Lucinda Bliss conceptualized her latest art project while quarantined in her Paris hotel room Nov. 14, 2015 — one day after the terrorist attack that killed 130 people and injured more than 350.
At the time, Bliss, interim dean of graduate studies at the New Hampshire Institute of Art, had been visiting the city with her mother, writer Alison Hawthorne Deming, to research a matriarchal lineage project. She said during a recent interview at the Bridge Cafe that the experience was particularly terrifying because she could have easily been a victim, had she known one of her favorite bands as a teen, Eagles of Death Metal, was playing nearby.
But she didn’t, and so she wasn’t present for the concert’s mass shooting. Instead, she was stuck in Hotel Henriette, which was in lockdown for 24 hours following the attack. Bliss felt scared — and not just of terrorists.
“All around the globe, all of a sudden, politicians were talking about closing borders,” Bliss said. “To my mind, it was a scary political shift.”
A few days prior, Bliss had received an email from Nat May, director of Space Gallery in Portland, Maine, about applying for a Kindling Fund grant, aimed at supporting innovative, artist-organized projects in Maine.
She initially thought she might submit a project dealing with borders and boundaries, a topic of interest for a while, but was uncertain how she might fine-tune the details. All of a sudden, she had time and inspiration.
“I just wrote this grant all day long. I think I submitted it at the last minute — 11:59 p.m. that day, and it was due at midnight,” Bliss said. “Normally, I’m a very careful writer. But when I wrote that grant, I was mad and upset and afraid.”
Her proposal was “Tracking the Border,” an interdisciplinary project based on the navigation of the 611 miles along the border separating Canada and Maine. It involved traveling those miles by running, paddling, cross-country skiing and snowshoeing while engaging in dialogue with various individuals on border issues — like natives, foresters, geologists and border patrol officers. The artwork would come from her response.
Bliss, who splits her time between Manchester and Bath, Maine, chose this border due to its “fascinating history,” and because the Kindling Fund is aimed at Maine-based projects.
“For the Sept. 11 attacks, terrorists came through Canada to the Portland Airport. So there is sort of a connection to border patrolling and how that’s shifted in the last 17 years,” Bliss said.
To her delight, the project was over-funded. Research began in January 2016 and continued throughout the year via back-and-forth trips, during which she still worked her NHIA and Colby College (where she’s a visiting assistant professor) jobs.
The resulting artwork is on view at Common Street Arts in Waterville, Maine, through Feb. 25, and comprises 10 mixed media drawings, an installation, 12 photographs, 81 small drawings and a slideshow documenting her journey. Many pieces incorporate nude self portraits and the Maine border in some way, aesthetically or otherwise. She presents a lecture on the project, “611 Miles: An Interrogation of Political, Natural and Interior Borders,” at LaBelle Winery Sunday, Feb. 19, at 3 p.m.
Bliss heard all kinds of stories while working on “Tracking the Border,” from childhood tales about swimming across the border to narratives about grandparents crossing over illegally to find work. Drawing is what Bliss teaches, and it’s usually the form her work takes, but it seemed right to use different media in interpreting her experience.
“I think one of the reasons I ended up doing nudes is that my work was so physical. It was about the feeling of running and exploring space,” she said. “I was surprised the work took so many different forms. And that was really satisfying. I really believe that artists box themselves in too much.”
Bliss realized early on she’d need to alter research plans as well. She’d imagined her journey would incorporate chronological movement from one end of the border to the other, and as a regular runner, she thought she was capable of doing so. But the border was more wild than she expected.
“It would take my entire life to navigate that actual terrain!” she said. “Because of how it’s forested, and how the underbrush has grown back up, you really can’t get through it with your body. You need hatchets! Just to move 20 feet would take a tremendous amount of time.”
She hopes her project encourages a dialogue about the world’s dispute of borders, which has been of interest to her for a while. A few years ago, she collaborated with the Maine Farmland Trust to create art inspired by runs traveling farmland borders, using her own perception and the shapes that came up on her Garmin.
“[The farmers] knew their land so well — they’d say, ‘Run to the old cedar grove. Then turn right. Then you’re going to hit a stone wall. Then you want to go until you hit the barbed wire fence,’” Bliss said. “They would think it was easy to navigate, and it never was.”