In this chapter, I will take you on a journey to find bits and pieces of forgotten or abandoned things. I will help you find some souvenirs to recapture the success, failures, and dreams of yesterday. Please take a minute to stand in the shoes of someone who didn’t know what was ahead and think about their tragic fates, lost dreams, or miraculous discoveries. What was the cost of these successes? What was gained, and what was lost?
Just as an archeologist looks for artifacts, how can an artist gather artifacts to collage a story from the past? A past that tells us more about a sense of place in Maine.
Crossing bridges of time:
Waterville, Maine and the Two Cent Bridge
Maine is full of special gems found in places that you wouldn’t expect. Many people who visit Maine think of Bar Harbor, Moosehead Lake, or Mount Katahdin. All of these spots are wonderful indeed, but even if you happen to live or visit someplace in Maine that is less dramatic or popular, you can find something interesting that is off the beaten path if only you look. Maine is a state steeped in a rich history, particularly of the late 1800s industrial revolution when mill towns were filled with immigrants, and everyone had an American dream of building a better life.
Mills and factories of all kinds became an essential source of revenue for the State and offered new jobs and opportunities for many of Maine’s citizens. They also provided a chance for immigrants to make a living and forge a new life for themselves. This history of immigrants working in the mills is not unique to Maine; however, the experience of these early residents has uniquely shaped the character of mill towns in Maine to this very day.
One example of the history of the mills is a footbridge located in Waterville, Maine. It is the Two Cent Bridge, formerly called the One Cent Bridge. Something is intriguing to me about coming across a small bridge on a walking trail, an old train trellis, or an old covered bridge. Bridges can be a source of symbolism that artists and writers use in their works. Bridges connect two different places or two different realms. They symbolize safe and effective passage and communication. In tarot cards, bridges mean progress, connections, and stability. Bridges can also represent a transition in life, like crossing over to a new way of life or towards death. This transition can also symbolize a sense of hope that there is something better on the other side. The symbolism of the bridge for an immigrant might include ideas about crossing between the familiar and the unfamiliar. It can be about bridging new languages together or social and cultural references. Crossing a bridge may represent some angst about wondering where you belong or feeling trapped between two worlds.
The Two Cent Bridge is a walking bridge built to help the mill workers who lived in Waterville easily cross the rushing Kennebec River to work in the mill in Winslow. This stretch of the Kennebec housed a water-powered mill just below Ticonic Falls. This site was a manufacturing hub since 1896 with the construction of Waterville Iron Works and then the Scott Paper Mill that was constructed across the river in Winslow in the early 1900s. Waterways like the falls along the Kennebec River were prime spots for mills and factories for many reasons, such as transportation, power, and a dumping place for waste.
First constructed in 1901 and known as the One Cent Bridge, the original was soon washed away by a flood in 1903. When it was replaced, the toll increased from one cent to two. Walking over this bridge is like taking a step back in time. Many men and women crossed this bridge to work in harsh and unsafe mill conditions for very little money. Initially most of these folks were French Canadian immigrants, and later Lebanese immigrants came.
Life working in the mills was tough for the French Canadians who were discriminated against or taken advantage of because of language barriers. Still, they created a new life with a dignity that preserved their cultural heritage, which is evident in a large French Canadian population that still lives here today. In the University of Maine Digital Commons and on the City of Waterville’s website, there is an excellent guide titled A Self Guided Heritage Tour of the Franco-American Community in the South-End of the City of Waterville. It was created in 2010 by the Kennebec Valley Franco-American Heritage Society. Maine is famous for its quirky museums and is proud of its diverse past. Many towns will have similar historical societies and other places to find out the history of your particular local area.
A Kennebec Valley Franco-American Heritage Society member came to Waterville Alternative High School to present a slide show. It was filled with many old buildings that the students recognized and some that they didn’t. Today, many lower-income residents live in the South-End, and it was so moving to see how interested the students were in the evolution of their neighborhood.
Many of these old mills are still working and are an essential source of employment for many Mainers. The ebb and flow of the successes and failures of these mills over time have a significant impact on whole populations of the town in which they exist. Time and again, the news is filled with stories of a paper mill that shut down, and a once booming town becomes a town filled with frustrated residents who are desperate to find new employment. In addition to pollution, the damming of the rivers a century ago to support the mills has also caused environmental damage, having devastating impacts on the Wabanaki and the fish upon which they have long relied.
Digging into the histories of the mills in Maine, you will find many examples that do not paint a pretty picture. The removal of the mills and dams in the twenty-first century is also creating opportunities to restore the fisheries and habitats that had been lost. These stories are also part of Maine’s sense of place, and it is important to look at these histories to see what we can learn as our students prepare to meet the challenges of the future.
