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Return to: Aviva Rahmani

Why Blue Rocks?


(2002)

COMMUNITY TOOLBOX
This is part of the Toolbox for Communities
Vinalhaven Island, Maine, USA

40 large rocks and boulders on and beneath the causeway on Vinalhaven Island, Maine were painted blue in August, with the Selectmen's permission, as part of the temporary "Site Specific" show initiated by Pat Nick of the Vinalhaven Press, NYC. When she asked me to participate, I decided to draw attention to the tidal blockage of a local causeway by painting the rocks there blue. Besides submitting a detailed description of my intentions for her to present to the Selectmen, I also spoke to the Town Manager to be sure there would be no problems. There was also an indoor installation planned that overlaid GIS maps to demonstrate how degrading or restoring a small site such as that one, could affect much larger systems and ultimately overlap each other...

Aviva Rahmani, "Blue Rocks", Ultramarine pigment and buttermilk on rocks, Vinalhaven Island, Maine, 2002 (since removed).
Aviva Rahmani, "Blue Rocks", Ultramarine pigment and buttermilk on rocks, Vinalhaven Island, Maine, 2002 (since removed).

The rocks were painted with pure ultramarine pigment mixed with buttermilk to encourage moss growth. The blue color was chosen because the subject is water health. It also echoes the blue sky and waters of our beautiful island. The color was naturally fading over time and would continue to do so. The causeway had been chosen because some local residents have been trying for years to draw attention to the smell caused by the tidal blockage.

Simultaneously on the island, the Selectmen who had been most sympathetic to natural resource issues resigned and the board is now comprised of islanders who have been unwilling or unable to enforce the town ordinances concerning natural resources. As the Chair of the natural Resources sub-committee for the Comprehensive Plan her, that has concerned me. At the same time, I found the work exhausting. As the summer wore on and it became clear that I couldn't resign from the Comprehensive Plan, it also became obvious that we were shortly going to have a major island political war on our hands when it comes time to do our recommendations for the Selectmen. So it didn't come entirely as a surprise that after the blue rocks were painted, some islanders began to complain that the rocks weren't fading fast enough (they are an easy and very visible target). Others were quietly energized to find solutions to the restricting causeway. The complainers were far more vociferous and a formal letter was sent to Pat, demanding that I immediately wash the rocks of any hint of blue.

The locals who wanted attention to the problem if degradation were somewhat delighted to get even more attention but also began to recall various incidents of residents having their houses burned down in the ultimate island revenge against "outside" meddlers in island affairs. My response before I knew of the summons, was to write an essay about the rocks for the local paper. When Pat gave me the news, she suggested jokingly that I have a washing party. A week after my essay was published, a Selectman published a scathing letter in defense of their position. Naming me personally, signing himself as though he represented the entire board and complaining abut "irresponsible" artists.

On September 29 at 1:30 PM, at low tide, when the water problem was most visible and odorous I held a washing party to comply with the Selectmen's demand. All were welcome, emails were sent out and an call for volunteers was posted on greenmuseum.org. It said, "Please bring bio-degradable soap, water buckets and strong bristle scrub brushes and IDEAS to solve the problem of degradation there."

Pleasant River, Oct 30, 2004
Pleasant River, October 30, 2004.
It didn't rain the day before the cats and dogs with the high winds I had counted on to make the washing of my Blue Rocks simple. They were still gloriously, softly blue, perfectly matching the sky and the water. They change color and intensity subtly, I think exquisitely, with the light and some people liked that. But they had become a political symbol here for how some off-islanders are changing the islander's island and we (my rocks and I) are in the middle of that storm of fear and bitterness. The people trying to draw attention to the local degradation have been trying desperately to draw attention to it by the usual channels for years and have been utterly ignored. Now it is the topic of intense conversation everywhere I go, so, mission accomplished, right? Two other selectmen, one the Chair, have taken it on themselves to deal with this in private and public meetings, indirectly admonishing the selectman for his vituperation so I, the rocks and the causeway channel I think win in the end but at some great cost to me personally. Too often I end up as a lone ranger. It gives me a lot of flexibility but it is also very high risk.

