Since moving here in 2007, I've heard many times about Sacred & Profane, the mysterious arts festival that takes place at Battery Steele on Peaks Island every year. (We've written about S&P here and here.) This Saturday, I ventured out in the rain to see it with my own eyes for the first time. Along with 80 percent of the Portlanders who I know or at least "see around," I took the 2:15 ferry from Portland to Peaks. The mood was excited, nervous, contemplative. We arrived, paid our $10, and proceeded en masse through the streets of the island, encouraged by our space-age leaders (dressed in spacesuits and haz-mat gear) all the while to make more noise. There was trumpeting, hula-hooping, fire-lighting, and a multi-person whale...but it wasn't as festive as other processionals have been, from what I gather.
Arriving at the fort on any normal day would have been magical enough -- the World War II-era structure, which sits mostly below ground on the far side of the island, is eerie, not least because of its militaristic aesthetic existing alongside the natural elements of forest and rocky shore -- but on this day, the experience was positively transcendent. Looming behind the enthusiastic greeters (one of whom gave me quite a fright by instructing me to hold a metal clamp as he took my photograph; I was certain I was about to be electric-shocked and behaved for 30 seconds like a fearful fool) was a black tunnel, from which unfamiliar sounds, smells, and flickering lights emerged. Like a haunted house for alternative-art appreciators, the tunnel invited me -- dared me, even -- to just take a deep breath, grab the hand of my closest friend, and step inside.
How glad I am that I did. Wearing tiny LED lights, paper party hats, and raincoats, we peered into the small concrete enclave rooms that line the left side of the fort. The artists, invited to join the secret, word-of-mouth event in some secret and word-of-mouth manner, transformed their rooms into appropriately strange, dark, wry and revelatory spaces. There were half-naked go-go dancers and drummers in one room; balloons, trash bags, and Crank Sinatra in another; a wheat field and strychnine and a dead wolf in still another. There was a beautiful, room-filling, roller-coaster-for-mice type thing, and an interactive string-cutting/bottle-breaking/fortune-reading installation. Upon entering each room there was a feeling of discovery. It's doesn't seem worth it or appropriate for me to try to process these pieces of art in words; you really did have to be there.
Back outside, and around to a covered open area, where we ate a delicious feast, included in the $10 admission fee...bread, potato-leek soup, chai tea, pasta salad, apple crisp. Just the right amount of talking, discussing, enoying each other's presences. There was calm, cozy joy in the air. I'm sure for some, Sacred & Profane is like a party, but for someone like me, who easily feels overstimulated and thus was a bit overwhelmed, I appreciated being forced (well, not really, but everyone else was doing it) to sit down, eat hearty food, and contemplate without a lot of fanfare. (The fanfare, in the form of talented fire dancers and perhaps some liquor, came later in the evening, or so I understand from those who stayed later than I did.)
Ian Paige wrote about the festival in 2008, and for a first-timer who didn't know what to expect, his last line really resonates: "This fluid intersection between art and life, in
ritual reverence to creativity, invites each person to have the time
they didn’t know they were looking for."