Radio Maine Episode One

Emma Wilson: Connecting Art and People During Covid

In our inaugural episode of Radio Maine, Dr. Lisa has a conversation with Gallery Director, Emma Wilson. They talk about the past year of doing business during Covid and how the gallery, and artists, forged a path forward while taking care to provide needed connection, communication and compassion along the way. Hear about how the team at the Portland Art Gallery expanded their artist roster and available artwork to offer more creative space for their artists and more options for their loyal art buyers and collectors from Maine to Hong Kong. Watch, listen and get to know us. 

Dr. Lisa Belisle: 

Hello, this is Dr. Lisa Belisle and you are listening to Radio Maine, our inaugural show, and today it's my great pleasure to speak with Emma Wilson, who is the director of the Portland Art Gallery on Middle Street in Portland, Maine. Good to see you today, Emma. 

Emma Wilson: 

Good to see you as well. Thank you for having me. 

Dr. Lisa Belisle: 

Thank you for being here. It's been an interesting year, hasn't it? 

Emma Wilson: 

It has. It has for all of us, right? Those in healthcare and beyond? 

Dr. Lisa Belisle: 

Totally true. For example, our studio space, which we've created so that we can move forward with Radio Maine has a chair sitting on the other side of the table from me and you're not in it. You are, in fact, joining us virtually, which is nice. And, we're also happy to have you, but this kind of distancing from other people it's been challenging, hasn't it? 

Emma Wilson: 

It has. It feels somewhat unnatural, although it's become much more natural now to be having these exchanges, you know, virtually, but I look forward to the time when we can just be in the shared space together. It will be lovely. 

Dr. Lisa Belisle: 

Tell me what this has meant for the Portland Art Gallery. I know this has been a time where you and Kevin, and Emma and Missy, and all the artists and Emily, you've all had to really pull together and be resilient and be creative, and stay open even if not physically open, for the last year. What's that been like? 

Emma Wilson: 

Well, I've learned so much over the last year whether or not it's been in terms of the value and the strength of the team that we have that I work with, also with our artists and then also with our clients. There's been times when it's been, in the beginning, when we put out the call to our artists to say, “please just keep working and keep painting and we want to support you and we want to support your livelihood” and then looking at each other and saying, okay, how are we going to do this? How are we going to stay open during this time? And the answer quickly became through the virtual, online connection. Then, making that transition as quickly and smoothly as possible was really important so that there wasn't any interruption in our business practices. 

Emma Wilson: 

We were somewhat well-prepared already by having a strong website and having actually produced, and invested in, short documentary films of our artists and other ways that we could communicate the strength of our artists and their work to people through a digital platform. So, we just really just worked very hard, and got very focused on that mode of communicating with folks, and that stream of our business practice. So, while it has been, I would say uncomfortable, while I have missed that sort of personal exchange, the one-on-ones with people. We're open now, so we can see more people in our gallery space in person. But, it was just realizing that we're going to still stay connected. We'll do whatever it takes in order to do that. So busy, so good.

Dr. Lisa Belisle: 

You bring up something that I can relate to having been in healthcare throughout all of this, working as a family doctor up in central Maine. We went from seeing patients in-person to doing telephone visits only, literally overnight, to keep our staff safe, to keep our patients safe. The same thing seems true for you. You decided, okay, we can't do these openings anymore and bring a lot of people into our space, but we need to somehow keep doing openings and keep featuring the work of these artists who are continuing to create and keep bringing people together in a way that makes sense for the times. And so, you came up with virtual art show openings. What was that first virtual opening like for you? 

Emma Wilson: 

So that was April. And I remember artist Cooper Dragonette, we were almost giddy with anticipation, but we were also super nervous, like, is this going to work? And I remember us all being in our remote sections and texting back and forth with Kevin and Cooper and just sort of saying, "all right, here we go." And then, afterwards, realizing that we reached an audience 10 times what we'd normally reach after a regular opening. Also, really nice feedback started coming in from our artists. We were so excited.  And from clients and friends just saying, this is great, that you're still gonna offer this opportunity to bring art into our homes and into our lives. And so, from there, we expanded and we added something called Matterport. Our friend, Alexa Oestreicher from Legacy Properties Sothebys International Realty, had introduced us to this idea of using Matterport, which is the real estate program where you can do a virtual walkthrough of homes.  We brought that into the gallery. So with each month, we started adding a few things and getting a little bit more refined. But that very first one that we did, it was kind of fun because all of a sudden it, because, you know, it worked and it was a way to try something new. And so now, we are continuing to use it as a platform.

