21 June 2024

A Recipe for Collective Stillness

Finding stillness in stormy weather
on a unique retreat in Maine


by Megan Adams

“When you immerse yourself in the natural world, you wander a little through the landscape of your soul.”

— Andreas Weber, Matter and Desire: An Erotic Ecology

The (stillness) collective is a place-based interdisciplinary and improvisational collaborative practicing deep listening and intensive making in nature. They offer their work in kinship with human and more-than-human partners along waterways in Midcoast Maine. In the summer of 2023, I experienced the work of the collective for the first time in their immersive exhibition Unfolding Place at Speedwell Contemporary in Portland, Maine.

I have never walked away from an exhibition feeling so moved. I was stunned by the potency of their environmental performance, captured and shared through music, film, poetry, and an installation of performance-related ephemera that included natural materials and collaboratively crafted artwork. As an ecologically focused art historian, writer, and curator, being a part of a retreat like the one that led to the work in this exhibition, was the opportunity of a lifetime. I experienced the magic of their environmentally engaged performance in person and witnessed their collaborative artmaking process, which collective member Susan Bickford coined “a recipe for collective stillness.”

After getting to know the members of the (stillness) collective, I had the honor of spending two days in June 2023 at the Bates-Morse Mountain Conservation Area in Phippsburg, Maine, on a making retreat with the artists as they prepared and filmed content for their new work Bodies of Weather.

Andrea Goodman in the Bates-Morse Mountain Conservation Area in 'Bodies of Weather,' 2023. Photo by Juliette Sutherland

The collective’s familiarity with the site was impressive. Each artist mindfully prepared themselves before arriving for the retreat by conducting extensive research on the locale and learning about the human and environmental history of the Popham Beach area. They gathered maps, consulted tide charts and weather reports, and taught themselves about the coastal topography and its plant and animal inhabitants. In addition to embarking on their individual paths of discovery, members of the collective met periodically leading up to the retreat to solidify trip details, share knowledge, and collaborate on ideas for performance elements like costuming. 

When I arrived at the Bates College Coastal Center at Shortridge, I was honored to be warmly welcomed to a densely vegetated coastal wonderland. The first day, we took time to come together. The group settled in and went over agreements for their making trip. Inspired by the Haudenosaunee Thanksgiving Address, they composed an improvisational gratitude ritual paying homage to the natural world. Under the guidance of guest astrologer and performer Andrea Goodman, we consulted the cosmos, familiarizing ourselves with the astrology of the moment. Then came an exercise in bringing everyone together through Cosmic Harmony sound healing. With each activity, I gained a better understanding of their artistic process and the significant role the preparatory rituals play in bringing the individual members of the collective together, attuning them to place.  

Susan Bickford, Katherine Ferrier, Annie Bailey, and Heather Lyon in 'Bodies of Weather,' 2023. Photo by Juliette Sutherland

On the second day of the retreat—what was meant to be the first day of filming—there was a lot of talk about what the plan was, as we were facing what promised to be a cold, rain-filled, and cloudy day. Upon much deliberation, the group decided to brave the stormy weather, get into costume and rain gear, and venture out to the beach. 

When we arrived, we walked together slowly from our parked cars in silent procession up a pathway to the beach, holding each other in our awareness as we moved like a flock of birds intuitively flying in unison. In the quiet, in the stillness, I reached through my meditative movements, and my awareness expanded. I felt the bodies navigating the beach around me; I felt the connection my feet made with the earth with every step. I heard the waves crashing on the shore, the sound of birds, and the silent pitter-patter of raindrops meeting my body and the ground around me. With each step, I became more a part of the landscape and more a part of the group. 

The place the collective selected for filming was a beautiful compilation of large rocks along the bank of a small estuary. We huddled beside the rocks under our shared umbrellas, shivering in the freezing rain and unpacking equipment, while members shared where they felt it was all to begin. It was decided that Andrea would go to the top of the rocks. I watched her bravely shed her precious protective layers, and I moved to the beach to watch her performance alongside the cameras. I remember for a moment being fixated on the cold, and then She appeared.

