Ellsworth Courthouse Gallery Fine Art will host an Artist Talk at 6 p.m. June 29 with Matt Barter, “Cantown” artist.
Matt Barter will talk about his inspiration for “Cantown,” a solo show and installation currently on view at the gallery.
For Barter, who grew up in Sulivan, he is especially pleased to have the show return to its Downeast roots.
Barter is a storyteller, who has taken it upon himself to use his art to recant the stories of the men and women who worked in Maine’s bygone sardine cannery industry.
“These are among the toughest, most frugal people I have ever met,” Barter says, “and the quietest.”
He attributes their modesty to Puritan roots and the old English idiom “mind your p’s and q’s.” This exhibition and talk is Barter’s way to pay tribute to these hardworking Downeasters.
Barter created this imaginary town and company store based on Stinson Seafood, a sardine cannery in Prospect Harbor, and the last one to close in the United States. Canneries thrived in Maine for over a century, and nearly every town along the coast had at least one small sardine factory. Some had more than a dozen.
In their heyday, these canneries employed thousands of workers, many of whom were women. Vannie Alley, the grandmother of Ellsworth resident Cindy Hawes, worked at Stinson’s for 40 years. Hawes recounted how her grandparents and their neighbors woke before dawn to head out to factories and boats to support their families. Her grandfather, Reggie Alley, was a lobsterman, and for a number of years ran a Stinson sardine carrier, transporting fish from the weir fisherman to the factory.
Hawes recounts how her grandparents grew up very poor, and hard work was their only means of survival. A bus would come to Jonesport every day to pick up her grandmother and three sisters, who also worked at Stinson’s. Working in a cannery was not pleasant work. The women worked on assembly lines and were paid on a piecework basis, on their feet all day, hands all cut up from the scissors and smelling of fish—an odor that never dissipated. Hawes visited the factory once as a child, and she remembers being amazed by how fast the women could process the sardines. “They were so fast, you could hardly see their hands!”
For thousands of women, life revolved around the cannery. The cannery store provided convenience but also kept them indebted to, and working for, the company. For this exhibition, Barter created many of the grocery items found in his imaginary Cantown company store, including jars of fiddle heads, red snapper hot dogs, a half gallon of milk and Brillo pads and cans of B&M Baked Beans, One Squash Pie, Tomato Soup and Jonesport Mackerel.
The installation highlights paintings, wood reliefs and sculptures, including 3D scenes of women snipping the heads and tails from the sardines, portraits of the cannery women, and men repairing lobster traps, dipping bait and eating McDonalds.
The artist talk is free and open to the public. Seating for the live talk at the gallery, located at 6 Court St., Ellsworth, is limited to 40 people, and mask are recommended. The talk will also be available on Zoom. To attend the talk live or via Zoom, register by going to www.courthousegallery.com or calling 207-667-6611.