This award-winning artist who has made his home in Maine embodies a sense of place by speaking for those who have been displaced, or discriminated against through his powerful works of art. On the first anniversary of the establishment of the Maine Freedom Trail, Daniel explained some of his inspiration at the 2008 unveiling of the stone markers he designed: “I used to walk around Portland not knowing about our heritage. It’s an amazing history,” said Minter. “Now, everyone can see the connection with all the markers around the town, and they can read about the history on the plaques.” In 2019, Daniel and his wife co-founded the Indigo Arts Alliance to cultivate the art community of people of African descent.
Minter’s illustrations have been honored with the Caldecott (2020) and Coretta Scott King Illustrator (2013) awards, and his work twice appeared on U.S. postage stamps celebrating Kwanza (2011, 2004), among many other illustrious honors. However it his well known mixed media works that may most inspire you as you create your own history collage. As described on his own website: “Minter works in varied media – canvas, wood, metal, paper. twine, rocks, nails, paint. This cross-fertilization strongly informs his artistic sensibility. His carvings become assemblages. His paintings are often sculptural.”
Start with one simple question to ask your students about Minter’s work, and you will quickly find that you are no longer a teacher but rather a participant discovering layer after layer after layer of possible stories and thoughts about what the art is trying to convey. Open with questions like, Is this work about a home, a family, or a community? Point out one symbol that you find and tell me what you think it represents. Name one emotion that comes to mind when you look at this piece. Any one of these types of questions will open up deep and meaningful conversations that engage you and your students to journey through the artist’s sense of place.
history collage art lesson
Creating a collage is a fast and fresh way to represent a story visually. As you and your students gather materials to work with, ask yourself some of these questions. What sort of fragments can you find that reflect the successes and failures of the lives lived? Are there objects that are sentimental to this history, and how can you connect them to interpret what you imagine this life was like so many years ago? In working with collage and mixed media, anything goes. It takes creative problem-solving skills to master the manipulation of your materials. Collage art takes something ordinary like magazines to make something unexpected, like a work of art.
It is also about working with materials in ways that people might not typically use them. Artists often coin statements such as “painting with paper,” or “painting with wood” to explain their processes. People think a collage is a painting and step closer to get a better look when you work this way. This creates more of an interaction between the viewer and artwork, as the viewer studies how the art was constructed.
- Torn paper collage: Have your students tear shapes and images from colored tissue paper and glue them to a piece of construction paper or card stock. Please encourage them to experiment with layering the colors to create new blends.
- Nature collage: Have the students gather small twigs, stones, leaves, flowers, and seeds. These can be used to create a beautiful collage that is full of texture. Some artists like to mix colors with cut-paper images and combine them with objects from nature.
- Recycled art collage: This type of collage uses a variety of materials by repurposing them in a new way. Try to construct realistic depictions of life using fabrics, papers, grasses, and more. If your subject is the history of a textile mill, then adding fabrics would be an excellent addition.
- Texture collage: Challenge students to explore texture, color, and collage. Provide them with paints, colored paper, and pieces of textured materials, such as burlap, sandpaper, coins, and straw mats. Invite the kids to make rubbings with crayons and paper, and then cut shapes out of these rubbings to include in the collage.
Some collage basic materials
- Thick drawing paper
- Acid-free glue sticks
- Acrylic matte varnish
Community connection: Clean up Mural
Some towns in Maine have a charming downtown area. Some towns you will miss if you blink. In still other downtowns you feel like you probably shouldn’t stop and ask for directions. Regardless of its condition, your particular downtown is your environment, your habitat, your home. The health of your habitat can have a direct effect on your sense of place. Because of this, it is vital to look around and think about areas where you and your students could make a small change for the better.
In a world where we are overwhelmed by the global environmental crisis, many of us may feel small and insignificant and worry that our contributions do not make much of a difference. In reality, if each of us made a small change, our actions collectively can make a difference to lessen these global crises. This is why I love to take my students on a walk periodically to pick up any litter that we find in the street.
To take this to the next level, I applied for a grant from EcoMaine, a sustainable waste management company that has an extensive educational program. I originally proposed to create a mural in an area of our city that has become an area where businesses and shoppers leave a lot of litter and trash. Some of the students would participate in a group clean-up of the site, and others would work on a mural that addressed the importance of keeping the city clean.
After being awarded the grant, the coronavirus pandemic hit, and the project had to be significantly altered. The mural downtown has become a series of wood panels that students can paint and design individually in order to adhere to social distancing guidelines. When the project is finished, all of these panels will be connected by hinges and put on display in various locations around town. We are slowly chipping away at this project, and I will update this website when we are finished. The whole process has inspired my students and brought their attention to issues like litter in their neighborhoods.