And in a few days I go back to the Isle of Portland to present Portlander during the b-side arts festival (September 5–14).
We printed 3,000 copies with Newspaper Club and we’re distributing them at libraries and all of the festival venues. It’s 64 pages and contains countless photographs, artist submissions, text fragments, oral histories and links and connections to everyone I met on Portland in June.
I’m anxious. The last time I saw everyone there, the project was a mystery. It was still open, with all of the potential that anyone could imagine and hope for. Now, the attention will be directed away from me, away from them, onto the printed piece. I’ll be putting my work in their hands (an unplanned side-effect: Portlander is full of images of hands!). That materiality is powerful. We can all point to it and talk about it. It becomes the thing that’s seen, given, received, carried, admired, saved, remembered, forgotten, thrown away. It’s a container for emotion and thought and conversation.
So of course I worry about reactions and thoughts and conversations. How will it be received. A printed publication freezes time and space. There’s something inscrutable there in its ability to show us some things, to present subjective experience and culture, but to deny us others. There’s no way to really capture anything, and yet these projects attempt to do just that. The publication exists somewhere right there in the space between a yearning to understand and the disappointment of never getting there.
And that’s a lesson for me. I was aware of it from the moment I got to Portland. I’ve done a few of these projects. I try to get closer to a place by creating a thing that embodies personal experiences, relationships and community. I embed my self in another territory — in public — and to do it well, I have to sort of give up my own identity (I push it aside to absorb the lives of others). It’s exhausting work, but it works for me. Built into each of these projects is my leaving. I always leave.
But does it work for anyone else? Is it worth the effort to share? This is what I’ll be asking myself in England.
I’m giving a talk on Portland tomorrow, after more than three weeks here and just a few days before I leave. I’ve been doing everything I can to meet people, chat, photograph, gather and assemble some kind of collection of materials for the forthcoming publication, so this is a good moment to take a look at what’s happened here. And to begin some preliminary thinking about what it all means within a larger practice.
Soon after I arrived, someone advised me to say that we’re “on,” not “in,” Portland. There’s no town of Portland. It’s referred to as an island, even though it isn’t. Portland is a peninsula—Latin for almost-island—although there’s nothing “almost” about this place. It’s a solid block of limestone in the sea and it’s got a hard edge. It’s connected to the mainland (sometimes referred to locally as England) via Chesil Beach, as well as by a causeway, although that’s relatively modern. For most of its history, Portland’s only physical link to the outside world was a massive, ancient, 19-mile long pile of pebbles. Its border, crossing the beach and separating it from Weymouth, is only a few meters long.
Its hard edge is made up of cliffs and coastline—and a guarded demeanor. You can see the island-like outline on a map, but its real shape comes across less visibly in conversation.
Most of my chats with people here begin with my asking how long they’ve been on Portland. The response, anywhere from entire lifetimes to a few months or years, tends to set the tone of the conversation to follow, or can even shut it down. A few days in, I approached a woman who said she’d been on Portland for only 42 years, and therefore was not a real Portlander. And so, she could not participate in a project about Portlanders, she said, because she wasn’t qualified. I thought she was joking. She wasn’t.
And so I heard about the family names that have been here for over 500 years, and met some of them. People learn that I’m doing a project about the place and talk to me about generations of Portlanders, proudly showing me family trees and old photos. I’m intrigued by these documents and momentos and I’ve been photographing them, because they act as a sort of evidence of something. Proof of identity. They say “oh, you must try to find so-and-so, they really know this place. They’ve got stories.” I’ve heard about fathers and fathers’ fathers who worked in the quarries, almost as though the family histories come right out of the stone. Pride is careful here. Defensive, even. One can be proud of this place, but only if you are really of the place.
Portland has a funny way of working with language to support these stories. They’ve created a slang word for those not considered real Portlanders: kimberlin. It’s not an obscure term. It’s written into the poetry and you hear it in local conversation. There’s a Kimberlin Club. And a “stranger’s cemetery.”
And they’ve removed language, too. Saying the word “rabbit” is considered bad luck on the Isle of Portland, so it’s not allowed (it has something to do with seeing a rabbit rush out of the quarries, taken as a sign of imminent collapse). They’ve simply removed the word from the English language. Hare or bunny is fine, and keeping rabbits as pets is okay too—but the word “rabbit” is banned. It cannot be said, written, heard or read. The irony, of course, is that by removing language the concept is strengthened (called the Streisand effect, elsewhere). It’s one of the most powerful stories of the island and it’s continually reinforced, particularly by the elderly, who knock on wood if they hear it on television.
I guess one way to really be of the place is to know the community’s bounds—its rules and limits—and to pass that knowledge on to future generations. Even when the telling of it is the only reason for a tale’s existence (and this is certainly one aspect of culture, no?).