My whole being was stunned into a state of absolute awe. She was ethereal, regal, magical—an arbiter of the cosmos hailing the power of nature, an unchangeable force amidst the weather. 

After the collective finished shooting the performance on the rocks, we moved to the shoreline and Heather began to move, joined by Susan, Katherine, and Annie. Their movement mirrored the energy of the moment; the movement of water meeting water. Then I witnessed joyous rejuvenation, as hands lovingly dipped into the cold water.

Robin Lane, Fletcher Boote, Katherine Ferrier, Andrea Goodman, Susan Bickford, and Megan Adams at Bates College Coastal Center at Shortridge, during the making retreat for 'Bodies of Weather,' June 2023. Photo by Annie Bailey

From the perspective of the water, I see that change is the only constant, yet there is a prevailing presence. Interconnection to all that surrounds us is our essence. The signals our bodily forms emit commit us to a state of constant flux, our bodies as changeable from moment to moment as our surroundings, responding to stimuli without and within. Then I am drawn back to considering the perspective of the water, and suddenly I see that the attunement in practice before me. This performance comes from human beings who are moving from a place of stillness. This was collective stillness, something I have never truly witnessed before. I understand the recipe now, the significance of what this group is sharing with the world through their art. 

I am taken back to the beginning of the retreat: the introductions and everyone settling into the space; the laughter and conversation over shared meals; and the group exercises that connected everyone to the moment, the place, and each other. I watched each day as the members took time and space for themselves—exploring the area, reading, journaling, playing music, meditating, sewing, sleeping. And then everyone would come together ready to connect and contribute to their collective undertaking. Their well-honed ability to drop in, to attune to each other and their environmental surroundings, was a marvel to behold.

After two days, I departed the retreat, deeply grateful for what a gift it was to be able to bear witness to and learn from this group of artists in such an intimate and privileged way. Though when it came time for me to leave, the making of Bodies of Weather had just begun, I knew after that first day of filming that what came next would be a triumph. I had witnessed the collective do something quite remarkable: they accessed, embodied, and translated stillness in their environmental performance amidst the chaos of a tempestuous storm. This experience taught me how to embrace the parts of myself that emerge in stillness, understanding that being in our bodies and in sync with nature can teach us a lot about ourselves and the world we occupy.

The body of work resulting from this week-long retreat, was exhibited in a show titled Bodies of Weather at Space Gallery in Portland, Maine earlier this year. The (stillness) collective core artists include Annie Bailey, Fletcher Boote, Susan Bickford, Katherine Ferrier, Robin Lane, Heather Lyon, and Luke Myers. Additional artist participants on the making retreat for Bodies of Weather included Andrea Goodman, Phoebe Parker, Juliette Sutherland, and Kariska Pulchalski. 

Find more on at stillnesscollective.com.

Installation view of 'Bodies of Weather' at SPACE Gallery in Portland, Maine (February 2-April 6, 2024). Photo by Luke Myers, featuring Shoreline Quilt by Katherine Ferrier
Fletcher Boote, Katherine Ferrier, Susan Bickford, Heather Lyon, and Annie Bailey in 'Bodies of Weather,' 2023. Photo by Luke Myers
Susan Bickford, Annie Bailey, Heather Lyon, Katherine Ferrier, and Fletcher Boote in 'Bodies of Weather,' 2023. Photo by Luke Myers
Fletcher Boote, Robin Lane, Heather Lyon, Katherine Ferrier and Annie Bailey in 'Bodies of Weather,' 2023. Photo by Phoebe Parker
Annie Bailey, Katherine Ferrier, and Heather Lyon in 'Bodies of Weather,' 2023. Photo by Luke Myers

Header image: Fletcher Boote, Susan Bickford, Annie Bailey, Katherine Ferrier and Heather Lyon in Bodies of Weather, 2023. Photo by Luke Myers. All images courtesy of the artists

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