Corrected

Creating a ‘Heroine’ for Main Street

By Dagney C. Ernest | Jan 02, 2019
Photo by: Dagney C. Ernest Annie Bailey videos a rotation of her 60-foot “crankie” in the Main Street windows of Rockland’s Farnsworth Art Museum.

Rockland — Post-holiday shopping season, things get pretty quiet downtown after dark — even in a county seat. But on Main Street in Rockland, there is movement and light and storytelling every day from 10 a.m. to 9 p.m., thanks to the Farnsworth Art Museum’s inaugural Winter Windows Project.

Annie Bailey’s “Abbie Burgess, Lighthouse Heroine” installation is, actually, pretty quiet, although if you lean into the right corner, you can detect the vibration of a small motor. It’s what keeps Bailey’s 60-foot painting slowly rotating to the left, so the story unfolds to the right, like a storybook. The installation came out of both the local artist’s love of “crankies” and a recent large-scale work she did last winter at the University of Maine at Augusta’s Danforth Gallery.

A crankie gets its name from its essential structure: a panoramic painting that is scrolled or “cranked” from one spool to another in order to illustrate a narrative, song or spoken story. Bailey first encountered the form during an NPR Tiny Desk Concert by folksinger/songwriters and storytellers Anna & Elizabeth.

“They brought out this really beautiful crankie box they had made that accompanied a story they told about a woman named Lella Todd they’d met during their story collecting,” Bailey said last month. “And I was just completely captivated by it!”

At that time, Bailey, who earned her bachelor of fine arts degree at the Rhode Island School of Design, had been doing hand-drawn animation, and the crankie offered another way to think sequentially about storytelling, she said.

“I was really excited about this idea that instead of replacing image on top of image, you could have this sort of knitting together of scenes in this linear sequential format,” she said.

The form also dovetailed with the shadow puppetry she had been doing, presenting Ruth Moore’s “The Ballad of the Night Charley Tended Weir” with her father, Steve Bailey, at Oyster River Wine Growers, Tinder Hearth Bakery’s open mic and a few private parties. Anna & Elizabeth’s crankie was backlit.

“I fell in love with that crankie, and then had an opportunity not long after that to make some piece of work for the Farnsworth’s Collective Bash. The theme of that Bash was the circus, and I wanted to tell the story of the Royal Tar,” she said, referring to the tragic fire and sinking of a steamship full of exotic animals off Vinalhaven in 1836.

The result was very simple, she said, built in an old wooden shipping crate, with curtain rods for cranks, over a light box. It was well received and went on to be in the Farnsworth’s 2017 “Art of Disaster” show. Soon after, Bailey had an opportunity to be a visiting artist at UMA, which she turned into a gallery residency of sorts.

“I had a show called ‘In The Midst of Making,’ in which I pretty much just took over the entire gallery as a studio space and shared my process with students and faculty and made a 35-foot-long scroll of Abbie Burgess, which is what informed this work,” she said.

Abbie Burgess (Grant) famously, at age 16, kept her invalid mother and several siblings alive and the oil lighthouse lamps lit for almost a month on the forbidding Matinicus Rock during the stormy winter of 1856, a tale made famous in recent years by the children’s book “Keep the Lights Burning, Abbie” and others (as well as by the name of the Rockland Coast Guard station’s buoy tender). Bailey, who grew up in Tenants Harbor, first heard of Burgess, and the Royal Tar, as a child. It was a story she could relate to then — and more recently.

“I was looking for some sort of a heroine last year, was feeling like the whole climate of our culture was so tumultuous and sort of stormy. This story felt like a way to remind myself to keep steady amidst the storm of what was happening,” she said.

The UMA work was the largest scroll painting she’d made to date, working with her preferred India ink and powdered graphite on paper. So when the Winter Windows Project call went around, she thought about making the Burgess work into an outsized crankie.

“I thought it would be really, really fun and I loved the idea of it being illuminated, and it just felt like it could be a sort of magical little moment on the street,” she said. “I never in a million years thought it would get chosen!”

The Farnsworth announced its decision in August, and Bailey got to work. She did research at Rockland Historical Society and Maine Lighthouse Museum, trying to determine the accuracy of the many accounts of Burgess’ story and figure what details of it she wanted to focus on.

“It was really interesting to try to balance how much historical accuracy I could get and what I had to use creative freedom towards,” she said.

The island itself is not well documented in the photography of Burgess’ day. Bailey had conversations with different boat captains about getting out to it in the fall, but that didn’t work out. So she relied on aerial, current and historical photographs of the Matinicus Rock Light Station.

