The potluck supper after the opening of Amy Stacey Curtis’s 2014 exhibition in Parsonsfield, Maine, was held by candlelight, not to set a mood, but because the building didn’t have electricity. Curtis’s self-produced shows don’t happen in typical gallery settings. They appear in abandoned mills in her home state, and because they happen every two years, she has christened them “biennials,” though these solo turns have little in common with the Venice Biennale and other high-profile shows.
Of course, many artists have every-other-year shows in their galleries, but Curtis’s are different in content, context, and scale. Her 2014 biennial, the eighth of the nine that she has planned, occupied 24,000 square feet of the old Kezar Falls Woolen Mill/Robinson Mill, a riverside complex where fragments of wool still dripped from the rafters, looking rather like Spanish moss in a Louisiana bayou. Curtis is not the only person to recycle factory buildings in the area. There’s the Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art in the Berkshires, for instance, where she’d love to show, but that venue currently focuses on well-known artists such as Jenny Holzer and James Turrell, who get support from the museum, unlike Curtis, who does it all on her own.
When she starts planning a biennial—always a 22-month process resulting in an evanescent exhibition that runs for only three weeks—she sends out letters to mill owners, first explaining installation art and then going on to specify that her exhibitions are “not-for-profit, insured, highly publicized, and interactive.” She asks for donated space or a discounted short-term lease. She explains that she will thoroughly clean the space and get it up to code if it isn’t already. She has the help of her husband, William Curtis, a structural engineer. She has spent enormous amounts of time on her hands and knees, scrubbing creaky floors. She asks about wiring, roofing, plumbing, fire hydrants, and burglar alarms. She details the economic impact that the biennial will have on the local community. Visitors eat at area restaurants, stay at inns, and shop. Another enticement is that some mill owners are trying to sell their disused white elephants, and although it’s difficult to imagine Robinson Mill as spiffy condos, stranger things have happened in the real estate market. Getting hundreds of visitors into these spaces can’t hurt in the effort to raise public awareness that they exist.
Curtis’s entrepreneurial skills are obvious from all this. In her eight biennials to date, she’s never failed to find a host mill; she’s a persuasive personality. As a child, Curtis moved around a lot with her mother, landing in Maine, in the small town of North Waterboro, at age 16. She went to the University of Maine in Orono, double majoring in art and advertising, both of which have affected her work. Advertising, which she went into figuring that it was practical and would help her land a job after graduation, now helps her to “sell” her shows. She gives free talks at colleges and community organizations, hoping to build interest in her work. Math, however, was her first love, “a constant and a comfort,” as she calls it.
At Orono, she continued to study math; then she completed a Master’s degree in Art and Psychology at Vermont College. “During my research, I noticed patterns of repetition and a chaos coupled with order,” she says. “Harking back to my interest in mathematics, I began to perceive these patterns in all things—every surface, activity, task, routine, and cycle—that everything had some balance of chaos, order, and repetition.” She speaks of this balance as a basis for everything that she hopes to explore and present in her work. In her mind, her work affects each visitor’s physical, personal, and collective space, and each visitor impacts the work. This interaction was demonstrated in the 2014 biennial by labyrinth VII, a series of nine white squares on the floor of the mill. Visitors were instructed to step into the first square and quietly stand there until gently tapped on the shoulder by the next participant, when you were supposed to move on. This happened until you’d moved on to the last square, without ever having seen the person who had been tapping you. If there wasn’t anyone there to tap you, you were supposed to move on when you felt like it. Either way, the experience was eerie.
The number nine has special significance for Curtis. In her first biennial, it was intuitive. Since all of her installations are interactive, nine seemed a reasonable number of works to engage visitors. After the first biennial, in 2000, people contacted her about the number’s significance, observing that there were nine major muses in Greek mythology, nine levels of hell and heaven in The Divine Comedy, and so on. Curtis became fixated on the number “as a way to add both mathematical and aesthetic symmetry” to the biennials.
