A Creative Nest

Artists Todd Watts and Jemma Gascoine traded the big city for a tiny village.

By Edgar Allen Beem
Photographed by Patryce Bąk
Blanchard is the end of the road. It’s not on the way to anywhere. The tiny Piscataquis County village (population 98) is an unorganized township located near the headwaters of the Piscataquis River as it flows out of Shirley Bog. Depending on which way one is walking, the Appalachian Trail either begins or ends its course through the Hundred-Mile Wilderness nearby. But unless Blanchard was your ultimate destination or you were chased there by a logging truck, chances are you’ve never visited.

So how did a photographer from New York City and a ceramic artist from London come to live and work year-round in rural, remote Blanchard? The short answer is Berenice Abbott.

Photographer Todd Watts and ceramist Jemma Gascoine live in an old white house with forest-green trim on the road to Barrows Falls. The Piscataquis River, as yet barely more than a stream, flows fast and shallow through their backyard. Watts bought the house in 1974 with money he made that summer printing photographs for Abbott, who lived next door at the time. The legendary photographer had herself purchased a former stagecoach inn in Blanchard in 1956, and moved to the little village from New York City a decade later for her health.

“To Whom It May Concern: In my opinion Todd Watts is the best photographic printer in the country,” wrote Abbott in 1991, the year she died at age 93.

“I worked for her on and off for 16 years,” says Watts of the notoriously prickly Abbott, “but it wasn’t until after 11 years that we became friends.”

A native New Yorker, Watts graduated from the High School of Music & Art in 1967 and the School of Visual Arts (SVA) in 1971. A sculpture major, he first picked up a camera to document his student work. For the next few years, he supported himself shooting and printing architectural photographs. By 1974, when Witkin Gallery commissioned him to print Berenice Abbott’s work, Watts had a reputation as a master printer.

In New York, Watts printed portfolios of Abbott’s photographs and exhibitions of his own, which took place at P.P.O.W. Gallery and Motel Fine Arts and at Bernard Toale Gallery in Boston. Printing for Parasol Press, teaching at Hunter College and his alma mater SVA, and creating his own work, Watts firmly established himself on the New York art scene. Then, in 1998, he decided to leave.

Watts’ 2,500-square-foot loft in the SoHo art district had become too small, but loft space in Manhattan had become too chic and expensive for a working artist. Watts’ upstairs and downstairs neighbors were actor Richard Gere and director Spike Jonze. As he considered how and where to relocate, he realized he no longer needed to live in New York at all.

“All the business I was doing was on the Internet,” Watts explains. “The art community had basically left Manhattan. No one was coming to the studio anymore. I really liked Maine and I already had a house there, so I decided to renovate it.”

Moving to Maine from Manhattan coincided with another profound change in Todd Watts’ life — meeting and marrying Jemma Gascoine. The couple met in London in 1999. Watts was there as a delegate to a science and art conference organized by the Arts Council of England, and Gascoine was one of the Arts Council organizers.

In the summer of 1999, when Gascoine came to the United States, Watts still had one foot in New York, but he immediately drove her eight hours north to Blanchard.

“I did like the river,” says Gascoine, mustering the best thing she can say about her initial impression of the village, “and when I was young I was passionate about trees.”

Watts and Gascoine were married in December of 2000 and moved to Blanchard that same winter. It took several years, however, for the couple to move 20 tons of equipment up from New York, settle in, build studios, and re-establish themselves as artists in Maine.

Watts converted an old building across the street from the riverside house into a state-of-the-art photography studio equipped to make both digital and analog prints. Watts’ expertise in printing large-format photographs has begun to attract photographers from as far away as Austria to print their work in Blanchard. Visiting artists stay in a guest apartment above the studio.

Though deer and moose frequently appear in the woods outside his studio, Watts’ own art is not based on Maine subject matter. He does not photograph landscapes and wildlife. Like a growing number of artists, Watts is in Maine because it’s a great place to live, not because his work requires it.

“Maine has a thriving creative community,” Watts writes on his website. “Artists have migrated to Maine to work and to live for more than a century. It is a state that is generally supportive to artists, and space is readily available. To me, Maine feels artful, but I can’t explain why.”

Todd Watts is attracted to phenomena that cannot be easily explained. His photographs are wildly colorful, fantastical images aimed not at capturing the natural world but at conjuring a mystical, metaphorical reality. He doesn’t take photographs, he makes them.

A powerful 2011 photograph, a fiery orange surreal vision of Adam and Eve after they have been expelled from the Garden of Eden, is entitled First Uncertainty. In a 2010 series of prints entitled Perfidy, Watts used Karo syrup to paint flowing images of the destruction of nature by human development, photographed the results, and then printed them in garish hues of pink, orange, aqua, and blue. Perfidy was inspired by the huge Plum Creek development project around Moosehead Lake, so maybe Maine does creep into Watts’ feverishly imaginative work after all.