The technical challenges of the crankie itself were many. Bailey wanted to use the materials she had in past crankie projects, including a paper vellum that is semi-transparent and has a kind of glow when illuminated from behind. “I did a bunch of painting and we made a mock-up on vellum and then decided it was too fragile,” she said.

Then she considered painting on paper and then printing the image on fabric. But painting on fabric — something she’d never done — was the final decision, leading to many others, including what kind of fabric, what kind of ink and how to apply it. “I had never used ink on fabric before, so that was a whole learning curve,” she said.

Said ink had a tendency to drip down the fabric, so she had to thicken it with seaweed-derived sodium alginate, as well as use some acrylic paint. The fabric ended up coming from Traditional Rigging Co. in Appleton, owned by Tom and Dayle Tognoni Ward. Dayle Ward is one of several community makers who collaborated with Bailey on bringing her Winter Windows Project to life.

“She’s a traditional sailmaker and introduced me to the fabric I ended up using — untreated, really tightly woven cotton that's used by sailmakers to make dodgers and sail covers,” Bailey said.

Ward agreed to stitch the entire 60-foot-long loop, which became a work in progress during the fall.

“It turned into prototypes of the loop and she was just so kind and generous with her time. She's really a master of what she does,” Bailey said, adding that while the project began with zigzag, Ward ended up using a straight-line stitch because it was more historically appropriate.

How that loop of fabric would be continuously rotated, as opposed to the one-way hand turning of a traditional crankie, was something Bailey had no history to fall back on in solving. “Figuring out the mechanism, I was really, really lucky to have help with that,” she said.

The first help came from Lee Zamir, a Bose designer and engineer who, like Bailey, is a member of the Steel House, Rockland’s center for design, technology and education. The initial prototypes were built in the Steel House’s communal space; one of them, resembling a dry cleaner rack, is still affixed to the ceiling there. But the fabric required more space than Bailey’s Steel House studio could handle, so she rented space short-term at the Lincoln Street Center and began working with local artist/maker/MidCoLab co-founder Andy White.

“And he's just maverick. I mean, he can just build anything! He was the one that ended up designing and building the final mechanism,” Bailey said.

Other collaborators include friends who agreed to pose for photographic reference, and Sid Quarrier and Daniel Creischer, who built an easel that enabled Bailey to adjust degrees all the way from horizontal to vertical as needed for the painting process.

“I traced some elements of the photographs and projected them onto the canvas, so I needed the canvas to be vertical for certain parts,” Bailey said.

The week before Thanksgiving was intense, Bailey said, as the Winter Windows Project was set to open during the museum’s annual Festival of Lights celebration. White and Creischer installed the work the day after Thanksgiving, as planned.

“It got through first day without too much trouble; the second day there was a little bit of a glitch in the tracking that was solved pretty quickly,” Bailey said. “Andy's been solving those problems immediately, which I'm very thankful for.”

The tracking is via grooves on the two wooden rollers, which accommodate a boltrope sewn into the top of the fabric loop. In the weeks after installation, a new bicycle chain was put on the motor; and a fan was added to dispel the motor’s heat. The motor and roller get their own spotlight in the window’s right corner.

“That was a conscious decision, to make the mechanism visible. Historically, moving panoramas were often framed with a proscenium or something that would hide all the mechanical parts, because it was supposed to be magic,” Bailey said.

The magic appears to be fully intact, given the way people of all ages on the sidewalk have been engaging with the work.

“One of my favorite parts is that nobody has to pay to see it. That it is so accessible to everybody was really important to me,” Bailey said.

“Abbie Burgess, Lighthouse Heroine” is scheduled to be up and running in the Farnsworth Art Museum’s Main Street windows through Jan. 15. For more information about Bailey’s work, including a video of her Royal Tar crankie, visit anniebaileyart.com. And for all things crankie, visit Sue Truman's thecrankiefactory.com website.

Editor's note: original article mis-attributed The Crankie Factory website.

Comments (4)
Posted by: JOHN GEE | Jan 07, 2019 11:22

Congratulations, Annie!  It is quite and education for us all!  Mike Gee



Posted by: JOHN GEE | Jan 07, 2019 11:20

Congratulations, Annie!  It is quite and education for us all!



Posted by: Kendall Merriam | Jan 05, 2019 09:02

Very cool art project!



Posted by: Robin Gabe |

What a great story, Dagney!  Thanks so much.



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