Reviews: The View from Here by Stuart Kestenbaum

Review, Press Herald

Most people who follow Maine writers know Stuart Kestenbaum as a poet. He is the author of three collections of poems, "Pilgrimage," "House of Thanksgiving" and "Prayers and Run-on Sentences."

Garrison Keillor has featured Kestenbaum's poems many times on his radio program, "The Writer's Almanac." Those who are active in Maine's art scene probably know Kestenbaum as the director of Haystack Mountain School of Crafts in Deer Isle. Since 1988, he has led Haystack on its road to an international reputation for its ability to offer craft artists the finest opportunities to learn and tap their creative impulses.

Kestenbaum recently collaborated with Harpswell metalsmith and book publisher Tim McCreight on a volume that brings together not Kestenbaum's poems, but essays he has written about craft, community and the creative process. It also includes the texts of three keynote speeches.

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The View from Here: Craft, Community, and the Creative Process
By Stuart Kestenbaum
Brynmorgen Press, 2012
160 pages, Softcover, $15.00

Reviewed by Carl Little

The "here" in the title of this compact collection is the Haystack Mountain School of Crafts located on the shore of the Sunshine section of Deer Isle overlooking Jericho Bay. The person providing the views is long-time (going on 25 years) Haystack Director Stuart Kestenbaum. Twice a year he offers updates in the school's Gateway newsletter.

The columns, reprinted here, focus on Haystack in its yearly administration, but also go well beyond that. They encompass community, from the local-Deer Isle Fourth of July parade, a skating party on Lily Pond-to the national and international: the school attracts crafts people from across the country and around the world.

Kestenbaum takes us through the ice storm of 1998, the death of his older brother in the September 11th attacks on the World Trade Center and the economic downturn of 2008. We meet Edward Larrabee Barnes, the architect who won major awards for the campus's floating design; Fran and Pris Merritt, Haystack's founding father and mother, who live on in legend in the craft world; and students and faculty who find creative sustenance in the studios of this place that, the author notes, seems to exist "in another time zone."

Kestenbaum writes in an engaging manner, sometimes understated as in this observation apropos a trip to Washington, D.C.: "A journey that begins in Deer Isle is always a reminder that we're not centrally located." Most of the columns are written in spring or fall-pre- and post-summer session-and often muse on the preparation of new workshops or provide a retrospective look at the season gone by. In almost every example, the message from Maine features an insight into the role of craft in shaping one's vision of life.

Alums and friends will enjoy revisiting these reports of progress and change while readers new to the school may get a little distracted by the steady promotion-Kestenbaum is, after all, Haystack's chief bottle-washer (or pot thrower). That said, these columns are rare: the kind of president's message we actually stop and read, TED-like, enlightening.

And The View from Here offers several bonus tracks: transcripts of three talks Kestenbaum gave off-campus, personal and passionate reflections on the creative process. He writes about deadlines, about the inherent holiness of creativity, about the importance of place and community connections (including the "Deer Isle wave"), about being a Jew in Eastern Maine, about the renowned quilts of Gee Bend.

And there's a double bonus: a selection of Kestenbaum's poems. If he started out shaping clay, this son of New Jersey, Hamilton grad and former Maine Arts Commission staffer, is a formidable shaper of lines and language. His readings at Haystack are an annual highlight.

In his forward to The View from Here, master metalsmith Tim McCreight notes that Haystack was founded in 1951, the year Kestenbaum was born. There is a lovely synchronicity to that, as if man and place were destined to find each other. And how they have.

Carl Little is the author of Island: Paintings by Tom Curry (Down East Books).