Just about the only thing Jemma Gascoine’s pottery has in common with Todd Watts’ photographs is a taste for strong color. He uses color in an assertive, even acerbic manner as befits his serious demeanor. She uses bold color more playfully, as befits hers.

Gascoine, who has a degree in art history and a post-graduate diploma in arts management, only took up ceramic art about the time she met Watts. Her mother was an actress, and Gascoine grew up in the theater. She studied and worked with noted British art potter Barry Guppy for two years before moving to Maine.

“It’s really exhilarating being on the wheel and having clay spin through your fingers,” says Gascoine of her love of ceramics. “It’s a physical manifestation of your energy that’s enormously satisfying.”

Gascoine’s studio occupies what might otherwise be the living room of the couple’s home, and she maintains a seasonal gallery in a converted garage next to the house. The gallery building matches the modest white with green trim of the house, but the interior is painted a surprising catsup red that shows off Gascoine’s pots extremely well. Most of her ceramic works are thrown red stoneware pots and vases glazed in rich reds, blacks, and blue-greens. The gallery operates on the honor system such that anyone interested in a pot just leaves payment in the unlocked gallery when no one is home.

For a 2012 exhibition at the University of Maine Museum of Art, Gascoine purchased a slab roller and created both ceramic tiles and wall reliefs that are essentially deconstructions of her functional ware. Her art, then, is about her craft.

Since coming to Maine, Gascoine has used her arts management skills in a number of different ways. For instance, she helped organize and raise money for a Dexter Historical Society exhibition entitled Maine’s Woods: Observations by Bert Lincoln Call & Henry David Thoreau. Call (1866–1965) was a Dexter photographer who retraced Thoreau’s Maine journey. Todd Watts printed the photographs for the 2010 exhibition that traveled around the state.

Gascoine has also taught at SeDoMoCha Middle School and Piscataquis Valley Adult Ed, helped organize Lake Hebron Artisans, and has worked at both Haystack Mountain School of Crafts on Deer Isle and Watershed Center for the Ceramic Arts in Newcastle.

Though it is far-flung and thinly populated, there is an active arts community in central Maine, and Watts and Gascoine have added to the interesting mix of highly individualistic artists such as Alan Bray, Milton Christianson, Abby Shahn, Barbara Sullivan, and Wally Warren.

“Todd and Jemma bring a level of sophistication and a commitment to excellence that is rare in this part of the state,” says painter Alan Bray, who lives in nearby Sangerville. “Their attention to detail, both in their own work and in their exemplary involvement with the community, is the very model of what I believe the arts should strive for. A visit to Jemma’s gallery, designed by Todd, is all one would need to understand my admiration.”

Todd Watts has had exhibitions in recent years in New York, London, and Vienna, but he only began showing in Maine in 2010. That year, the University of Maine Museum of Art in Bangor exhibited 20 digital prints as Todd Watts: String Too Short to Use. And in 2012, the Center for Maine Contemporary Art in Rockport opened its 60th anniversary season with an exhibition placing Watts at the forefront of the Maine art scene along with painters Katherine Bradford, Frederick Lynch, and Mark Wethli and sculptor John Bisbee.

“Both Todd and Jemma are fully devoted to a rigorous studio practice,” observes University of Maine Museum of Art director George Kinghorn. “Their knowledge of the world of art beyond Maine’s borders always encourages stimulating conversations. What’s better is that they are either involved or very aware of what’s going on in the galleries and museums throughout Maine.”

Living and working far from the epicenters of international art and culture is bound to have an effect on an artist, but both Jemma Gascoine and Todd Watts have embraced life in rural Maine.

“There is a serenity here I couldn’t get in the city,” says Gascoine. “But believe it or not, we are pretty busy.”

“One of the things about Maine that shocked me most,” says Watts, “is that everyone tells you the truth. That’s really hard to get accustomed to. In New York, people aren’t lying to you exactly, but there is a pretentiousness and callousness to things. That affects how I make my work. The pretension gets out of your work. It’s more honest.”

Blanchard may be at the end of the road on the way to nowhere, but Watts and Gascoine insist they don’t feel isolated in the least. “I don’t feel the remoteness,” says Watts, “but I do notice that my worldview has changed. It’s much more global than when I was in New York. In order to think globally, you need a place to stand.”

Thanks to the late, great Berenice Abbott, Todd Watts and Jemma Gascoine have made their stand in cosmopolitan Blanchard.

Edgar Allen Beem is a freelance writer from Yarmouth who has been contributing to Down East since 1983.

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