Dr. Lisa Belisle: 

Matterport is very interesting because it enables a virtual reality kind of experience, through the eyes of the camera, you get to zoom in and look at a piece more closely or zoom out and see what it might look like on your wall. It's a really fun use of technology. Do you think you would have gotten into that technology if you hadn’t needed to be resourceful in the way that you have as a result of COVID? 

Emma Wilson: 

I'm not sure. It was definitely offered to us prior to COVID as a possibility, we had a short, smaller one of our home installs on our website, but I don't know that we would have, and it's been fantastic now, granted, I am not the best person to judge that. I still have to use the keys on the keyboard to put myself around the gallery but other people are much more proficient on it, but it’s definitely, it's been perfect and our artists love to use it because they can walk through and see where their work is, where it is installed for the group show that month. And I see many of them that do screenshots. And when a client is interested in a piece, and we've added it on the wall, we go and do a screenshot and send that to them. So they get a better understanding of the what the piece looks like at different angles. So it's been a fantastic tool for us. 

Dr. Lisa Belisle: 

That's kind of been the name of the game. Maybe these are things we would have gotten to eventually, but everything was speeding up as a result of COVID. We certainly found that in medicine, we were working off of the idea that we were going to start going virtual, but it wasn't necessarily virtual right away. But when we needed to do it, we needed to do it. So we did. 

Emma Wilson: 

Yes. It's a strange place where you're speeding up, but you're also slowing down because you were speeding up to try to figure those things out, but in other areas of your life you just have to slow down for reasons of safety, of course, and being in your home or whatever it might be. And so it's been an interesting place to be over the last year, as you're trying to move forward and be really progressive and current and then also abide by the rules  and just slow down and take an interest in what's going on around you 

Dr. Lisa Belisle: 

In the virtual openings, you give remarks every month and you work with artists who also give remarks on their works. So you've really needed to develop essentially an on-air presence. And I'm wondering how comfortable that has felt for you. 

Emma Wilson: 

Oh, not so much. It's been a been a journey For those that were part of our community, they all remember when I would do the introductory remarks at a live opening. It was really uncomfortable for me but with practice, that's what everybody always says, right? You keep practicing and things get stronger, things get more comfortable. I may have told you at some point that my dad was a broadcaster for years. I never thought that I would be on that side of the camera. And I was like, oh my gosh. So I would channel him a bit, and say, all right. I do remember some of the things that he would say. But you have got to push yourself no matter what. People are doing things a lot more difficult and complicated things than what I'm doing. So, yes, I'm getting there.

Dr. Lisa Belisle: 

How do you think the artists have dealt with this whole experience? My feeling, having spoken to artists in the past, is that they tend to be a somewhat solitary group anyway but at the same time they also really enjoy the connections with people. So what is your sense about what the artist experience has been during COVID? 

Emma Wilson: 

So, I think that, by and large, we hear from artists that they're more introverted. They're more introverts than that. They are spending time in their studio and sort of having the permission to just that's where they're going to be and spending enormous amount of time doing that has felt really good for them, but at the same time, many of them have major life events or, you know, they've had to make certain adjustments because of, of the pandemic and whatnot. So that on a personal level, I know that there's been some challenges for folks. , I think that the fact that we asked them to continue to create and to create you know, a lot, you know, to stay really active and engaged with their, with their art making has been, I've heard from nervous artists saying like, that's what they really need to hear. You know, that, that, that really gave him a sense of purpose. When all of a sudden, you're not sure what's going to happen and there's this level of uncertainty. So, I just am so impressed and have such tremendous respect for artists in general are still do this. 

