WESTBROOK — Amy Stacey Curtis picked up the rock and dunked it into the plastic bag filled with bright blue paint. She took the stone out and rolled it in her hands until all sides were coated. Then she gently placed him with dozens of others like him and started again.
“That’s what I love to do,” she said. “The repetitive process of painting and placing these rocks. That’s my favorite part.
Curtis, an installation artist and artist-in-residence at the University of Southern Maine, spoke as she worked to complete her latest, and perhaps most ambitious, piece. That says a lot for an artist whose trademark is large-scale work, including a series of massive installations over an 18-year period inside abandoned factories across Maine.
The venue this time is the former Westbrook High School, now Presumpscot Commons, a senior housing complex run by the city’s housing authority. The space was perfect for two reasons. Curtis could use it for free, and it fits the theme of the project: memory.
“There are people who live here who have a lot of memories, and of course the building itself was built in 1886. We are surrounded by memories,” she said.
The installation – which opens to the public on Saturday and runs until April 22 – features a neighborhood of nine distinct houses, each the size of a shed, each a distinct color. Everything that accompanies the house, inside and out, matches this color. Blue rocks, for example.
Like his other works, the installation will be interactive. Inside each house there will be a desk and a chair with a blank book.
“The concept was that I invite each audience member to write in the book a memory that the respective color makes them think of,” Curtis said. “So when you’re in the red room, what memory does the color red remind you of?”
Unlike some of his other facilities, Curtis has handed off much of the work to dozens of USM students who have been helping him over the past few weeks. Part of that was necessity. Over the past five years, the 51-year-old artist from Lyman has been recovering from a brain injury that left her, at various times, bedridden, forced to use a wheelchair and struggle with suicidal thoughts. She also developed movement and speech disorders, which doctors believe were caused by untreated Lyme disease.
“She is phenomenal. My students really enjoyed it,” said Michael Shaughnessy, a longtime art teacher at USM who also lives in Westbrook and serves on the city council. “And that’s great for them because it reminds them that growth doesn’t always show up in objects. Growth comes through experiences.
Sara Colantuoni, one of the students who worked with Curtis, said the experience was transformative.
“I was amazed at how huge it was,” said the Berwick sophomore. “As an artist, I’ve only really done small scale things and nothing interactive like that.
“His facilities really bring the community together. There are a lot of interpretations for people who are artists and people who aren’t when they watch this piece.
Curtis already had the idea for the installation “in her back pocket,” when she was selected last year to become USM’s artist-in-residence.
She wanted to build another installation she had done many years ago that involved 99 white desks arranged in neat rows with a book on each surface representing a year. Each person who participated was asked to write a memory in a book that corresponded to the year of that memory. The installation was called “memory I”.
For “Memoir II,” Curtis envisioned using color to evoke memories – nine spaces, each an entirely different color. When she settled in the space, a former gymnasium turned activity room, the work evolved. There was a rug on the floor that couldn’t be removed. This meant that Curtis had to cover it with plastic, which also meant that she had to somehow incorporate the soil into the artwork.
“So instead of nine spaces, I’m building nine houses and they’re in a cul-de-sac. It’s a neighborhood now,” she said.
Each colorful house will be unique and, in some cases, inspired by the people in Curtis’ life. The greenhouse, for example, is inspired by the house of her husband’s parents.
“I’ve always liked their house,” she says. “It’s very New England country. They have mulch and pretty plants and metal paint cans with flowers coming out of them and a fire pit. It’s just sweet.
Another house was inspired by a woman she met in a writing class. The woman’s recently deceased husband was something of a hoarder.
“We were at a session one day, and she knew what I was doing and asked me if I wanted any of her stuff,” Curtis said. “It coincided with this project, so a lot of the items in this house are actually things that belonged to him.”
A crate full of bottle caps. Another filled with rubber duckies. All painted orange.
The White House is inspired by the artist herself.
“This house is going to have grass that hasn’t been mowed in years and leaves that haven’t been raked and acorns that haven’t been picked up,” she said, her words giving way to a laugh, then to a full-blown cackle.
The imaginary inhabitants of the yellow house are introverts, so they have a giant wall of hedges, which also help separate it from the orange house. Residents of the pink house love lawn ornaments. At the light blue house they raise chickens.
“Unlike all of my previous work, there’s all this extra context,” Curtis said. “One of the reasons my work is minimal is that I don’t want to add that context. I want people, in the simple forms and ideas that I’ve created, to bring the things that happen in their own lives to work. It will be true here too, but they will see other things. Like chickens, it might trigger a memory.
In all, Curtis said, she used at least 93 gallons of paint.
The final element will be a monochromatic photo montage broadcast on a loop on a screen inside each house.
Shaughnessy said USM’s Artist-in-Residence program has been in place since he was a professor — more than 30 years — and it’s always been a great experience for students. Curtis, however, brings something else.
“Her work carries with it the angle of mental health, something she’s been open to,” he said. “She is the poster child for perseverance and commitment.”
It hasn’t always been easy. Curtis worked many 14-hour days before the facility opened to iron out every detail. She credits her husband, Bill, for being her “number one artistic assistant”, but says the help she’s received from students has also been invaluable.
Her illness hasn’t affected her concepts, she says, just her stamina.
“I can’t do everything, but I still have these big ideas and I don’t want to lose them,” she said.
“The scale of this piece and the truncated time to install it, I know I have to give up a lot,” Curtis added. “If I don’t finish everything…I feel good about it. I’m just gonna do my best, because the show is on whether it’s over or not.
She let out another laugh.
Colantuoni, the student, said she got a lot from Curtis in exchange for her help.
“We had a lot of conversations and she asked me about my goals as an artist,” she said. “We talked a lot about how hard it is to be an artist, especially in the state of Maine. And she was talking about her installations and how other artists have helped her in the past. It was truly magnificent.
Shaughnessy, a sculptor by trade who has developed his own art installations, has known of Curtis’ work for years but believes his current work will end up being a “remarkable piece”.
Curtis said it was too early to think about the place of this piece in his work.
“It’s literally unfinished and static unless there’s interaction,” she said.
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