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Libra Foundation transforming Monson into an arts destination

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MONSON — For the last year in-town Monson has been undergoing many changes through the Portland-based Libra Foundation. The organization has purchased more than 20 properties along Main Street and across town, including the former Monson Elementary School that most recently served as a community center, and many of the buildings have been torn down or are in the renovation process for the purpose of transforming the community into the Monson Arts artists’ colony as part of the foundation’s mission of making contributions to worthy causes across Maine to spur economic and creative growth.

“This summer we are having two pilot residencies,” said Stuart Kestenbaum, former director of the Haystack Mountain School of Crafts in Deer Isle and Maine’s Poet Laureate who is working with the Libra Foundation as artistic director to design the Monson Arts program. Each residency session will host about 10 artists and writers.

The goal of the residency program is to provide time and space for artists and writers to devote to their creative practices. Residencies are four weeks long and participants receive ample studio space, a private bedroom in shared housing, all meals and a stipend of $1,000.

“As far as residencies go, it’s a good deal,” Kestenbaum said. He said Monson Arts is partnering with the Maine College of Art, University of Maine, Rhode Island School of Design and other institutions for the pilot project to select artists who will benefit from the setting in Monson at the edge of the North Woods near the Appalachian Trail.

Residency applications were open to artists and writers at all stages in their careers working in all forms of media, including drawing, painting, sculpture, photography, film, video, new media, installation, fiction and nonfiction writing, poetry and audio production.

Artists’ studios are outfitted to accommodate a variety of artistic practices with access provided to woodshop and metal shop facilities for any fabrication needs. Writers’ studios are furnished with work tables and reading chairs. All residents live in newly renovated historic homes in town that have shared kitchens and bathrooms. Houses and studios have high-speed Internet access, as the Libra Foundation is working to bring greater online capabilities across Monson.

“Part of the vision was to bring in broadband so people could use technology to do a lot of projects and to be a catalyst for people to do more things here,” Kestenbaum said.

“We will be having workshops as well as having residencies,” Kestenbaum said. He said Monson Arts aims to be a vital resource for art in the community through programming such as intensive shorter workshops and developing partnerships with area secondary schools.

“We want this program to not only be for people from around the country and abroad but for local people too,” Kestenbaum said, mentioning Monson Arts officials want to work with area organizations.

The inaugural Monson Arts workshop will be July 22-26 with painter Alan Bray of Sangerville. For the first day participants will be out in nature with no distractions and in the following days these artists will be painting in the studio, working from their observations and their memories and dreams to create.

“Shop spaces for metalwork and woodworking are just about ready,” Monson Arts Program Manager Dan Bouthot said. “Our website just went live,” he added about www.monsonarts.org.

“The Libra Foundation really made a big investment in Monson,” Kestenbaum said. “They want to do it the right way and be here for the long haul. They really believe in the project and will do what it takes to make it happen.”

He said former Monson Town Manager Lucas Butler was hired as project manager to oversee the rehabilitation and construction of the properties purchased by the Libra Foundation. Kestenbaum said local construction crews have been hired and “it’s amazing the amount of work they have done and the speed they have done it in too.”

The former elementary school building is now known the Monson Arts Center. Bouthout said former classrooms are artist studio spaces, including one with a kiln for local artist Jemma Gascoine and her pottery programs and other portions of the facility will serve as a rehearsal space for the Monson Jammers as well as the town library located next to the entrance.

“It’s great because it means the community will be part of this building,” Kestenbaum said. He said the library will include a computer room and children’s corner, and the new library will be about double the size of the previous space at the town office. The Monson Arts Center has a commercial kitchen to be used for functions in the building.

“The Foundation wanted the community to be involved,” Bouthout said. He explained prints in the main room of the Monson Arts Center were custom made by Todd Watts of Blanchard and the prints feature area photographs from the early 20th century.

“One of the reasons Monson is a great spot is the Appalachian Trail and people coming through,” Kestenbaum said, as many visitors to the Moosehead Lake area also pass through in-town Monson.

He said the Monson General Store just down the street from the arts center sells Maine-made products, including from other Libra Foundation operations across the state. Next to the store are buildings in the midst of construction, with the structures being converted into studio and gallery space as well as locations for workshops.

“In the arts community I would say there is a lot of excitement,” Kestenbaum said about Monson Arts. “The whole idea is when you come through there is a lot going on downtown.”

A total of 22 properties have been purchased by the Libra Foundation for Monson Arts, with three structures torn down along Main Street and 10 total being demolished.

“There is a farm as part of this project, about a mile and half down the road,” Butler said, as the farm brings another Libra Foundation endeavor into Monson.

“There’s great views from this building too,” Kestenbaum said about the future art space being located on the shore of Lake Hebron. “These are pretty inspiring spaces for people to be in.”

Another building on Main Street will feature work areas for those creating with their words. “There will be a lot of space for writers upstairs,” Kestenbaum said. “It’s a beautiful big, big space,” he said. “There are smaller rooms for writers or non-messy media. This will be for next year sometime.

On the southern portion of Route 15 in-town Monson are houses for residencies, with several artists living in the renovated homes. This end of the downtown also is the location of the wood and metal shops.

Bouthout said as Monson Arts has progressed many residents have been interested in the developments. He said events are being planned for the summer to help introduce the new look community to the public.

Observer photo/Stuart Hedstrom
MONSON ARTS — For the last year Monson has been undergoing many changes through the Portland-based Libra Foundation. The organization has purchased more than 20 properties along Main Street and across town, including the former community center, and many of the buildings have been torn down or are in the renovation process for the purpose of transforming the community into the Monson Arts artists’ colony as part of the foundation’s mission of making contributions to worthy causes across Maine to spur economic and creative growth.

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