A history lesson comes with this profile of artist Ellen Babcock. Ellen lives in New Mexico, where she is an assistant professor of sculpture at the University of New Mexico, Albuquerque. She also founded the organization Friends of the Orphan Signs. Ellen got her BFA from the Portland School of Art (MECA) in 1984 and makes regular visits to Maine to visit her family.
Ellen’s late father, Robert Babcock, was a history professor at the University of Maine. It was from him that she learned about 17 handpainted banners from the mid-1800s. They represented various trades in Portland at the time. In 1983, they were discovered in a closet at the Maine Charitable Mechanics Association (MCMA) on Congress Street in Portland, carefully wrapped in newspaper.
In 2010, a group of Maine museums, historical organizations and supporters bought the banners. They are now stored at the Maine Historical Society in Portland.
Ellen’s father wrote about the banners in a 1990 issue of the New England Quarterly. It was titled: The Decline of Artisan Republicanism in Portland Maine, 1825-1850.
He began with a description of a long ago parade through downtown Portland. The details came from articles in the local newspapers of that era —the Portland Daily Advertiser and Eastern Argus.
On a crisp autumn day in 1841, hundreds of craftsmen paraded through the streets of Portland, Maine, in a fervent display of solidarity. Marching were housewrights, masons, plasterers, and stonecutters from the building trades, and blacksmiths, machinists, coppersmiths, brass founders, and tinplate workers from among the sons of Vulcan. Shipbuilders, joiners, caulkers, pump and block makers, mast and rope makers, riggers, and sailmakers left their waterfront workshops to join the procession. Printers, hatters, tailors, tanners, curriers, and shoemakers rounded out the ranks of Portland’s sizable and self-confident artisan class. As they moved along their route, master craftsmen, journeymen, and apprentices proudly held aloft colorfully decorated silk banners, each measuring roughly 3 by 3 1/2 feet and emblazoned with ancient craft symbols, mottoes, and slogans, many painted by William Capen, one of the city’s best-known sign makers.
Ellen is in Maine working on a special project that draws inspiration from the banners. She wants to create a modern day version of the parade her father described with newly painted banners. They will represent current crafts, skills and occupations. She can’t do it alone, so she is rallying support from as many people as possible. Maybe, even you!
Read Ellen’s profile to learn more about her work and her project, which she calls All Hands On.
When did you know you wanted to be an artist?
I remember making a drawing when I was four years old — a simple pencil loop on paper that made a shape that was pleasing and magical to me. The satisfaction of making something that wasn’t there before was enormous and I was hooked.
Where/when did you go to school?
My undergrad B.A. was at Smith College in 1979. I got a BFA from the Portland School of Art in 1984. I got my MFA much later—in 2002 from California College of the Arts.
What is your preferred medium and why?
My choices of materials and processes change with each project because they are determined by the nature of the project. Sometimes I work with bronze, sometimes wood, sometimes paint and paper or canvas. And sometimes the medium of the work is groups of people and movement. Most recently I am trying to make certain kinds of events happen. Almost a kind of choreography to animate props that I make.
I am more comfortable with some processes than others simply because I have spent more time at it. Casting, for example, is familiar and easy for me because I had jobs for a long time working in bronze casting foundries.
Where do you find inspiration?
In the history of places and its vestiges in architecture; in breaking things and repairing them; in signs and signage; in poetry and fiction.
What are your ties to Maine?
My parents moved to Bangor when I was 17 for my father’s teaching job at Orono. I went to college in Massachusetts and would go through Portland on a Greyhound bus on my way home on breaks from school. The bus station used to be across the street from the art school and I would wander over and look around.
I eventually went to the Portland School of Art and then lived in Portland waiting tables and tending bar for a while. Later, I moved to New Mexico, but several of my siblings and my parents stayed in Maine. I have made yearly pilgrimages to Maine for decades.
Why are you back in Maine?
I want to stage a Labor Day parade called the All Hands On parade in Portland. At the same time, I want to have an exhibition in the ballroom of the Maine Charitable Mechanics building.
This artwork/event would take place on Monday, September 5, 2016. It would involve working with trades and craftsmen, students and groups of artisans and under-recognized laborers in Portland over an extended period of time.
