Tuesday, April 17, 2012

Once in a blue moon

For months there has been buzz circulating in Portland's artistic and historic communities about an exhibit planned at Portland's belle dame of historic showpieces, the Victoria Mansion. On March 30th, 2012, this fabled exhibit made its debut, and new history was made. The legend thus founded will live on in Portlanders' memories, I suspect.

What is so special about this exhibit? First of all, and of utmost urgency to those who would like to see it, the art show is a short one by the usual standards -- in fact, this Saturday, April 21st, is the final day it will be on view at 109 Danforth Street here in Portland, Maine. Second of all, the exhibit is a breathtaking feat of alchemy, combining as it does the elements of history, art, literature, and a uniquely appealing connection to modern citizens of today, young and old alike (to paraphrase Jim Charette, team leader of the City of Readers program at the Portland Public Library).

"Oh," you say, "but what IS it, this exhibit of which you speak so effusively?" Why, only Victoria's Wonderama, a steampunk themed artshow curated by Lisa Pixley, and hosted in the halls and chambers of Portland's unique historic edifice, the Victoria Mansion.

And "What is steampunk?" may well be your next question, which is very simply and happily answered. Steampunk is a literary and aesthetic movement bound up in Victoriana and an alternate history of steam technology. Think gears and clanking gizmos, all the best contraptions of H.G. Wells and Jules Verne brought to life, sporting brass and velvet with all the bells and whistles.

Now, take steampunk, and steep it in the rarified air of the Victoria Mansion, fermented in the intense imaginations of a handful of determined artists, and you have an alembic to create the finest gold from these ingredients.

The artists, while working separately, have created a whole entity, that being Victoria's Wonderama.

My first stop was the Library, my favorite room in the mansion, which has been filled by Christian Matzke with all manner of trophies and paraphernalia from a Victorian gentleman who fought against Martians in the 1905 Mars campaign, developed the "Nosferat-View," and maintained an absinthe-powered articulated brass arm, also on display. The Nosferat-View, pictured here, utilizes the armature of a typical stereoscope viewer to allow the viewer to ensure there are no vampires in the room -- one eye sees the room unaided, and the other through a periscope-like mirror exchange. Well, I know -- I wish I'd thought of that too.

Next on my tour was the Dining Room, wherein lies ensconced the Morses' green dining service amidst other treasures. This room, designed to produce an atmosphere for serious and appreciative dining, has taken on an additional veil of somberness as David Twiss (also responsible for the woodcut invitation design seen around town, and the Cthulhu woodcut banners at the entrance, visible in the first photo above) has draped it in an exquisite hand-cut lace piece which evokes a seance-like feel, the centerpiece of the table a golden glowing orb, and shadows everywhere, delicate and filled with stories to tell.

Moving through the front hall, one's eye is immediately attracted to the Reception Room, which hosts Greta Banks' apocalyptic gold-encrusted vision in pink and orange, "Clearance: The Four Horsemen." The Victorians have nothing on the twentieth century for glorious overkill, it turns out! Also on the first floor we find a carefully assembled series of intricate insects and crustaceans, cobbled delicately from clockwork parts and mounted in bell jars for our worthy inspection, and a tribute to that lowly but much-needed Victorian laborer, the chimneysweep, all by Mike Libby.

On removing to the upper chambers, we enter further realms of shifting shadow and light, discovering Scott Peterman's portraits, the frames of which have been lifted from the Victorian wall decorations and given new technological life as lenticular manifestations -- a true descendant of the Victorian-era stereopticon! But the wonders do not end there. Stephen Burt's treatment of the Red Bedroom introduces the viewer to the shadows and shifting light of the Louisiana bayou, Morse's home away from home. Like the lenticular portraits in the hall, the antique mirror that Morse looked into himself shows multiple reflections of the silhouetted shapes in the window, creating a dreamlike reverie of layers and the partially-seen.

Dazed with fascination, we can proceed to the final entries in this door-to-door steampunk diary which mixes fancy history with historical fancies. The Sitting Room showcases Tom Couture's delectably-lit vignettes of Victorian-garbed subjects amidst the very rooms of the Mansion itself in an improbable yet oh-so-real story the events of which we can only imagine. In the Turkish Smoking Room a single piece stands in state, Brendan Ferri's "Geo-Magnetosphere," a perpetual motion machine frozen in time, whose circuits would be given velocity by the elements of the earth and sun itself.

And to finally blow our minds, Greta Bank has prepared two more brain-breaking masterpieces, "Rat King" and "Cashmere Roadkill," found in the Green Bedroom and the Dressing Room, respectively. Greta's work continues to astound me, year after year. She is Portland's Matthew Barney, with promise of more amazing things to come.

One of my favorite things about this show is that it continues the conceit of the house itself, graced as it is with skillfully executed faux finishes and trompe l'oeil frescoes, designed by Gustave Herter and made real by the brush of Giuseppe Guidicini. Nothing is quite what it seems, even when this exhibit is not here -- and Victoria's Wonderama plays even further with that element. What is, what is not? The heart and soul of wonder is laid bare for us to marvel at here.

Please do take the opportunity to see this show if you can! The likes of it may never be seen again, though we can only trust that the good folks of the Victoria Mansion will be inclined to grace us with new and wondrous exhibits like this in the future. For more info: http://www.victoriamansion.org/

Friday, April 06, 2012

1896 Maine newspaper mastodon article

Just in case you think the Press Herald doesn't publish articles as exciting as you might hope them to be, here is an example of some of the more sensational items they published more than a century ago!

This appears courtesy of a guest post from Loren Coleman (those of you on the mailing list may have already seen this):
The Portland Press [of Portland, Maine] of November 28 [1896] publishes a long conversation with Col. C. F. Fowler, late of the Alaskan Fur and Commercial company, in which he gives very clear evidence that in the interior of Alaska many mastodons still survive. He first discovered among some "fossil" ivory collected by the natives two tusks which showed evidence of being recently taken from the animal which carried them.

On questioning the native who sold it to him he was surprised to receive a full description of the immense beast which had been killed by the natives, a description fully identifying the animal with the mastodon.

Col. Fowler quotes Gov. Swineford, of Alaska, as having also investigated this matter and as being satisfied that on the high plateaus of that country large herds of mastodons still roam unmolested by the natives, who fear them greatly.

The Alaska News also admits that the evidence of their existence is too strong to be denied.

Source: Portland Press. "Do Mastodons Exist? ­ Good evidence that at least one species still lives." Decatur Daily Republican. Decatur, Illinois. Monday, March 29, 1897. (Credit: Denny Gayton, T. Peter Park)


I was reminded of this while I was posting, "Mammoth Megafauna Mammal Massacre," here: