TOPSHAM and LEWISTON– A pleasant and surprise encounter with Franco-American artist Mercedes Gastonguay occurred when I happened to attend the Topsham Public Library’s “Joy of Art 2020”, exhibit on January 18, at the opening reception. She submitted two scenic entries to the art exhibit: “High Tide at Monhegan Island, ME”, is a pastel and “Driftwood at Popham, ME” is a watercolor. Both are lovely Maine scenes.
Certainly, I encourage the public to view her entries and the other submissions in the exhibit, open until February 22 to the public. I agreed with the judges Blue Ribbon award presented to her “High Tide at Monhegan Island”, because she captures the energy in the ocean waves as they spray like splashing crystal across the Monhegan Island’s rocky coast.
Mercedes is known in Lewiston’s Franco-American community as a teacher, an artist, and an advocate for the culture’s language, religion and history. Her historical 46’x54 tableau entitled, “À la mémoire de nos ancêtres ” (In Memory of our Ancestors) has been on exhibit in various galleries, at the Augusta State House and currently is displayed on loan at the Franco-American Collection at the University of Southern Maine Lewiston Auburn College (USM LAC FAC).
In an email message, she wrote, “It was very nice to see you at the ‘Joy of Art’ at the Topsham Public Library. I really appreciate your support and enthusiasm regarding my paintings as well as my tableau, ‘A la mémoire de nos ancêtres’. ….my husband, Jean Gastonguay was chair of the Language Department and a French teacher in Lewiston-Auburn for 36 years. Merci, Mercedes.”
Meeting Mercedes during our short visit, I was reminded about her essay published in Voyages: A Franco-American Reader, (pp 197-199), where she described her motivation for creating “À la mémoire de nos ancêtres”. “The oil painting is a tribute to our Franco-American ancestors who labored to make the Lewiston-Auburn area what it is today,” she wrote. “Depicted on the canvas are scenes describing their arrival from Canada and their life in Lewiston and Auburn. I set the scene on an old parchment map with the Androscoggin River surging throughout the painting”.
Her essay continues by describing each of the scenes in the tableau. Scenes include the various manufacturing mills where the French-Canadian immigrants provided much of the labor, and it was their reason for coming to Lewiston and Auburn. The mills where they worked were located along the Androscoggin River, which is prominent throughout the parchment colored canvas.
In the tableau’s panoramic view, she provides a serene view of Le Petit Canada, where traditional family life in a typical apartment is portrayed. A viewer can’t help but notice how the tableau portrays the culture’s pride in arranging a well organized and clean environment for family living.
Another tableau image is the Dominican Block, described as having been founded in 1881, in Lewiston. This was the first school serving the French-Canadian children.
A strong connection to the Lewiston-Auburn Roman Catholic churches includes the unmistakable towers of the Saints Peter and Paul Basilica, pictured with religious Dominican priests and nuns. This particular tableau scene clearly recognizing the religious leaders in the parish. communities.
Mercedes says her tableau holds a special place in her heart because painting the scenes allowed her to travel back to her childhood years on Oxford Street, where her mother’s family began their new life as immigrants to the United States. “I want all who see this tableau to celebrate our individual ancestors who bravely left their families to begin new lives in the Lewiston-Auburn cities.”
Visitors can view the “Joy of Art 2020” exhibit at the Topsham Public Library through February 22, 2020. “À la mémoire de nos ancêtres”, is on loan and exhibited at the Franco-American Collection at the University of Southern Maine LAC.