Together, we will design images and slogans for 15 hand painted cloth banners. The banners will be about 4′ x 5’ and mounted on vertical 12’ wooden poles.
Each banner will be held high by two people and carried in a procession down Congress Street. Before and after the parade, they’ll be on public display in the Mechanics Association ballroom.
The banners are inspired by the Maine Charitable Mechanics guild banners of 1841. They are currently housed in Portland by the Maine Historical Society. Groups of artisans carried them during Portland parades over a century ago. I first heard about them many years ago. My late father, Robert H. Babcock, a history professor at the University of Maine, Orono, wrote about them.
The point of the exhibition and parade is to rally diverse people under the umbrella of pride of craft, skill or occupation. It’s a way to make visible certain kinds of labor; to strengthen the bonds of worker communities; to involve many different kinds of people in a collaborative celebration.
Portland’s current Labor Day festivities center around an 8:00 am breakfast at the Irish Heritage Center. Many of the attendees are local politicians and union leaders. After the breakfast, a small group (no more than 50 people) march from St Dominic’s church along State Street to Longfellow Square. They carry modest banners and handmade signs. At Longfellow Square, they listen to short speeches about labor.
In 2016, our goal is to significantly expand the visibility of labor issues on Labor Day. We plan to launch the All Hands On parade where the current Labor Day celebration ends, at Longfellow Square. We will then make a colorful and lively procession eastward toward City Hall.
What is your process?
I am conducting Phase One of the All Hands On project at the Maine College of Art’s Institute of Contemporary Art. It is part of the MECA Alumni Biennial that opened October 9th, 2015 and runs until December 18th, 2015.
I am using the exhibition space as a node for gathering and disseminating information. I’m also using it as an initial laboratory/workshop. Community members can come together to design and begin the initial phases of making banners for next year’s parade.
I am asking members of the community to collaborate as representatives of worker groups. They can participate by brainstorming, sketching, staging photographs and creating short slogans for the banners. They can send me digital files, which I can trace and then hand paint the images and texts on linen. The banners will be hemmed and fringed by a professional seamstress. I will gather the wood and hardware to assemble and mount the banners on 12’ wood support poles.
How can people help you?
I need lots of help, but particularly with:
- Taking photographs
- Help with Adobe CS6 design software to translate photographs and text into images that can be traced with paint onto cloth
- Sewing the banners
One last thing. Do you have any words of wisdom for beginning artists?
- Be persistent
- Spend lots of time alone
- Turn things inside out and upside down
- Don’t get too stressed
- Don’t care too much what other people think
How to contact Ellen (which will make her happy because she needs your help!)
You can call Ellen at 505-610-6725 or send her an email.
Nancy Caccioppo · November 8, 2015 at 5:46 pm
It is sad for Sign Painters – are Gone with the Wind
I have lived through enough generations, to see many things pass,
it seems like todays motto is make everything of poor quality, so you
throw it away, it would cost more, to fix then to buy another.
I grew up in an inner city neighborhood, that was self suffient, every few
blocks there was factories making something, you didn’t have to travel
3 hours everyday to get to work – but they are gone too – thank you NAFTA.
I want to know, what others think – has America lost it’s proud place for Craftsmen
Ellen Babcock · November 11, 2015 at 5:08 pm
yes- so many things that were made here aren’t anymore and it is sad- I talk to many in the sign industry in their 60’s now who remember making signs when so much more hand skill was involved and they talk about how guys working for sign companies near route 66 would compete with each other to stretch the capacity of steel and glass tubing to make the most outrageous gigantic shapes with elaborate flashing neon curves
but there are recurring waves of craft revival here- there is an excellent book by Faythe Levine and Sam Macon called Sign Painters that showcases many amazing people who paint signs by hand- and there is a business in Portland owned by Will Sears called Better Letter
so you do see people trying to take more pride in how something is made- the problem is that these artisanal things usually cost so much more
and about things costing more to fix than throw away- if I have the time– I often try to find reasons to repair something old to make it keep working just because it becomes a kind of creative problem solving- I end up with a lot of broken stuff sitting around!