Each biennial has a theme that also serves as its title. The first, in 2000, was EXPERIENCE, staged in Lewiston’s Bates Mill Complex, followed by MOVEMENT, CHANGE, SOUND, LIGHT, TIME, and SPACE, each in a different mill. The 2014 biennial was called MATTER, and it included nine installations, large but spare, deliberately lacking color except for white, a clean contrast to the crumbling setting.
At the entrance to Robinson Mill was a sign: “Welcome! Without your participation, my work is literally unfinished.” The first installation in MATTER was shift I, which happened on a series of nine white pedestals, all chest height, looking ready for, say, a large bust of George Washington or some other distinguished figure. Instead, they held tiny and not at all valuable objects. Curtis provided the first batch. She got other contributors through social media and e-mail contacts. Visitors were instructed to take away an object and replace it with a small personal possession that they were willing to part with forever. Total strangers thus became part of each other’s lives. At the opening, the objects included a doll-sized pitcher, a tiny plastic iguana, and a keychain sporting an image of the San Jacinto Monument in Houston, Texas. The “matter” was “miscellaneous,” depending on the whims of the visitors.
The second station began a series of installations based on different forms of matter. On each of nine white pedestals was a large, malleable blob of white clay. Visitors were invited to don latex gloves and change the clay to their liking, but making the same change in each of the nine forms. Each person added to the previous changes, using the memory of clay to produce a collective work. One visitor seemed to be aiming for Rodin’s statue of Balzac. Another, less ambitious, added finger-like protrusions.
The title of another installation, meniscus, referred to the concave or convex curve in the surface of liquid in a container. Here, the surface tension was increased by having the water, in nine tall transparent vases, trembling at the brim but not overflowing. If more water was needed due to evaporation, visitors were asked to use eyedroppers to refill the containers without spilling.
Then came the sand installation, a line of 720 (a multiple of nine) glass vials and 562,437 grains of sand, another multiple of nine, that Curtis herself counted over a 15-month period. When the exhibition opened, all those grains were in the first vial. Visitors were invited to pour the grains from one vial into the next. When the sand reached the last vial, the work was complete.
At the next station, 99 was the key number, indicating the number of glass containers to which ink, in prescribed numbers of drops, was to be added by visitors in order to create a precise gradation from clear to black water. The following station called for each of 999 participants to add three cups of soil brought from home (per instructions if you read them before coming) to a narrow furrow in the middle of two white platforms that ran almost the length of the huge room. The additions were raked together to create a community of soil—an “aggregate”—which was to be parceled out after the biennial and mailed back to the contributors. Like the two preceding installations in its size and simplicity, aggregate made striking use of the spare but expansive surroundings.
The final two installations were more complex, cleverly creating a sense of group accomplishment. In the first, small, randomly numbered cubes on narrow shelves covered one side of a large freestanding wall. The visitor’s surprisingly tricky task was to remove a cube from one side and place it in the identical location on the other, eventually denuding the first side and fully populating the second. The final collective task, before the walk of white squares, was to invert a large mound created by 1,520 white spruce posts of graduated heights by moving the outermost posts, one by one, to the innermost locations in a new mound, so that the inner and outer heights gradually switched places. The reader may have noticed that 1520 is not a multiple of nine—geometry has its own demands.
Curtis’s first biennial attracted just 250 people. (Maine has a population of only about 1.3 million.) Attendance at the third biennial was 750. MATTER drew 891, the second highest in Curtis’s biennial history. The final biennial, the ninth, will be MEMORY, an apt theme. It will happen in 2016, at a mill to be determined only the summer before the October show. (It’s a great time to visit the state. The leaves are turning brilliant colors, and the summer tourists are gone.) To check on Curtis’s progress, visit . At this writing, she was already coping with a form of post-partum depression over the end of her ambitious biennials, but full of plans for the future.
Christine Temin is a writer based in the Boston area.
Watch these videos on Amy Stacey Curtis and her work