Mount Desert Island High School’s longtime arts teacher Dan Stillman created this floating tree flotilla as a diversion and form of artistic expression while quarantining for lengthy periods at his girlfriend Janet Higgins’s camp on Heath Cove in Trenton. See Stillman’s video at com/file/d/1Kp1m34ogPMdPJb68SiEbllBsqBdSpJy7/view. PHOTOS COURTESY DAN STILLMAN AND JANET HIGGINS

Pandemic inspires shoreside “socials” and fleeting art installation

TRENTON — “Art has become therapy,” Dan Stillman says.

Amid multiple bouts of quarantine during the COVID-19 pandemic, Mount Desert Island High School’s longtime art teacher and artist got creative to find purpose and enjoyment, all the while providing entertainment and meaning to his communities at work and home.

Throughout the coronavirus’s course, Dan has been living with his girlfriend, Janet Higgins, in her “little red camp” tucked on Shady Nook Lane in Trenton. The cabin has been in the Higgins family for ages, he explained, calling his partner “easily the third generation of local kids” to grace the neighborhood’s beaches and camp roads. 

During summers spent along Heath Cove’s shores, Janet “always had socials” with her seasonal neighbors. “That was just a normal part of life,” he said. Eventually, she bought the dwelling herself and winterized it four years ago so she could live there during the winter months.

So, when COVID-19 hit, Janet and Dan decided to spend the off-season together at Heath Cove. They discovered some of the seasonal neighbors never left at summer’s end and opted to weather the pandemic in Maine rather than head home out of the state. A year-round community was born. 

The summer tradition of “socials” spilled over into winter and the gatherings’ outdoor scene switched to ice and snow. Not to mention frigid winds and penetrating cold. Still, folding metal lawn chairs and other seats were lugged down to the shore. 

Neighbors started hosting these “soirees,” building bonfires and socially distancing to keep everyone warm and safe but connected amid the pandemic’s isolation. The group was “hardcore” about following safety guidelines set by the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), and made sure to make large circles around the blazes. They even considered which folks, especially the more vulnerable participants, should sit upwind. 

Along with the gatherings, Dan began building outdoor art installations and shooting and editing videos of his work to share with Shady Nook neighbors who had closed up camp for the winter and gone to winter homes.  

He also shared the work with MDI High School’s faculty, who would eagerly await new videos.

“It made them laugh, it made them smile,” he said.

Suddenly, “I would do anything just so I could spend six hours editing a video.”

The hard work is apparent through his collection of “covideos.” 

Myriad of camera angles, clips in fast motion, shots played backward and even a few scenes that pay homage to the silent film era capture the processes the art educator went through to be creative and build his flotilla featuring coniferous evergreens. 

The trees, each fastened to wooden pallets, were moved to different parts of Higgins’ property — including a stint in which they were anchored offshore and bobbed along with the tides.

As the holidays approached, the pair decorated the trees with strings of lights, turning them into small beacons aglow in winter’s waning light. 

Deemed “floating trees,” the exhibit, “Was inspired by boredom,” Dan says.

Removed from his bustling art room, he came to understand well why his students were struggling with artistic inspiration when unable to be with their peers. Despite the difficulty, he continued to tell them, “Get your butts outside and do something and make something.”

As a result, his own artistic endeavors became “a little bit of ‘practice what I preach,’” he recalls.

The videos of the installation evoke a quiet and thoughtful connection with nature; fires crackling on the rocky beach and ice melting into miniature babbling brooks.

And then there is a playful side, giving hope to viewers that laughter, creativity and fun can still exist in the time of coronavirus. 

The fast-forwarded shots of Dan chopping the trees, attaching them to their pallets and decorating his front yard is exciting. He calls it “personifying a Christmas tree” and using trees to tell a story.

“They [the trees] became increasingly important to me and my friends,” he relates, adding they were something to hold onto during hard times.

Then there is the sequence of Dan and Janet playing on the ice along the shore, breaking off pieces to float around on, all while the song “Anything You Can Do” plays in the background.

One series of videos closes with the couple sitting next to each other, gazing at the beach and cove that has been their coronavirus playground. One of the floating trees is anchored by their side.

The sun sets, leaving behind a watercolor painting. 

Dan dedicated the series to Higgins’ father, Donald Higgins, who passed away last year. In the tribute, he writes that Donald “played in the waters and with the tides of Heath Cove since 1930,” a fitting sentiment for what Janet and Dan chose to do in such uncertain times. 

Rebecca Alley

Rebecca Alley

Reporter at The Ellsworth American
Rebecca is the Schoodic-area reporter and covers the towns of Eastbrook, Franklin, Hancock, Lamoine, Sorrento, Sullivan, Waltham, Winter Harbor and Trenton. She lives in Ellsworth with her husband and baby boy who was joyously welcomed in June 2020. Feel free to send tips and story ideas to [email protected]

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