Tidal movement can be important to the overall health of ecosystems. This blockage is a relatively simple thing to correct now with modern engineering. Correcting the problem wouldn't endanger the integrity of the roadway. Some residents are researching ways to restore the site to a healthy estuary. Washing the rocks clean came to symbolize the strengthened hope that clean water and coastline will be an on-going island goal.

The washing was a great success. There were about 8 of us working and we finished in 30 min. The rocks now have the most subtle, translucent trompe l'oeil residual dusky blue veneer left. I was delighted to see how hardy the lichens were that had established themselves on the rocks. Our vigorous scrubbing did not dislodge them. Several friends came by to wish us well and regret the loss of the blue and commiserate about how silly the Selectmen et al were to focus on washing away the evidence vs cleaning up the problem. I hope the result will be the clean up of the waters that it was all for.

I picked up some champagne and really nice cookies and soda for my "work crew". I poured some of the champagne over the waters as a final gesture of celebration for the ritual of cleansing. The atmosphere was very jovial. The weather couldn't have been more gorgeous (it's an exquisite site anyway). The now friendly Selectperson who's been a supporter came by and I gave her a kiss and told her I'd kept my half of the bargain: to wash the rocks, now I hoped they'd clean the water. So I feel really good. I was pleased that the event made it into a major Maine islands newspaper ("The Waterfront News") that serves about 100,000 people. I feel as much was accomplished to draw attention to this local problem as I could possibly effect, in the best possible spirit.

Next week the locals will go to the Selectmen and make the case for the REAL clean up: of the water. At that meeting a letter from me will be read aloud by the other friendly Selectperson, the Head of the Selectmen, so that is two out of five actively on our side. Aside from that, I am thrilled to wash my hands of it for a while. I won't be at the meeting so that this can't be about personality issues I am content for now and resting. My next step will be including the recommendations for the site as part of the findings of our sub-committee that will go to the Town in the Spring for a vote.

Lessons Learned:

  1. In a small town going through ordinary channels isn't enough
  2. No matter how many channels are gone through, some people will take exception
  3. Persistent courtesy and good cheer are invaluable
  4. Keep your eye on the goal (cleaning the rocks in exchange for cleaning the waters, making something beautiful and coherent) keeps your mind off of getting personally embroiled
  5. Keep your eye on the goal (cleaning the rocks in exchange for cleaning the waters, making something beautiful and coherent) keeps your mind off of getting personally embroiled
  6. Reach out for allies
  7. Appreciate and thank supporters
  8. Let go of controlling the outcome
  9. Track the follow-up both as a political action and as a record of art
  10. Build on anything that was accomplished
  11. Consolidate allies while expanding a base

Causeway Culvert, Oct 17, 2004
Causeway Culvert, October 17, 2004.

March 26, 2004, I received news that March 15, the Selectmen of my Town allocated funds to restore the causeway I drew attention to in 2002 with the project "Blue Rocks". "Blue Rocks" drew attention to degradation in an ecological hot spot on the island, which in turn sits dead center in a larger ecological hot spot in the Gulf of Maine, due to the fisheries & a Class A Migratory Bird Fly Zone. In addition, this funding is tied to the problem of Spring run off on an island road that goes by the town reservoir (approx 1/3 the island-not inc me- is on town water). This was a problem I hammered at relentlessly as a recommendation for the conclusions of our local Comprehensive Plan. In the latter case, I also used Ecological Art techniques to clarify, illustrate and dramatize the problems & implications of the run off, drawing on GIS, etc.

As it turned out, the evening of the Mar.15 meeting, my car had broken down & I never got to the meeting. When I learned of the outcome, I knew that the project accomplished exactly what I'd hoped: to create a catalytic event which would ultimately be carried through without me and effect much larger systemic changes.

I am often frustrated to feel I'm most effective when I'm most invisible. It is REALLY hard to let go of ego and trust the performative structure of this sort fo work. However, from a performative point of view (as in performance art), this exceeded my wildest dreams for effect/affect on my audience.

**UPDATE JUNE 2004**

I am pleased to report that the funds and approval for the causeway restoration for which I created "Blue Rocks" a few years ago, on Vinalhaven Island, Maine, has just been approved by the town voters here.

