Mark Marchesi intended to go to Nova Scotia to take photos of the 50-foot Bay of Fundy tides and the vast intertidal landscape. Just before leaving his home in South Portland for an artist residency to pursue his idea, he came across the poem “Evangeline: A Tale of Acadie” by Portland poet Henry Wadsworth Longfellow.
In the poem, published in 1847, Longfellow tells Evangeline’s love story in the context of the mid-1700s expulsion of Acadians from the present-day Canadian Maritimes. When Marchesi arrived in New Edinburgh, Nova Scotia, in June 2012, he found the poem in book form in the residency quarters and learned the setting for Longfellow’s epic tale was exactly where he would be staying the next two weeks.
Inspired by the light, landscape and culture – and by the poem’s sudden and unexpected presence in his life – he shifted the focus of his work from the tides to the “overwhelming connection between how Longfellow described the area in the 1840s and how it looks now.”
Four years and four residencies later, Marchesi opened the photography exhibition “Evangeline: A Modern Tale of Acadia,” on view through Jan. 14 at PhoPa Gallery in Portland. He also made a book and will celebrate with a reception on Dec. 8 at 5 p.m.
The “Evangeline” project is a modern visual interpretation of Longfellow’s poem. Longfellow described a cultural exodus, and Marchesi’s photos about displacement and loss suggest the same thing is happening today. His photographs describe an empty landscape, with vacant and abandoned homes and ports across a vast primordial region.
Marchesi, 39 and a 1999 graduate of Maine College of Art, is best known for his Greater Portland Project, an ongoing effort to chronicle interesting and arresting landscapes and architecture in Portland. He circulates those images on social media.
The Nova Scotia project is a departure because it’s more narrative and less documentary. He is telling a modern tale of Evangeline.
“I was looking for a connection between the way Longfellow described the area in the poem and the way it appears today,” he said. “I was looking both for direct visual representations of specific passages, and for more metaphoric and atmospheric representations of the work as a whole.”
The overall feeling is dark, vacant and haunting. “I am hoping to weave a compelling and provocative tale that stands alone as a photographic narrative, but also brings attention to the Acadians’ story and Longfellow’s legacy,” he said.
He returned to Nova Scotia over four years, securing successive stints at the Baie Ste Marie Artist & Family Residency, which is open to MECA graduates. It was established by the family of Barbara Rita Jenny, a 2002 MECA graduate. The residency is in the Annapolis Valley of Nova Scotia along the rural Western Shore.
The PhoPa exhibition consists of 16 24-by-30-inch and two 32-by-40-inch color prints. He completed the project with grants from the Maine Humanities Council and the Maine Arts Commission, and with the support of the Maine Historical Society. He cut the wood and mats and built the frames, and crowd-funded most of the cost of his book, which was published by Daylight Books, a nonprofit art publishing organization, based in North Carolina. He takes pictures on 4-by-5-inch, large-format color negative film.
Marchesi grew up in Rye, New York, on the water, with the smell of ocean and mud flats in his nose. He became interested in photography in high school. “We had this black-and-white darkroom, and nobody was using it. Art was my thing, and my teacher showed me how to use it,” he said.
He began his academic career at MECA in graphic design and switched to photography. He credits MECA professor Jocelyn Lee for setting his path.
“She made me realize that dedicating your life to making pictures was a totally legitimate thing to do, and that was an eye-opener,” he said. “Since her Photo I class freshman year, I’ve pretty much committed myself to the practice.”
WHEN: On view through Jan. 14; regular hours are noon to 5 p.m. Wednesday to Saturday; the gallery is closed Nov. 20-29.
RECEPTION: 5 to 7 p.m. Dec. 8; artist talk 3 p.m. Jan. 8