WINTER HARBOR — Like many great ideas, Schoodic Arts for All came into being 20 years ago in the midst of a convergence of events — economic distress, a personal tragedy and a need to fill a cultural void for the many artists and musicians who had settled in the area. It was 1998 and the U.S. Navy had just announced it would be closing its Winter Harbor base, taking with it half of the town’s population, a payroll of $11.5 million and another $9 million that had been paid to vendors of equipment, supplies and services.
Cynthia Thayer, a former teacher turned organic farmer, weaver, dyer, spinner and writer, was named to head up Schoodic Futures, which was formed in response to the Navy’s imminent departure. About this same time Thayer lost a granddaughter in a tragic accident and she and her then daughter-in-law, Sheila Unvala, struggled to create some meaning out of the untimely death. They knew many artists and musicians who had been drawn to the area for its coastal beauty, but yearned for a cultural life beyond their own studios.
“Sheila and I went to the Maine Community Foundation, we didn’t know what we were doing, and they gave us a $500 planning grant,” said Thayer, who operates Darthia Farm in Gouldsboro with her husband, Bill. Along with volunteer Doris Combs, the women launched the very first Schoodic Arts Festival with performances and workshops staged in Winter Harbor’s historic Hammond Hall, the Women’s Club in neighboring Prospect Harbor and any other space they could get their hands on. Their office was a spare bedroom of Combs home. The first board meeting was held at Thayer’s kitchen table.
“It was very grassroots,” recalled Thayer in an interview weeks before the 20th Schoodic Arts Festival, which kicks off July 30 and runs through Aug. 12 in the Schoodic Peninsula area. The festival is the highpoint in Schoodic Arts for All’s year-long anniversary celebration.
For the inaugural festival in 1998, which was before widespread use of the Internet, posters were distributed announcing 63 different workshops over two weeks with evening performances. The classes were a mix of homespun and professional.
Thayer, a native of Nova Scotia, enlisted Cape Breton step dance instructor Kelly McArthur for the festival while Sheila Unvala, an accomplished fiddle player, readily hopped on stage to perform with her youngest daughter strapped to her back. Instructors taught pottery, basket weaving, figure drawing, flute making, didgeridoo, plein-air painting, creating collages, writing memoirs and much more.
Going forth, under the auspices of the newly established Schoodic Arts for All, Thayer and Lisa Reilich, who runs Painted Pepper Farm in Steuben and is an actor, eventually created the Meetinghouse Theatre Lab as part of the nonprofit Arts organization’s year-round programming. Performances are staged throughout the year. The public is first invited to read and then later perform in the final productions. Thayer has staged several plays that have gone on to regional acclaim, such as the recent “The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time.”
Brown Bag Lunches, which featured free, live entertainment at lunchtime as part of the festival, led to creation of Schoodic Arts for All’s Last Friday Coffeehouse held the last Friday of each month. The early coffeehouses were held in the Fellowship Hall at the Prospect Harbor Methodist Church and are now staged in Hammond Hall. The brainchild of the late Jeremy Strater, a bluegrass lover, the coffeehouse highlights folk, blues and bluegrass music. A charming feature are the $5 slices of homemade cakes and pies and $1 bottomless cups of coffee with cabaret seating at tables and chairs covered in cotton tablecloths. The cakes, the pies, the coffee and ticket sales are all the work of volunteers, which is the heart of Schoodic Arts’ genesis and continuing success.
For the very first festival, participants requested an art show and sale and Mary Laury, an artist and dance instructor teaching in the first cluster of workshops, was asked to organize an exhibit. The following year, Laury was hired as the part-time executive director of the festival, a post which quickly morphed into a full-time position and a job she holds to this day.
“Mary is a wonderful people person,” said Thayer. “She has the ability to bring people into a conversation about the arts, to interest them in volunteering, to acquire teachers and performers and to facilitate donors’ participation.”
“The positive financial position of Schoodic Arts for All is mainly due to Mary’s ability to let donors, both large and small, know about what we do and how their generosity will enable us to provide programs and performances,” Thayer continued. “Mary has really grown with the organization,” Thayer added. “She has started some wonderful new programs for children and is always ready to jump at a new opportunity.”
Operating year-round, Schoodic Arts offers after-school arts classes for children at five area schools and those home-schooled at the Doris Combs Studio, a historic Prospect Harbor building donated several years ago by Combs.
