Eastport is quiet in the morning.
Two visitors stroll up and down the sidewalk along the coast, looking for a good spot to eat breakfast. Across Water Street, locals take a break in Dastardly Dick’s Wicked Good Coffee. The smells of seaweed and fish and saltwater mingle together and waft across town and down the road.
The streets are calm today, but it only accentuates the natural beauty of the easternmost city in the United States, skies, seas, trees and all. At Eastport’s Tides Institute and Museum of Art, photographers, historians and artists are coming together to celebrate the unique port town and all of eastern, coastal Maine.
The institute’s “Quality of Place” initiative is “an effort to document and interpret the natural, built and cultural landscapes of Maine’s easternmost coast and adjacent areas,” according to the art gallery’s Quality of Place website.
“If you can’t get to the middle of Great Heath or Columbia Falls, you can go into this site and do a sort of a 360-degree, spherical view from anywhere in the world,” said Hugh French, the museum’s co-founder and director.
Over 100 panorama photographs of blueberry barrens, war memorials, firehouses, libraries and other points of interest from Lubec to Machias to St. Croix Island fill the Quality of Place website. Click on a photograph and it expands across the screen, rotating slowly to give its viewer the full experience of standing in that specific spot in that particular space.
The panoramas are just part of the project, though. Three hundred and twenty-five photos of properties listed by address create a sort of catalog of Maine architecture on the “Buildings” page. The “Art and History” section includes ceramics, architecture, glass, maps and more.
“It’s definitely a work in progress,” French said. “We need to take it to the next stage.”
A $100,000 photography and text project set to be completed by the end of next year will help round out the website. Two Canadian photographers will head up the new project, which includes historic portraits of old trees, streetscapes, landscapes and period furniture. French plans to publish the project in addition to integrating it into the website.
The new photographs will help enhance Quality of Place’s goal: to get people thinking about what’s unique and important about a place.
If Eastport’s anything, it’s unique. The Moose Island settlement is right at the edge of the Canadian border — iPhones update to Atlantic Time and send a “Welcome abroad!” text to visitors entering the city. It’s just a mile-long jaunt across the Campobello Strait to Campobello Island, New Brunswick.
The city’s rare cultural position creates opportunities for cross-cultural exchange at the Tides Institute. French worked on a Maine-New Brunswick Cultural Agreement, which was established in 2010, for six years.
“We have a cross-border perspective in a lot of things we do,” French said. “We often work regionally. We don’t view ourselves as an Eastport gallery.”
Working in the community, no matter the country, is important to the director. The institute offers up its printmaking studio and letterpress to create community posters and fliers, puts on concerts and sponsors the annual New Year’s Eve sardine and leaf drop. At midnight Atlantic Time, a maple leaf drops from the top of the Water Street gallery. An hour later, a sardine makes the journey.
The fish is homage to years past, when Eastport was part of the thriving sardine industry. Thirteen sardine factories dotted the city by 1886, but when the industry declined, residents moved away. The population has decreased from 5,000 to about 1,300 residents since.
The Tides Institute is an effort to revive the area, now dependent on fishing and tourism. The tall, brick gallery has been a fixture on Water Street since French purchased the dilapidated building in 2002.
Now, the institute spans three historic buildings (a downtown printmaking studio and artist housing) and just acquired a fourth — a North Baptist church that was built in 1819.
“It was a protective move,” French said. “We’re not totally sure what we’re going to do with it, but it is a landmark structure.”
The whole institute began as an experiment, French said. As the only institution in Maine to receive national grant funding — and French’s gallery has secured it twice — it’s safe to call the project a success.
Now, as it expands, the institute will be home to five resident artists this year and likely six in 2015. Megan Singleton, the current resident artist, is a papermaker using local seaweed to craft pages, books and other creations.
A few sheets of Singleton’s paper hang to dry in the downtown letterpress studio. While she works on a journal she created to record her month in Eastport, Damon Weston, a history teacher at Shead High School, reprints a proclamation from the King of England that was issued to Eastport residents 200 years ago. He’ll put the finished posters around town for the city’s re-enactment of the capture of Moose Island.
This is what the Tides Institute is all about, the director said. It’s about the fusion of community and art.
“How do you put something together here that can work in an area like this, that can attract support not only from this area, but from elsewhere and have some real impact?” French said.
He may have already found his answer.