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Seacoast scavenger: A road-trip guide to the coastline arts scene

Celina Colby | 3/31/2017, 6 a.m.
Along the New England seacoast lies a cultural font of African American history and art.
“Carpenters” by Jacob Lawrence. Photo: Courtesy Ogunquit Museum of American Art

Just an hour’s drive from Boston lies a cultural font of African American history and art. The New England seacoast offers fresh seafood, quaint accommodations and a cultural history older than any other in the country.

For a weekend getaway, start in Portsmouth, New Hampshire where you’ll find the 24-stop Black Heritage Trail, marking historically and culturally significant locations around the city. Though some of the stops simply denote where slaves lived, the African Burial Ground on Chestnut Street is a sharp and moving reminder of the black town members who shaped early New England. Though the initial burial ground has been paved over, a park with a memorial created by artist Jerome Meadows stands in its place.

On the web

Portsmouth Black Heritage Trail: http://portsmouthhistory.org/portsmouth-black-heritage-trail

Seacoast African American Cultural Center: http://saacc-nh.org

Sanctuary Arts: www.sanctuaryarts.org

Ogunquit Art Association: www.ogunquitartassociation.com

Ogunquit Museum of American Art: https://ogunquitmuseum.org

Titled “We Stand in Honor of Those Forgotten,” the memorial park begins with two life-size bronze figures in bas-relief, standing back to back. The male figure represents the first enslaved person brought to Portsmouth in 1645; the female figure represents Mother Africa. They are divided by, and fused with, a large granite rectangle, a symbol of industry and colonization and the New Hampshire state rock.

The brick Petition Line guides you through the park, bearing the inscription of a 1779 document written by and petitioning for the freedom of 20 slaves. Past the artist’s statement and manicured bushes lies a reburial vault sealed with a mosaic Sankofa symbol. The vault holds the exhumed remains of the burial ground’s former occupants. Eight figures crafted in cement and bronze stand around the vault, representing the contemporary community and their acknowledgement of Portsmouth’s African heritage. Around the park’s outer railing are 110 tiles designed in collaboration with the local middle school.

This kind of community engagement in the arts spreads throughout the city. For more information on the burial ground you can head to the Seacoast African American Cultural Center on Middle Street. Its whole third floor exhibit, opening in April, will be dedicated to artwork created by local students and inspired by the burial ground and the area’s black history.

Sandi Clark, chairwoman of the SAACC says, “This isn’t just African American history, it’s American history. I think it’s important every day.” The organization’s theme this year is African American athletes. Their upcoming exhibits will center on Jesse Owens, Muhammad Ali, Jack Johnson and others.

Sanctuary Arts

From Portsmouth, Sanctuary Arts in Eliot, Maine is only a 15-minute drive. Owner and founder Christopher Gowell created the arts school and studio space in 1996 inside an old Methodist church. The expansive property features a large, light-flooded teaching room, a series of basement studios, Gowell’s own studio and residence, a foundry and a sculpture garden. The space reverberates with positive energy, and artistry sprouts from every corner. The former church pews were repurposed into a built-in shelving unit, and local artists created new stained glass in homage to the building’s original purpose.