Dr. Lisa Belisle: 

You've had members of your artist family who really have dealt with significant life transitions as you referred to. You've had family members who became ill, family members who passed away, I believe early on in the process, not related to COVID there was an artist who herself passed away. I mean, you continue to bring art into the world, but the worlds of these artists have been significantly impacted in other ways. How do you think that one is capable of remaining resilient and creative during life's big transitions? 

Emma Wilson: 

What I have found is that when it's becomes a means for expression, so where whatever that, , whatever it might be, the artist might be experiencing at that time, , if they somehow channel that or, , integrate that into their work. So for example, , Jane Damon is one of our artists. , she, her husband died prior to COVID. She took a big long break from painting and creating. She just felt like she couldn't bring herself to doing it. And that was completely understandable. So, , he, but then when she came back in, it was right around the time of COVID to be painting. And she created this, you know, really impactful body of work called sequestered, and there were interiors and there were figural pieces and she typically does these huge, , landscapes. And so it was, , it was a different composition, but it was this, this is what she was experiencing. 

Emma Wilson: 

This is what she was drawn to. This is what she wanted to create. And it was so well received, especially her interiors with the sort of David Hockney-esque interior painting. And so I think that, or some like that Russ, so Matt Russ signed on to do this project 20/20 in 2020 with Maine Island Trails Association as a collaborative project. And he was creating 20 paintings that were the size of 20 by 20 and 20 locations in the year 2020 when this idea was initiated and he approached the gallery to partner. So it was a partnership with mighta and the gallery and him, and, you know, it wasn't what he would expect to be. It would be his original work in COVID, but he was still able to be outside. He was a cleaner from dirt and paint and all these different locations create the body of work. And while we weren't able to have that big reception, we were still able to promote his work virtually and have, you know, smaller groups and visit and scheduled visitations. And it was still an extremely successful collaboration and, you know, profitable for, or all partners involved. So, I don't, I think, you know, Matt's probably a perception of what w was that experience was going to be like when he started, I had to adjust he did. And he created a gorgeous, gorgeous work. 

Dr. Lisa Belisle: 

One of the things that the Portland art gallery is very good at is exploring art through different types of media. So you have video on your website. , we've talked about the virtual openings. The, you have very beautifully done emails that go out on a regular basis with the feature specific artists or new work by artists. , why is it important to offer different ways for people to experience art? 

Emma Wilson: 

Because we're all different. I mean, the bottom line is we want to be able to reach as broad an audience as possible. And the way in which we do that is to try to tap into whatever that person's communication style is and what works for them. I know that there are clients that it's much better if I send them a text with a photo and they might respond to me or an artist might send, you know, communicate in a certain way. And then there's others that just wait for the, , the sheet Jones e-blast to come out. And when it's out, they know they gotta act fast because you're not going to be able to, if they want one of the pieces cause they go quickly. , it's just a matter of, of trying to reach it as broad an audience as possible, , in a way in which people can relate to. So not, everything's not one thing that's going to work for everybody. I, the, the shorter films, the docu films, for lack of a better name for, of our artists that are a little bit longer in length, or just a really nice intimate view. And then the e-blast or more general, , well we do have a new work e-blasts that we email that we send out once we maybe doing it now twice a month. And people, the open rates on those is, is really high because people are excited to see what is new. 

Dr. Lisa Belisle: 

It does seem like you've consistently upped your game as time has gone on. I mean, it's incredible to me that I will continue to open these emails and the percentage of works that I really can relate to or would feel excited about owning. Not that I'm going to own a high percentage of them just because of, you know, wall space, but, , it, they just, it gets higher and higher. I mean, I'll look at something and I'm scrolling down and I'll say, wow, that's gorgeous. Oh my goodness, that's beautiful. And, , you know, that's so striking and, and, and you've continued to, , not only elicit higher and higher quality work from your artists and, and, you know, arguably they were already creating really high quality work, but also bring in new artists. You've brought in several new artists over the last year. And, , that's, that's kind of, it's fun in a, in a way because the artist community has always been really important to the Portland art gallery. And you've brought these new artists in during a time where your, , definition of community has by necessity changed. 

Emma Wilson: 

Yes, it's true. And it's interesting. So we try army, we will often send out emails to our artists group and if there's a new artists like with updates, then all of a sudden they're included and welcomed in, but it’s, we, we wish, you know, we are now working with artists that, , we have been affiliated artists program, , that we have are able to work with artists that are not just in main area, which has been really nice to be able to open that up a little bit, , with our, our online, , marketplace and, and virtual we're, we feel like we're in a position where we can actually expand our, our artist roster as opposed to shrink it. So we're just always looking, , too, we're just always having our eyes open and people reach out all the time and sometimes it's a good fit and sometimes it's not and so it was nice to have the conversations, you know, get the door open. 

Dr. Lisa Belisle: Y

ou mentioned sheep Jones, and I know that her work is incredibly popular. , it's, , it's compelling, it's whimsical, it's colorful. And, , you must like she work personally because you have a piece behind you on the wall. 

Emma Wilson: 

No, actually, yes, I do. It’s called Root Cellar. Do you want me to tell you the story ?

Dr. Lisa Belisle: 

Yes, I’d love to hear the story.

Emma Wilson: 

So this painting arrived in the, in the gallery. And when I was looking at the sheet, it said, , sister's house. And I looked at this painting and there are four trees and I am the youngest of four girls. , my sisters are all huge, very close. We're very close through. And there's these three barrels in the root cellar. And I have three children and I immediately was like, I just felt an immediate connection to the composition. And I, you know, I was trying to figure out which sister was which tree. And I was like, I have to, I have to move forward with it. This is too important. , and so then I found out that it actually wasn't called sister's house at all. It was called root cellar four, but that's okay. That's what I'll call him. She won't mind. I don't think so. , Yes. So now it's part of our family, which I'm very happy about 

Dr. Lisa Belisle: 

This idea of the story is one that's really pretty crucial to the work that the Portland art gallery is doing. I know that, you know, some people will buy art as an investment and some people buy art as a decoration, but some people really buy art because there's something about the art itself. And I would argue a pretty high percentage of your clients buy art because they connect to the story. There's something that they feel that similar to what you're describing. , and you've had this happening now, , really with clients across the country, across the world, you have people on a regular basis, , getting in touch with you from California, Hong Kong, Great Britain, tell me about the importance of story and connection when it comes to art. 

Emma Wilson: 

So I think we hear a lot about people who have that connection with a place like that sense of place in Maine is being is beautiful. You know, we have such a, we're so fortunate here. , and so, but it also sort of represents a little bit of a lifestyle I think, and something that people, whether or not they are actually, I've had the experience of being able to live here or visit here. They might, , dream of being here or living here. I think that, , just the idea of beauty and peace and hopefulness is something that people continue, want to, , feel and add to their story. And so that's what people are searching for when they're looking for the work. And I'd say most of the people are not looking at purchasing art from an investment standpoint, but it's more as like a mental health investment standpoint. 

Emma Wilson: 

You know, it's a matter of something that is, , is meaningful to, to them on a personal or personal reason. I know that there was a woman from California. She had been following Jean Jack as an artist when Jean was out in Santa Fe years ago, she was 78 years old and she saw one and she just finally discussed. She's like, I need to have one in my life. This is, she has been a part of my life for so many years. We're there without having actual piece of artwork by her. And she even thinking about it, thinking about it. And she went ahead and decided to make a purchase, shipped it out to her. And she was, it was a very emotional moment for her to be at that point in her life, where she was able to purchase a piece by Jean Jack, someone that she had been following for many, many years. 

Dr. Lisa Belisle: 

As I was referring to earlier in, in my other, my other profession, as a, as a doctor, we have been engaging with our patients on a virtual platform now for several months. And one of the things I really enjoy about that is the ability to kind of have a peek into their lives, into what's important to them, a patient yesterday. He had his dogs, Lola and Ginger, and I don't think I'm giving away any sort of HIPAA information by telling you the names of the dogs, but he also had his rock posters on the wall behind him, like, and I mean, rock music. And it really just caused me to be able to, , understand him better, you know, understand what's important to him. I know that teachers have felt the same way. And you've had, obviously you keep up zoom communications with your, , clients and with your artists. , tell me about the importance of that, , kind of spacial connection when we use art in our homes or in our offices, if that's where we're resing from. 

Emma Wilson: 

Yes. I mean, I feel as though I've been invited into more people's homes since COVID happened, , than before, which is ironic, right? Because we're all wanting are not really supposed to be in each other's homes, but I've been there through whether or not it's it's, , most many times it's virtual, you know, it's face timing, , , keys or it's Photoshopping, or it's doing something to try to, , get for them to get a sense of what the piece would look like in their home or how that experience would be for them prior to it actually showing up. I also though, we'll do, , an, our team does a nber, you know, we do in home installations where we bring home, we bring work to a curbside delivery, you know, was initially now, , you know, we're able to, I went people's homes, , in a much more, you know, finite basis, but it's, , it's it, we're here. 

Emma Wilson: 

I hear more and more about what that, what that, how that piece is going to become a part of a person's home or an office than I did before. And I don't know, I don't know exactly why that that happens, but it's certainly an upside to visits just creates more of a connection and more of a, an understanding of, of law or more an understanding of the story of why the client might want that to be a piece of art to be part of their life. So, , and you get to, you know, you mentioned the store, like the posters or the dogs, you know, and you get to see photographs of family members or, you know, and I've noticed actually that a number of people’s children are like weighing in on their opinions about cases and things like that. So it’s just been a really nice opportunity and really great. 

Dr. Lisa Belisle: 

You've also been a part of celebrations. You’ve been able to work with Stephanie Brown at North 43 and bringing art into celebrations that she has done in collaboration with area businesses. So it's kind of been, in a creative way to, , bring all things, all good things together at a time where it would, it would be easier to just kind of put our, you know, hide our heads in the sand and say, okay, I'm just going to wait until this is all over. But instead you've been able to partner with, , like-minded individuals who have decided, you know, what things may look different for quite some time and maybe forever. So how do you find the people that have decided to approach this from a position of resilience? 

Emma Wilson: 

Hmm. That's a tricky, but I mean, maybe you just find the people because you have that same type of energy for each other. I mean, I feel as though like our artists are those people and some of the partners like Stephanie Brown with North 43, you know, she was such a good partner before this all happened as well. And so you kind of look to the people that you have that you trust and that you trust are going to want, you know, that you're taking that you're going to take seriously what it is that they're proposing and that you're going to invest your time and your energy into having it be the best, most successful as possible and Stephanie is just a wonderful partner for that very reason because she, when we had our in-person gatherings, our big evergreen party, you know, she did what was missed. 

Emma Wilson: 

It's such a professional one warm wonderful job for us. And so when she approached us with her creative ideas with COVID, I mean, I think, it was no brainer to just say, absolutely, let's see if we can make this happen. And, some are more popular, successful than others, but I thought he did a great job of working with her clients to celebrate the holidays and they're recognized their business. So, , you know, I think that, you know, whether or not it'd be visual art or written word or music or whatever it might be, you know, it's too important at a time like our pandemic, you know, those are the things that you, those are the things that we mean essentially to some degree. And so, and they help us understand all these different conditions of what we're experiencing. And so, and they help us all, hopefully find some sort of peace with whatever it might be. So I just think that the arts it's been, it's been really good to see how the creative industry has been supportive and valued during, during this pandemic. 

Dr. Lisa Belisle: 

I also think that it has been important for all of us to meet people where they're coming from. So, you know, I mentioned, how do you, you know, connecting with people who are resilient, but, you know, still being open to other people's experiences of not feeling that resilient. And, you know, this has been obviously incredibly difficult for so many people, whether they've experienced illness themselves or the death of a loved one, or even just the isolation. , and I, I, you know, in our medical practice, I mean, reaching out to older people, , I think there's a, there's an older woman who celebrated her 93rd birthday that I just talked to the other day. And I am not sure I've ever met her in person, but you know, every few months I get on the phone with her, I have a conversation with her about her life and how she is, , how things are going for her. And I think even those small outreaches are, they're probably more meaningful for me honestly, than they are for her, because she seems like, you know, she's, she's lived a good full life. 

