be a family, like it's supposed to be together?'" said Shoenberg. "I think it happened here," she added, indicating the show around her.
Ultimately, the exhibition reflects both the collaborative process as well as the communal environment in which the artists worked: a shared space that mingled back-to-basics minimalism with irreverence, delight in nature, and creative risk-taking.
"The landscape was stunning," said Schonberg. "We played music a lot and worked all day in the studio."
The group lived on grounds owned by Roxanne Quimby, founder of the Quimby Family Foundation, which benefits the arts and the environment through a variety of philanthropic outlets. Quinby is the co-founder of the Burt's Bees brand.
"The property is pretty ridiculous," said Gilbert. The artists enjoyed a bay, pond, fields, forest and the ocean. They stayed in two houses while a few chose to camp outdoors.
Just as the artists worked together, they ate together too. Each night, two members of the group cooked for the others, often using vegetables from a local farm.
"We traded labor for vegetables," said Schonberg, who added that the group of artists worked on the farm twice a week, receiving a stipend in produce.
This communal environment, its inside jokes and intensive work, is evident in the work on view. Rarely does art speak so joyfully and compellingly about its origin that viewers will wish they had been there as it was conceived.
Said Schonberg of the show, "It's a crazy, amazing culmination—a really whirlwind, beautiful six weeks."
This article was edited for correctness after its original publish date.