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Destroyers into windmills (continued)




The art of conversion

"Artists are alchemists. They can turn one thing into another thing. It’s easy for artists to play with new ideas, and they can help people envision other ways. That’s the goal of this exhibit."

So says Nathasha Mayers, who, as artist-in-residence for Peace Action Maine, is not just a painter and muralist. She is also an activist. Mayers is the organizing force behind "War Flowers: From Swords to Plowshares," an art installation exhibiting more than 70 Maine artists’ interpretations on the theme of conversion from military to non-. The show opens in the Area Gallery, at the University of Southern Maine Portland campus, on April 8. This exhibition, which will travel to other galleries and libraries throughout the state after the USM show closes on August 18, is part of Peace Action Maine’s two-year campaign to free Maine from economic reliance on military industry.

"We are turning away art that is just about war," says Mayers. "This exhibit is about transformation."

Originally conceived as an exhibition of work by members of the Union of Maine Visual Artists in Portland, Mayers and Peace Action Maine soon realized that military industry was a statewide addiction, and opened the show to submissions from all over Maine. Artwork poured in from across the state, including communities like Hampden, Presque Isle, Skowhegan, and Brunswick, as well as the Greater Portland area.

Most of the works on exhibit are flat or three-dimensional pieces that hang on the wall: a painting of a family sitting around a woodstove made from a converted bomb; army tanks transformed into light projectors; depictions of detonating "karma bombs."

"One artist called me and said, ‘My dog just died. Can I turn a bomb into a dog?’" says Mayers. "The art can be silly or humorous, or deadly serious. We can provoke a dialogue. It’s a beginning."

Mayers’ own contribution to "War Flowers" is a sample book of "upholstery for armchair warmongers." The book features a variety of camouflage swatches, but not the traditional abstract blotches of green and khaki. This camouflage is patterned with real images of war. "You choose which images of war you’d like to bring into your home as a fashion statement."

"Art is an important tool in peace work," says Mayers. "It’s important to bring people together at times like this. Artists have a role to play. They’re not afraid to say the emperor has no clothes."

"War Flowers: From Swords to Plowshares" opens at 6 p.m. on Friday, April 8. A spoken word performance, featuring poetry readings by Mark Melnicove, Martin Steingesser, and Silvana Costa, begins at 7:30.

Several of the works featured in "War Flowers" will premiere on April 1, at the "Fools No More Parade." The parade, which officially kicks off Peace Action Maine’s conversion campaign, begins at 5:30 p.m. in Congress Square, and coincides (not coincidentally) with Portland’s First Friday Artwalk.

Groups participating in the parade include the Shoestring Theater, Seacoast Peace Response, Code Pink, Women in Black, Veterans for Peace, several church groups with families, student organizations from USM, and Portsmouth’s Leftist Marching Band.

"Some groups will have banners, or music, or puppets and costumes," says Jessica Eller, program coordinator for Peace Action Maine. "We want to show transformation over the course of the parade. It will begin with the Women in Black and dirge drummers, the realities of war. The center of the parade represents human needs, and where we need to go. Then it will end with the Leftist Marching Band and dancing, and be celebratory." Eller even promises a kazoo band and a stilt walker.

"Individuals can join the parade wherever they feel. We’ll have signs and puppets available for people to use." Eller stresses that nobody has to carry a puppet unless they want to.

The Parade will begin after the Women in Black’s weekly vigil at Congress Square. The rally starts at 5:30 p.m., with speeches by Greg Field, executive director of Peace Action Maine, and Jesse Vear, leader of the poor people’s advocacy group POWER, followed by readings from poets Martin Steingesser and Judy Tierney. Folk singer Tom Neilson, "the Bard Insurgent," launches the parade, which will proceed to Monument Square.

"The idea is to get people thinking," says Bruce Gagnon, activist and organizer. "We’ll be handing out leaflets on conversion and advertising the ‘War Flowers’ art show. The movement to break Maine’s addiction to military spending has to start with people of vision, and art is visual."

The parade will be followed by a potluck dinner at the Chestnut Street Church.

For those wondering what to do with all of this vision, USM’s Woodbury Campus Center will host a "Conversation on the Art of Conversion" on Tuesday, April 12. This symposium is an opportunity for students, artists, scholars and activists in the field of economic conversion, and the general public, to discuss the "War Flowers" exhibit and the movement to demilitarize Maine’s industrial base.

Art-show curator Carolyn Eyler will moderate the symposium. Panelists include Greg Field, Natasha Mayers, art history professor Donna Cassidy, and visiting artist-in-residence Allan deSouza. Planned as a discussion and presentation of projects, the symposium will last from 4 to 6 p.m.

— Christie Toth

With a wind farm in development in Mars Hill, and projects springing up across the gusty Midwest, domestic demand for windmill equipment is growing. "Maine’s going to be left behind," says Gagnon, "because the Maine delegation is clinging to a sinking boat."