Emma Wilson: 

I thought that, but Yes, I mean, I just, did I have such respect for you and all the people that are in the medical profession, helping people through, , you know, so much anxiety and so much that it's, , it's been, it's been amazing to observe, but Yes, but we, we N like separate but related point is that we have noticed that people want to stay on the phone longer. , when we're talking with them about our, or maybe it's, you know, Oh, yes, let's FaceTime. Or, you know, why don't you come over? Or I know that people are looking for connection and just as we all are, you know, , the artists are, and want to hear the story about where their work ended up or sure. I can come down to the gallery. It could be there in 20 minutes, if you don't want me to be there to meet somebody, like people are, are still, are wanting to stay connected and moving to do it. , they're doing anything, we're all doing it in communities that we can. So it's been nice to have those moments and I I'm, I'm sure that your patient is very appreciative and looks forward to those, those conversations with you with as much as you do with her, but it's, , you know, it's, , that isolation, I think, is something that we all have to really pay attention to and remind ourselves that maybe somebody maybe seeming a little bit needy, what Encore is in time, but perhaps it's because they're really, really 

Dr. Lisa Belisle: 

Well, you also mentioned something that I think, , comes up a lot for me in the work that I do. And that is the importance of having a sense of purpose. And maybe your purpose is not to create watercolors, which is a great purpose. , but maybe your purpose revolves around, you know, something else. Maybe it's caring for a child caring for an elderly parent. , but I do think people have had to reconfigure their priorities and try to figure out, you know, where maybe they worked outside the home and they had a, you know, a big job that required a lot of travel. Maybe that doesn't happen anymore. So it even really impacts our, our identities, , and trying to understand what that looks like. So I think this is a time of great transition and shifting really for all of us, not only as individuals, but also as a culture. , given all of that, what, what do you look forward to let's, let's asse that we're, at some point we're going to get on the other side of this, or, 

Emma Wilson: 

Well, in terms of, from, for the gallery, like I am looking forward to sort of radio means whatever the next thing, the next thing is that we're going to do, because I feel as though that's like, there's no option. We're not going to stand still. And like, that's, that's exciting to me, like always having something to look forward to. It's not going to always be that successfully, but, you know, just to continue to try different ways of connecting with people and telling stories and sharing it and sharing the art, , , with people, , you know, personally I'm moving next week. So that's something I'm looking forward to. And, and that's a big change, but not such a big change, but it's, but it's something to look forward to. And, you know, I just think that, , I look forward to maintaining that sort of quiet to stay connected with people. , when everything opens up, I think that'll be, it'll be set to a little bit of a challenge. And, , but I hope that I hope that, that doesn't. So I know I do look forward to having more people in the gallery space and having more people visit us in Maine, for sure. But at the same time, you know, we'll, we'll continue to stay connected with people virtually am I congratulations 

Dr. Lisa Belisle: 

For making it through this last year? And I wish you all the best on your upcoming, major life transition. I've enjoyed very much working with you throughout these years and being your friend throughout these years. And, I give you a lot of credit for staying hopeful, staying strong, bringing art into the world, connecting with everybody on your staff and your artists. And, I appreciate your being with me on the first episode of Radio Maine. 

Emma Wilson: 

Yes. Thank you, for your support. I mean, tremendous, tremendous person that you are so wonderful knowing that you're there with the team. 

Dr. Lisa Belisle: 

Well, thank you, Emma. And I look forward to speaking with artists and other interesting people in the upcoming months as a part of Radio Maine. It has really been a joy to start this process and start it with my good friend, Emma Wilson, who you may find as the director of the Portland Art Gallery in Portland, Maine on Middle Street. So please take the time to connect with Emma and her wonderful group, either in person or virtually. As Emma has said, they're always available and definitely worth getting to know. 

Emma Wilson: 

Thanks again.