The Schoodic Arts Festival this summer includes about 100 workshops and performances over the two-week festival, all of which draw visitors from throughout the Northeast.
Whether it’s open-mic night at Hammond Hall or pottery wheels spinning in the Combs Studio, the lights are on year-round in all Schoodic Arts’ facilities.
“We are now presenting 18 ongoing community programs, 85 performances, 12 art exhibits and almost 125 workshops annually,” Laury said. “Every day we provide free space to community groups who enthusiastically participate in life drawing, painting, ukulele and recorder playing, yoga, acting and a singing circle.”
Thanks to the donation of equipment by loyal supporters, Laury said, programming keeps expanding. Every loom, pottery wheel, kiln and wood-working tool was gifted. The festival also has an internship program for teenagers. They learn how to greet the public, write a resume and weather their very first job interview. Several interns have gone on to successful careers as directors of arts organizations and at positions at museums.
Schoodic Arts’ footprint has expanded as well. The organization has a long-term $1 a year lease on the historic Hammond Hall with the same arrangement on the former Winter Harbor Town Office, which now houses 2.7 staff members in what is now called The Schoodic Arts Schoolhouse. In addition to the Combs studio, the group recently was given a waterfront home in Winter Harbor by the late Mary Ann Waldron, who loved the arts and was an active workshop participant and volunteer. Plans are underway to honor Mary Ann’s wishes that the home be used to carry the organization’s mission forward by using the space as an artists’ retreat and for workshops.
All along, SAFA has attracted the volunteer and financial support to maintain its level of programming. Now, 20 years later, it is still debt free and covers its expenses each year. At present, plans are in the works to establish a capital campaign to insure the organization’s future. Laury is planning to retire in a few years and is interested in paving the way for a successful transition.
Looking ahead, Thayer said she sees her role to insuring that Schoodic Arts remains true to its core mission of providing “year-round cultural events and activities that hold value for residents of our community.”
“I want to make sure that we don’t slip into mediocrity,” she said. “I have always had the feeling that we could do anything and not worry about being careful.”
Looking back and forward, Laury credits her organization’s success to the fact every program sprang from community members’ ideas and initiatives. “Every program started when someone said: ‘I have a great idea!” she reflected. “And if Schoodic Arts is receptive, I’ll volunteer to get it going.’ We are truly a community of and for artists, and that’s good for everyone.”
What’s on at Schoodic Festival
The 20th annual Schoodic Arts Festival opens Sunday, July 29, with a silent auction followed by two weeks of nearly 100 workshops and daytime and evening performances culminating Sunday, Aug. 12, with an anniversary celebration from 3-6:15 p.m.
Held in Winter Harbor’s Hammond Hall, the silent auction will feature donated sculpture and other original artwork, jewelry, restaurant gift certificates, weekends away and handmade furniture and accessories. Early bidding and previews open July 27-28 with the auction beginning at 1 p.m. July 29. The workshops — more than 50 percent are new each year — include old favorites such as the parent-and-child pottery wheel class, ethnic cooking and artisanal bread making, creation of Tibetan shadow puppets, indigo dyeing, flute making and stone sculptures. The new classes include making homemade bagels, creating mini books, Marlinespike ropework, mosaics, Quebecois and Cape Breton-style dancing, copper and brass belt buckle making, the science of sound, photography, creating Haiku and images together, bird carving and the ever popular woodturning classes.
Among the live evening performances are the Biss/Saeverud Duo, featuring French masterworks for violin and piano; the a cappella Schoodic Summer Chorus; a documentary film “J. Fred Woell: An American Vision,” about the late Deer Isle artist; champion Franco American fiddler Don Roy with pianist Cindy Roy; fiddler Gus La Casse with multi-instrumentalist Peter Lindquist and a performance by the Meetinghouse Theatre Lab of “Far Beyond the Northern Sea” by Jan Buckaloo.
Admission to live evening events is a suggested donation of $10. Brown bag lunch performances are free and take place every day at noon, July 30-Aug. 10, under the festival tent in Prospect Harbor. Among this year’s performers are the Snarky Sisters (Diana Quinn and Lisa Ann Wright) as well as Shepsi Eaton, who will lead children and adults in songs and simple circle dances.
For a full listing of workshops and events, visit www.schoodicartsforall.org. For more info, call 963-2569.