That original border with the mainland is marked on Chesil Beach by the Portland Bound Stone, and every seven years the community “beats the bounds” by taking two school-children and beating them with a stick while they lay across the stone, with prominent members of the community watching. It’s an ancient custom from a time before maps, when the town would walk the parish boundary and literally beat the line into its collective memory. It’s a ritual to define a territory by physically (and emotionally) inscribing it into the mind. On Portland, the beating of the bounds has been officiated for centuries by the manorial court leet, a small group of men who “exercise frankpledge” and collect rent on behalf of the crown (recording payment by inscribing marks onto long, wooden reeve staffs). The court leet represents the island’s oldest families and watches over Portland’s ways, writing its history and keeping its identity. It’s a tight system and it defines the heritage of this place. While mostly symbolic at this point, it hasn’t gone away.
Again and again I’ve been directed to those people and places on Portland where I would have access to these easy narratives—who’s been around, who’s got stories from the old days. Who’s real. I’ve explored many of them.
But on my own, I’ve discovered others who are willing to talk or contribute, regardless of lineage. Recently, a couple excitedly approached me to contribute to the project. “We’re moving to Portland in August,” they said. They’re Portland’s newest and proud of it, even though they aren’t here yet. And I’ve received a submission from one of Portland’s witches (of the local pagan group Dolmen Grove), and from a 13-year-old self-published novelist. And the 30-year-old personal, intimate diary of a long-time resident.
I met a Filipino mom and her young son at a pre-school group. Her husband is Cypriot and they moved here from Cyprus three-and-a-half months ago. How does their story connect—or not—to the place? Are they Portlanders? Portland isn’t a diverse place. Almost everyone is white.
Who is a real Portlander? I’ve asked again and again and never received the same answer.
What about Shahib, who lives in Weymouth but has nurtured his business on Portland—an Indian restaurant—for ten years? I’d like to say that to me, he’s a real Portlander.
Most of the people I’ve met here were not born from stone; they came here because they wanted to. They’ve generously offered me their stories, or some particular view of the place, as outsiders who came and stayed.
And after a month of meeting and talking with the people who live and work on Portland, I can say with total confidence that every one of them is a real Portlander.
If I can offer anything at all to the community, it’s an inclusive view from the outside. Perhaps it’s a kind of challenge, a call to the community to look within its bounds and find itself on the pages of a simple artist’s publication—not as a tight narrative, but as a loose, flowing collection of voices. Changing over time. Isn’t everyone here a Portlander? That’s what I can offer.
And so I’m going to use language too. I’m changing the name of this project to “Portlander.” I won’t try to define who or what that is. I’ll simply include everyone and everything that I’ve encountered, and put a powerful word on it. “Portlander” is more of a question than a statement. Who makes a place?
A free, public publication.
Artist Paul Soulellis will be in residence at Portland Tophill Library for the month of June to produce Portland Bill, a print-on-demand, community newsprint publication. Paul will gather material from Portland communities and design a multi-layered, diverse expression of local life and history. Portland Bill is a participatory publication—all material included will be contributed from residents of Portland and freely distributed back to our communities in September 2014.
Creative writing, essays, folklore, photography, drawings, maps, digital art, found material, poetry and recipes are all welcomed, but anything may be contributed to Portland Bill. Every effort will be made to include all submissions. Any resident of Portland may contribute—regardless of age, education or artistic experience.
Your contribution may be submitted in a few different ways —
— by sending digital material directly to firstname.lastname@example.org;
— by attending one of the artist’s meet-ups during the month of June;
— by leaving your submission at Tophill Public Library;
— by leaving your submission in one of the local Portland Bill dropboxes.
Submissions are due by 27 June.
Please consider lending words, pictures, memories and impressions to create a diverse, community-based publication. Each voice included will deepen Portland Bill’s personality and add to this unique portrait of Portland.
Portland Bill will be freely distributed during the b-side multi media arts festival in September 2014.
A few years ago I did the Weymouths project and spent some time in an incredible place on the southwest coast of England. I just went back and looked at the photos and this is one that stands out for me. We took a sunset walk on this seaside path on the Isle of Portland, just off the coast from Weymouth, and I remember thinking: this is one of the most beautiful evenings of my life. A perfect combination of people and place and light that marked the conclusion of weeks of work (months, really). I took a photo because I actually wanted to capture something, not simply consume the scene and be done with it. I wanted to save it and store it away as insurance against the fear that soon enough I would forget it. And that if I didn’t forget it, maybe I would see these new friends and this place again someday. That’s what I see when I look at this photo that I took on August 8, 2012.
And so, I return. For the entire month of June I’ll be in England to create a new publication for the residents of the Isle of Portland. I’ll be based at the public library as an artist-in-residence. The project is a commission for the b-side arts festival and Dorset County Council, funded by Arts Council England.
My proposal: a publication (probably a 64-page newspaper) called Portland Bill (after the lighthouse situated dramatically at the southern tip of the island, surrounded by the roughest of seas), containing content from the people who live on Portland. I’ll collect and assemble their material with little or no editing, and the entire thing will be printed in August (with Newspaper Club) and distributed on Portland during b-side’s arts festival in September.