AN INTERVIEW WITH CHRIS BATTAGLIA, FROM THE VILLAGE CANOE

Chris Battaglia co-curated CONFLUENCE: Visual Stories from the Village Canoe Project, up in Waterfall Arts Corridor Gallery through November 15. 

Artists paddling the 31’ canoe (built by Mike Maybury) in early morning on Penobscot Bay. Photo: Brian Wasser

Artists paddling the 31’ canoe (built by Mike Maybury) in early morning on Penobscot Bay. Photo: Brian Wasser

 

Who are you?

What a question! I am someone constantly in a search for meaning. This often leaves me curious for new knowledge, skills, and experiences—endlessly distracted by the “who” and “what” that come before and after me. I am someone born and raised in Los Angeles, schooled in Boston, lived in New York, and worked around the world, but have a keen interest in being a part of a thriving, small community—especially here in midcoast Maine. I make most of my life in photography, film/video, and hospitality. This is the point where my grandfather would warn me not to be a “jack of all trades, master of none” but I would argue that I am a generalist and owning that trait is the most masterful thing I can offer the world.

portrait of Chris Battaglia in straw hat with purple bandana

Chris Battaglia, courtesy of Chris Battaglia

What’s CONFLUENCE all about?

CONFLUENCE is the sum of many narratives, ranging from Mississippi to Maine. It’s a vision of “river to sea” here in Maine through the Village Canoe. But the Village Canoe is a program brought to life because of the confluence of two experiences: paddling on the Mississippi River from St. Louis to the Gulf of Mexico in a big canoe, and two short weeks spent at Haystack Mountain School of Crafts in Deer Isle. And it spiraled from there, into the confluence of my journey down the Mississippi with that of co-curator and artist Emily Cornell du Houx, who (in the same year, 2017) went down the Mississippi in house boat, and has become an invaluable resource for the Village Canoe. And finally, it was the confluence of an ephemeral, three-day art show on Belfast’s waterfront, with the everlasting infrastructure of a vacant, indoor hallway corridor at Waterfall Arts. This show—simply—is a way to extend the life of the Village Canoe’s exhibition. But there is nothing simple about how any of this came together, or how we all came to this one moment in time. It’s a confluence of narratives that keeps growing, and growing and hopefully in five years from now, we’ll have another confluence somewhere, with five years’ worth of artists’ works, and five years of growth and change that begins right now!

Tell us about what guided your curation process for CONFLUENCE.

At first, we had big dreams for the show. It would be a three-level, immersive show where the viewer would feel like they were part of our journey with physical elements in the space, or with virtual reality, or audio pieces jutting from walls. But with the fundamental novelty and focus on the 40’ wood-and-plastic greenhouse situated temporarily on the Belfast waterfront, CONFLUENCE shifted its aim. We never saw any of the artwork until it arrived two days, one day, or the same day of the show, so curation efforts went into the printing and hanging of an immersive photo story with 100+ images I knew that I had, could print, and we could exhibit in the corridor. As the viewer entered the hallway, photographs guided to the first series of images, which most succinctly and thematically represent the whole experience. And as the line of images draws you further, there is the palpable feeling of fire and water: the two constants and emblematic motifs on our expedition. We paddled and lived on the water during the days, and spent most of our time around fire at camp in the evenings. As you ascend the stairs, you are met with a series of one-off comic illustrations that usually read as “sequential art” but here serve as thought-provoking little ditties that encourage you to continually read and climb towards the second floor. Fitting, as you make it to the second floor landing, and you are greeted by a grid of portraits of more of those people who helped make the Village Canoe happen. And the rest of the show on the second and third floors are a smattering of the artists from the Village Canoe that had 2D or 3D works to show. 

How did you get into art?

Lots of exposure to the visual and performing arts as a kid, with a lifelong music education and the pursuit of darkroom photography in high school created a proper backbone for me to maintain confidence in myself and being “pretty good” at a variety of things. While I’m horribly resentful of my childhood self for not practicing piano as much as I should have, as well as equally resentful of my adult self for spending too much time on my pocket computer instead of painting, I see my art as “social practice.” I’m interested in people, relationships, and connecting people with interesting/thoughtful experiences. It’s a selfish way to try to learn more about myself and others and the world, but if we are calling that “art” then I am going to run with that. If I stand behind a camera, then it feels better to call it that…

How does the environment/natural world factor into your art/curation?

It is everything! We are products of our environment, and since humans interact with nature/outdoors it would be accurate to say I try to study and synthesize the way we experience ourselves, others, and the outdoors—all at once. There’s something indescribable I’ve felt when hold up in a setting where I can look out the window and am surrounded by trees and water. It’s a similar feeling I get when sitting in a canoe, having an unmediated experience with the water below me. I thought if I could provide an experience that allowed others to feel similarly, then anyone could have a productive look inward; which would be a great jumping off point for making great art. I’ve never felt as creative as I have when removed from everyday world, merely camping, paddling, socializing, and thinking with a small group of people in such lush and dynamic out-of-doors natural environment so isolated all I could do was reflect, write, photograph, film—and do this daily. So I guess I pre-curated the show by curating an experience with curated (“juried”) artists who self-selected themselves to apply to the inaugural project!

What’s the most recent thing that has moved you?

Parading down High and Main Streets in Downtown Belfast, alongside costumed, lantern-bearing, and singing people in a crowd of nearly 100 people to help us “art walk” on Fourth Friday Art Walk. It was amazing, inspirational, and moving to have Willow – one of our Village Canoe artists – on stilts, face-painted, and confidently leading a huge group through our community in an atypical way. And for the police department to help block the four-way intersection and safely help us “parade” down to the water! And the people who came out from all the storefronts and waved and cheered. It was the first time in this town I really felt the dynamism of our vital, small community come alive and move me in this way.

Willow WildHeart, one of the ten artist selected to participate in the Village Canoe, 2019

 

What other artists should we check out?

Harrell Fletcher, Candy Chang, John Ruskey, Meghan Borah

What advice do you have for younger/emerging artists?

Learn at least one instrument! And practice every day! But mostly that this project taught me that if you have a vision, it may not come to life unless you make it happen. Sometimes you must “will” a project into existence for people to come around and understand what you were talking about. If you are happy with the experience/art-making and create realistic expectations of “success” under the parameters that you’ve set for yourself, then it was all worth it. Stop looking at what everyone else is doing!

Chris Battaglia at the opening reception for CONFLUENCE at Waterfall Arts

 

Now about us. 🙂  What’s your favorite thing about Waterfall Arts?

This project wouldn’t have come to life without the nimble, supportive, and encouraging people who make Waterfall Arts run, day-to-day. I can’t think of a better organization to spearhead community arts programming and thoroughly investigate as many ways as possible to get people engaged with the arts. I appreciate the informal/formal balance that the infrastructure and renovated school setting provide—it’s art gallery, music venue, workshop, studio, and education space; it’s host to invaluable community assets like our radio station, farmers’ market, and a casual space to get together or see kids/families enjoying a little bit of playground and grassy field when the weather’s right.

Anything else you’d like to add?

Mike Fletcher (Waterfall Arts’ Facilities Manager) saved The Village Canoe!

 

We hope you’ll come check out CONFLUENCE before November 15 when it comes down. And, we encourage you to engage with the Village Canoe Project. The 2019 expedition was its first iteration but there is a future for this brilliant project. Check out the Village Canoe to learn more.

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