“Mixing pop and politics, they ask me what the use is;
I offer them embarrassment, and my usual excuses.” – Billy Bragg
For an artist, crossing the divide between creative inspiration and social activism is treacherous on several levels. Apart from inviting guaranteed disapproval from those who’ll disagree with your point of view, an artist runs the risk of the message overwhelming the artistry, rendering his/her works inert and hollowly pedantic.
For noted Whitefield artist and activist Natasha Mayers, the solution is a combination of community engagement, tirelessness and an irrepressible positivity that has made her, according to noted art critic Lucy Lippard, “the best activist artist in Maine.”
That’s the portrait of Mayers painted by Durham-based filmmakers Geoffrey Leighton and Anita Clearfield, whose new documentary on the artist, “Natasha Mayers: An Un-still Life,” is currently nearing completion as part of the Maine Masters series. The married couple, who share directing and producing chores on the feature, are currently running a crowdsourcing campaign to finish the film through the site Indiegogo, which has raised some $13,000 of its modest $20,000 goal as of press time. I spoke to the filmmakers – artists and activists themselves – about Mayers, their film and the role of artists in social movements.
How and why did you choose Natasha Mayers as a subject?
Anita Clearfield: I do work with a group called ARRT (Artists Rapid Response Team), where a group of artists volunteer once a month to make banners and props for nonprofits. We were making a short documentary about them and, as happens with a lot of short documentaries, in talking to Natasha there, we thought, “Oh God, we should do a feature to tell her whole story.” It just clicked.
Geoffrey Leighton: What really got us excited was that the Maine Masters documentary series is usually focused on very good Maine artists who also show nationwide. The thing with Natasha is that she’s lived in Maine, worked with the community – her activist work takes a little bit extra to get recognition. It’s important and good work that would and should be an inspiration to more people – working within your community to effect change.
What is it about Mayers’ work – and her approach to her work – that makes her such a popular figure in Whitefield? For example, seeing the Humpty Dumpty Donald Trump float she entered in the town’s 2017 July 4 parade can’t have been to everyone’s liking.
Leighton: She’s an artist who works in their community and does really good things – for kids, for adults with disabilities – she has deep roots there.
Clearfield: She has a great way of charming people. People appreciate her even though there might be a political divide in the town. Some of that’s her sense of humor – she’s learned that she can use humor in her work even though she’s deadly serious in it. Humor is a good way to get people to be with you in the moment.
Both of you are politically active in your work. (Clearfield and Leighton, who also teaches animation and special effects at the University of Southern Maine, are both involved in ARRT and LumenARRT!, which projects video onto buildings and other public architecture.) What have you learned from your profile of Mayers?
Leighton: If your work is angry, you tend to reach only people who agree with you.
Clearfield: And you can antagonize people who don’t.
Leighton: If you look at her (painting) series “Men In Suits,” you can feel there’s a kind of compassion there for these strange figures who’ve gotten on the wrong track somehow. Because the anger’s not there, I believe if you can feel love and compassion for people who don’t believe as you do and structure your work so it reaches out to them in a way that’s inclusive like Natasha does, it’s far more effective.
The crowdfunding campaign for Leighton and Clearfield’s documentary portrait “Natasha Mayers: An Un-still Life” is still active through Thursday at indiegogo.com. In addition to helping three Maine artists achieve their goal, donors can get rewards, including original artwork from Mayers. For more information on the works of Geoffrey Leighton and Anita Clearfield, check out leightonimages.com and anitaclearfield.com. And to keep tabs on this documentary of a uniquely committed Maine artist and activist, check out the Maine Masters series website from the Union of Maine Visual Artists: mainemasters.com.
COMING TO LOCAL SCREENS
Thursday: “Zero Weeks.” Hey, did you know that the United States and Papua New Guinea are the only countries in the world without a paid leave law? The makers of this documentary sure do – and they’re not happy about it.
Starting Friday: “Ex Libris: The New York Public Library.” Legendary documentarian Frederick Wiseman (“National Gallery,” “In Jackson Heights”) returns with this insightful film about the world’s most famous library.