Some people have water in their veins. Jesse Salisbury bleeds bedrock. He lives in the home and on the land where he grew up in Steuben, the son of a fisherman. He followed his father into a traditional Maine industry, but instead of going out on boats like his father, he stayed close to the land, removing large chunks of granite and basalt from the quarries of his sprawling property and other quarries nearby and turning them into graceful, gestural sculptures that honor both the land and the life it supports.
Salisbury’s large-scale abstract pieces are in public and private collections across Maine – the Portland International Jetport, the Farnsworth Art Museum in Rockland, and a quiet piece in a public park overlooking the sea in Lubec that honors lost fishermen.
He’s also got a piece in his hometown, at the Moore Library in Steuben. “Glimpse of the Moon” is a tall, towering red granite sculpture with a sliver moon resting between two columns. It is part of the Maine Sculpture Trail, a remarkable 34-piece Down East trail from Bucksport to Calais that collectively offers the largest and most ambitious collection of public art in Maine. The trail grew out of the Schoodic International Sculpture Symposium, which Salisbury conceived, organized and hosted five times from 2007 to 2014.
The Maine Sculpture Trail is remarkable because it’s artful and engrossing, luring visitors with a sense of adventure and culture, who don’t mind wandering down twisty peninsula back roads. The trail meanders through some of Maine’s most beautiful coastal landscapes, to hamlets like Castine, through havens like Winter Harbor and to the tip of the land in Jonesport and Schoodic Point.
In communities where most public art consists of stone replications of Civil War and Revolutionary War heroes on horseback, these sculptures challenge viewers with their abstract aesthetic. Some of them riff directly on the marine environment – a cleat rises from the tide at Winter Harbor, the masterwork of the late Don Justin Meserve; and in Jonesport, “Connection” by Kyoung Uk Min of South Korea, a towering granite piece shaped liked a knotted rope, might represent the line that’s lashed to Meserve’s cleat. But most of the sculptures are muscular abstract pieces with hard edges and open spaces that frame views of the water or some other vista.
It’s remarkable the trail exists at all. Large cities struggle to execute public art projects far less complex than the Maine Sculpture Trail. Salisbury pulled it off, organizing five international sculpture gatherings – two at Winter Harbor, two at Prospect Harbor and one at the University of Maine at Orono.
As a result, those five Schoodic International Sculpture Symposiums left one of the least populated regions of Maine with one of the richest collections of public art in the Northeast. With artists in residence for six weeks, the symposium enabled sculptors to focus on a single piece of art, created on site from local rock.
The finished pieces are part of an outdoor collection that spreads across 270 meandering miles, paid for by communities that raised money to support the artists. In return for their fundraising support, those communities got a piece of art.
The history of the symposium and the story of the trail is told in a 2017 book, “Creating the Maine Sculpture Trail: Legacy of the Schoodic International Sculpture Symposium.” It includes detailed synopses of the project, photos of all the sculptures and artists, and a decent map that makes it easier to see the geographic spread of the trail and plan small sections at a time. It’s too large to cover in a single day of travel, but makes for a reasonable two- or three-day jaunt throughout Down East Maine. With the exception of a cluster of pieces around Bangor and Orono, the trail generally flows most naturally west to east, with most of the sculptures placed along and on the peninsulas south of Route 1. Some of the finest and most dramatic pieces are on far-flung points, often on the last spit of land before water.
In all, 33 artists representing 17 countries left pieces in Maine. Roy Patterson, who lives in Gray, is the only artist who participated twice, and he’s one of several Maine artists represented on the trail. In addition to Patterson, Salisbury and Meserve, other notable Maine artists with work on the trail include Mark Herrington, Andreas Von Huene and Lise Becu.
Artists from Turkey and Egypt are represented, and Germany sent several artists. More than 700 artists from around the world applied to come to Maine to make sculpture as part of the symposium.
The trail ends at Calais, but the province of New Brunswick has begun a similar effort and has placed rock sculptures in St. Stephen, Saint Andrews, Blacks Harbor and other nearby cities and towns, giving those who are inclined to border hop the chance to see a range of art in two countries, all made from similar inspiration. The trails through Maine and New Brunswick create an international contemporary art exhibition of large-scale granite works by world-renowned sculptors. Sculpture Saint John hopes to place more than 35 large-scale sculptures by 2020.