PAM’s economic conversion campaign is working on many fronts. It will officially kick off the two-year project with a "Fools No More Parade" in Portland on April 1 (see sidebar).

Another major component of the campaign is a traveling art show, "War Flowers: Swords to Plowshares," which opens at USM’s Area Gallery in Portland on April 8 (see sidebar). Over the next two years, the exhibit will be on display in locations across the state, including the University of Maine at Machias, the College of the Atlantic, and several public libraries. Says project coordinator Jessica Eller, "War Flowers will create the opportunity for discussion in every community where it is displayed."

Another group of PAM activists is putting together a series of presentations on economic conversion in Maine, geared toward a variety of audiences and communities.

Perhaps most important for the long-term credibility of PAM’s campaign is a two-tiered feasibility study currently being developed by a team from Economists for Peace and Security.

"The first tier," says Field, "is looking at the manufacturing capacity that Maine already has. We’re looking at issues of unused capacity with the military contracts, in terms of machines, tools, and skilled labor. We want the experts to give us an overview of the skill sets and capacities available, and examine what kind of retraining would be required and what kind of materials needs we would have. Basically, we want to find out what it would take to begin pilot projects in green energy.

"The broader study would look at how investments in the civilian sector create more jobs than military manufacturing, and what we can expect to see in green energy growth. We want to have real numbers before approaching the state."

To date, PAM organizers have had only informal conversations with Maine state officials. Field expects the figures on Maine’s manufacturing capacity by late spring, at which point he can begin talking to state agencies. More troubling, perhaps, is the absence of labor voices in PAM’s conversion movement. The organizers acknowledge this weakness.

"Ultimately," says Field, "this won’t go anywhere if Peace Action Maine is the only group working on it . . . This is not about taking any happiness in the slow decline of jobs, or in the loss of jobs at Bath Iron Works. And we don’t see this as bringing the answers to labor groups. We have some ideas, and we think they will create better jobs for everyone. We would like to sit down with labor representatives and come up with some ideas together."

Michael Keenan, president of Local S6, BIW’s largest labor union, emphasizes the importance of keeping the destroyer contracts in Bath. Citing the same national security issues that the Maine delegation has raised, Keenan says, "It’s hard to see a future in anything other than Navy shipbuilding, just because the workers here are so damn good at it. They’re the best in the world."

Still, Keenan says that he has never been asked about commercial shipbuilding or conversion before. "Everyone in this yard is working very hard, to support families, and for the insurance. We all want to feel secure in that. Absolutely, we would be interested in anything reasonable. There’s nothing these workers can’t build, nothing they wouldn’t build. The men and women here can build anything, any time, any place. They’re craftsmen."

Commercial shipbuilding would be the most obvious conversion for BIW, and General Dynamics does do some large commercial shipbuilding internationally. However, GD’s director of strategic planning and communications Dirk Lesko is doubtful about the prospect. "We would look at any contracts we think will be profitable," he says, "but the international market is at capacity. We see nothing on the horizon in the commercial sector."

Meanwhile, the Maine delegation is sticking to its guns on the issue of military industry at Bath Iron Works. When asked whether they would support conversion efforts at BIW if the yard lost the destroyer contracts, senators Snowe and Collins issued a joint statement: "We remain committed to working with Bath Iron Works in their mission to enhance our Navy’s fleet strength and size."

Congressman Allen also stresses national security needs, but welcomes any efforts to expand Maine’s manufacturing base. "I believe it’s important to bring manufacturing jobs into Maine, and to protect the manufacturing jobs we have. Bath Iron Works is so important to this region. For both the employees and the contractors in the area, there is no substitute, nothing Bath could bring in, that would be on the scale of BIW.

"In terms of finding other work, if we lose military contracts in Kittery, Bath, or [the Naval Air Station in] Brunswick, we will need to find other forms of work. I’m not clear on what kind of legislation would support that, since it’s private companies coming in, but we need the manufacturing jobs in this state and in this country."

If BIW does not recover any of the destroyer contract, Lesko says General Dynamics would look to secure other Navy shipbuilding options. And if BIW cannot secure another Navy contract?

"I’m not sure any of us are speculating about what we will do if there is no contract. We are committed to structuring ourselves as necessary to compete." When Lesko says "we," it is unclear whether he is referring to Bath Iron Works and the 6200 Mainers it employs, or the General Dynamics Corporation and its shareholders.

If General Dynamics holds true to its history, it will close the shipyards before it converts them, and the Bath waterfront will end up like so many former manufacturing sites in Maine: derelict. However, even Congressman Allen concedes that the renewable energy industries are experiencing increasing demand in the United States. State and local governments have only time to lose, and the salvation of the entire regional economy to gain, by heeding the zeal of the converted.

Christie Toth can be reached at cmtoth@gmail.com

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Issue Date: April 1 - 7, 2005
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