Besides being located in a biological hot spot on the island, which in itself sits in a Class A Migratory Bird Fly Zone for the Atlantic Ocean, this trigger point restoration will affect an estimated 90 acres of wetlands and shoreline, including 75 acres of clam flats. This is a 20 acre improvement on "Ghost Nets", in which a 1/3 acre restoration helped restore habitat linkage for approximately 70 acres.

The State has allocated $90 000. for the clean up and had asked the town to vote on the additional $30 000. of good faith matching funds to prove community support. Voters passed the article hands down. Some observors had been worried that in a year with mounting tax costs and budget cuts, this project might be axed. I was advised to just be quiet, a hard thing for me to do. I sat on my hands and held my breathe when the vote was taken. On the way out the door, when the meeting adjourned at 11PM, someone turned to me, grinned and said, "you might see that mess cleaned up in your lifetime!" I couldn't have been more pleased. I was grinning back to him from ear to ear.

Just a few days earlier, the Selectman who had originally tried to subpoena me for painting the causeway boulders blue, was defeated for the second time in his bid to be reinstated as Selectman. At times like this, I am reminded why I sweat blood and tears to do the work we all do.

**UPDATE JAN 2005**

In August I was elated because $100,000 came through to restore the causeway I'd drawn attention to here with the Blue Rocks project. I had determined, after three years' study, that the causeway was a keystone biological hot spot for the entire Gulf of Maine region. In October, I was over the moon when the restoration was complete and the area opened up into the most glorious restored series of micro-habitats with flocks of circling Eagles.

Well, that was Oct 17. There was a caveat that followed.

The same day I got home from NYC and walked into the supermarket. I got an earful from the local fishermen about how the causeway restoration hadn't taken into account road flooding and they couldn't get through in high tide to get their traps. It got quite animated with time, as ancient Maples succumbed to salt water intrusion, lots intended for horse corrals were flooded, and mothers had to wait for the tides to recede to pick up children, etc.
Causeway Flooding, Dec 15, 2004.
Causeway Flooding, December 15, 2004.
The mainland news came out with pictures of the flooding. Local wags created photoshop visuals of the Ferry crossing the road. Someone shot a picture of someone crossing in a canoe. Less amusing was when the ambulance couldn't get through and the prospect of that road expanse covered with winter ice, as is imminent...and the ambulance has to get through.

It was not a propitious time for me to remind anyone that I had been specifically asked NOT to be visible or involved for two years, while all the planning was going on. Any nitwit taking a look at the topography could predict they would, at the least, need a tidal gate.

Just before my last trip to NYC, I heard the plan was to dump rocks back into the opened causeway to staunch the flooding. It was at that point, that I decided, to hell with flak, this is my baby and I started making calls and gathering info for the meeting about solutions that would be efficient and productive in solving the problems. The head of the NE sector of the EPA vounteered to come up and help mitigate the engineering-public relations disaster: at least four national agencies got involved. The public meeting was the day after I had to leave so I just submitted all I had with a letter to be read out loud.

To my horror, when I got back last week, I learned that the vote had gone for the rocks, instead of the tidal gates, because the town wanted something immediately to solve the problems. I was crushed. I considered whether anything I had ever done in ecological art was worth it. I seriously considered auditioning for the Met to earn my keep as a dramatic coloratura in the chorus and slinking away into oblivion after being of modest service in seeing that "Watershed" got published.

Well, I wouldn't have the courage to write this if there weren't a happy ending. All this time, the islanders have been driving out to view all this, and besides all the emotion, laughs and tears, they have also witnessed how extraordinary the restored area now is. They seem mollified by both the quick temporary solution and the mass of new data and attention to look at it as a regional exercize. The agencies concerned seem willing to do whatever it may take to see justice done...this is the transpecies part: the ultimate justice all parties seem willing to serve, whose majesty they saw since October, is the flood of magnificence, the restoration briefly brought. So the timetable is March, to possibly raise the road and analyze whether tidal gates will be needed...and this time, I will be in the loop.

See Aviva Rahmani's work in the Artists Section.

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