December 7, 2010
Legendary Art in small-town Maine
Joe Conway, music lover and editor for Driftsurfing, profiles a variety of North-East cultural standouts in his series for Converse.com.
Most people driving north on I-95 at 70 mph from Boston or New York look at Kittery, Maine and never make it past the nondescript outlet mall that flanks the exit. Few would expect that a picturesque New England fishing town lies a couple miles east, and even fewer would expect that a world-class arts space occupies a building in the town center. Joe, spoke with Al Mead, one of the founders of the aptly-named “Buoy,” which keeps experimental and conceptual music and art afloat in the land of lobster and lighthouses.
Can you tell me a little about how you got Buoy going?
I was at a bonfire with two friends who have an architecture firm–Paul Bonacci and Lucy Schlaffer of ARQ Architects, which has its offices across the street—and they bought this building. At the time the tenant was a dance studio and we thought, “Wouldn’t it be fantastic to have this be a room where we could have music and art?” It just slowly happened; the tenant left and Paul and Lucy wanted to use it as a guinea pig for the green building stuff they were using in their work–a lot of different, weird recycled materials and such.
Are you from Kittery? What made you want to start an art space here?
I’m from Kittery Point and I have a background in the visual arts but I’m also a musician. At the time, myself and two other friends were touring Seeing the way that world functioned–we’d come into town and be supported by local acts in all different manner of spaces from house shows to galleries to club settings—and we just thought that that wasn’t present around here, so we tried to build it ourselves. I wanted to see if art could function in the real world–see if it can be woven into my life.
Was part of that asking “can conceptual art be woven into a community like this?”
Definitely. And do people want it? I started this with three other friends: Jeremy LeClair, Brett Dechenes—he did a lot of the booking, Owen Glenbauer—he’s been the sound guys since the beginning, and another friend, Tristan Law. Jeremy and I kind of argued about that, he was like “we’re really doing it ass backwards, usually it’s a scene that sprouts an epicenter.” Whereas we built this place to bring stuff here.
You call Buoy a “no-profit,” how do you keep it going?
It’s all built on donation and almost all the money when we have a band goes to the band. I’ve had a lot of mentors say “keep it simple and stupid.” When we were starting out I borrowed money and worked the whole time and all of us either have a full-time job or multiple jobs. I work at a restaurant and a homeless shelter.
Has the concept changed all over time?
No it hasn’t, it’s stayed really clear on bringing in progressive artwork, both local and non-local. We haven’t compromised at all, which is definitely not financially… you know.
The way we do things and schedule stuff is completely irregular. We’ve kind of embraced the subjectivity and cronyism of the art world. It’s all people who know people—that’s how we find all these artists. I’ve had old professors of mine from Pennsylvania, friends of friends, this show is Jeremy who I started the gallery with. Our next show is a local girl who went to MassArt—it’s really random.
We try to keep it on a six-week schedule on the visual arts. I view the music as really bringing people to the art: we don’t get a lot of foot traffic. We just try to stay open with the restaurant (and Indian food place next door) and hope for curious people, which happens.
Do you get people from out of town, like Boston or Portland?
Kind of, not as many as we’d like. It all depends, some of the bigger shows, yeah. There’s a few people from Boston, the White House Family, who have been great to us–sending people our way—both musicians and audience. And then Hillytown.
How do local people like what you’re doing? Do you consciously go after experimental art? Does that jive with people around here?
They love it. We’ve got our core posse and then people are discovering it all the time. At the same time, the artist Richard Prince just said, “You’re obscure, come to grips with it.” [laughs] I used to get really depressed when we’d have some show and there wouldn’t be tons of people here because it’s kind of a dream of mine that every community should have this versatile room where people can share. And now, I’m pretty… you know, you just put it out there and hope that people engage with it.
It’s kind of creative act in and of itself.
Yeah. Although I don’t make as much artwork just because I don’t have the time, but I find it really fulfilling to be an enabler/janitor.
Do you get a good response from bands that come up here?
Oh, yeah! I’ve had so many people tell me it’s their favorite show–they’ve been on tour for however long and they’re like “this is GREAT!”
Got any advice you can offer for someone who wants to start something like this in their town?
Yeah, get an army.