[Author’s Note: If you do not know the film and the song Town Without Pity, at least look them up on Wikipedia. At least listen to the song. It was one of Gene Pitney’s best. That town without pity might help us put Bristol, Maine in a better light.]
Bristol, located on the Penobscot River near where it enters the Atlantic, had always been distrustful of newcomers. The Bristolians weren’t bad people; they just didn’t know what to do with new things. People who were from away always brought new things. That made most of the Bristolians uneasy. They wanted what they knew, and that included food, films, fast cars, all that stuff. They wanted the jokes they’d heard countless times, one basketball and one football team, and of course one baseball team. Only those would do.
When Bristolians went out on the town, there were choices, so fancy people could go where they wanted and all the rest could do the same. The point was, they repeatedly went to the same place within their social ranking. Nobody stepped on anybody’s toes. They felt comfortable that way. Newcomers could rock the boat or upset the apple cart. Neither of those things was good, the townspeople knew.
As you might imagine, things were going along pretty much on an even keel, as coastal Mainers all like to say. However, without warning, a group of newcomers appeared. Naturally, all Bristol was in a tizzy and things were pretty stirred up in short order.
The Bristolians had to try to sort things out. First of all, they needed to determine how many of these from-awayers there were in the group. It wasn’t that hard, because as has already been noted, they were from away and therefore were not recognized residents of their Bristol. Still, it was good to be certain. Sometimes a person or two just wandered into town, then wandered out after eating a lot of seafood. They were nothing to be concerned about. They didn’t belong to what one would call a ‘group’. The newest newcomers did.
Careful - very careful - observation provided an approximate number of ten to twenty in the group. A lot of people supported the higher figure, but everybody felt they were manageable, that people - the good Bristolians - were up to the task of vigilantes. They were not going to shirk their duty.
After the newcomers had been properly classified as such, and their number calculated, the townspeople noticed that they all had at least one of the following characteristics: blue hair, some yellow finger nails - yellow because they wore nail polish - , others a yellow scarf or shirt. Was green also part of their identity? There wasn’t complete agreement on that, but the majority of the Bristolians did say they thought so. It could be seen in their jewelry, or in the things they carried while out, but it wasn’t as obvious, perhaps. Black shoes were added to the list because, even though black is a common shoe color, it was the only color of the newcomers’ footwear, even the sandals.
While the Bristolians were still very occupied with developing a plan of action regarding the new arrivals, some strange things began to take place. The debates and discussions in local eateries and drinkeries started to become more agitated.
Some of the newcomers carried an object under one arm, fingers curled around the lower edge, like one would do with a portfolio. Others carried a broad, open hobo bag. The point being made here is that they never went out without one or the other. Portfolio or bag. With things inside. Bristol was keeping tabs on that.
It was a bit of a mystery when one or more, usually three maximum, would go to the water’s edge to sit and watch. They seemed to prefer the big Penobscot. Maybe there was some symbolism with it, but Bristol wasn’t up on that yet. They often just sat, but once in a while they took something out of the bag or portfolio and used it. They never littered, at least.
Very discretely, of course, the town wanted to know what the newcomers were doing. They observed from a distance so they wouldn’t be noticed. If the newcomers were in a store on Main Street, there was always someone in charge of looking in windows. When they went to the grocery store, somebody was in charge of coordinating ‘shoppers’ who would track them around the aisles to see what they bought. This was pretty much a wasted effort, because they bought what the locals bought. What did the Bristolians expect? That the newcomers were buying snips and snails and puppy dogs’ tails?
The real panic and anger began when things started springing up around town. Since ‘things’ is awfully general, we’ll provide a partial list. One day there was tape art up and down many of the sidewalks, buildings, and posts of the center of town. If one liked blue, it was something to smile at. The next day it was gone, cleaned up. Nobody could accuse anybody of littering.
Yarn bombing was the next event that sent the Bristolians reeling. The bombing itself wasn’t new and had been done in various parts of the world, but their town handed ever seen it. When several people discovered a couple of knitted or crocheted flowers attached to tree branches, or a stop sign’s pole clad in a striped tube, they actually did smile. They admitted that life can always a little extra color.
Painted rocks are not everybody’s thing, but it depends on what’s painted on the rock as well as who discovered them. Mainers seem to like this random game, but Bristol hadn’t actually participated in it. It was kind of recent, they thought. Quite a few painted rocks were found. It was nice that nobody was offended at finding a birch tree, a cardinal couple, a stony beach, or something very familiar, all of these painted quite craftily on a flat river rock.
Little figures were the next occurrence, and those were along the line of some that were installed in France or maybe Japan. They were nothing much - just little people in a variety of silly poses. They were placed in spots that made the pose even funnier: on the edge of a curb, hanging from a bench’s arm rest, straddling the railing of the gazebo in the green. Things like that. People saw them and laughed, but then they were suspicious of what the figures ‘meant’.
Several small images were silhouetted on buildings. This wasn’t done with spray paint, which is destructive. It wasn’t done by gouging the old brick walls, because that would be even worse. The material used would stick on, but could be removed without leaving a mark. The figures were rather elaborate and were people whom history needs to remember always. Bristol wasn’t too concerned about the figures.
Rocks piled into sculptures were, however, a huge red flag. Rocks went along with primitive worship, druids, wizards, pagans and the like. They were not associated with proper God-fearing religions like Protestantism and Catholicism. The townspeople were gravely mistaken about this, but they didn’t know that. They didn’t know that millions of Christian pilgrims traveling to pray before the silver tomb of Saint James had followed a tradition. They would bring pebbles from afar and leave them in a rustic sculpture at a designated site, an humilladoiro. The more faithful travelers, the bigger the pebble heap.
People were still becoming more concerned, so some proposed that they devise a means of keeping watch 24 hours a day, not just off and on. One of the newcomers finally came out of one of their residences and asked why the vigilante was carrying a weapon. It was a heavy baseball bat. One that could crush a human skull without a whole lot of effort. The newcomer politely asked that the big, possibly lethal bat be put away.
Music was occasionally heard from installations around the town. It usually didn’t last for more than one song, or five minutes. There were all kinds of rhythms, languages, instruments, like a potpourri of everything good in music. There was opera, reggae, heavy metal, country western, protest, rock-and-roll, and much more. Bristol had no idea what devices had been used to play and broadcast the music, because when they searched where the melodies had come from, they found nothing.
One day a couple showed up downtown and put on dancing display. It wasn’t a glitzy, kitschy performance like on Dancing With the Stars. Instead, it was a simple piece, with two individuals, dressed in everyday clothing, in perfect sync. It was an ageless couple who focused only on moving and stepping to a music being projected from an unidentifiable place. The two dancers had perfect rhythm.
One evening, as soon as it was dark, tiny solar-powered lights were placed in spots that were usually not illuminated. For a couple of hours there was no area within Bristol’s town limits that did not have something to ward off the night. The next day, they were gone. Most people had been suspicious of the lights, but a few had really liked them.
Scents came into the picture, too. There were little signs with ‘smell me’ written on them by hand. They were for headache, tension, etc. The finder was asked to take a small vial, use some of its contents on the body where needed and then to sit with it. Sitting calmly was required in order to heal. Some townspeople were worried they could become another Salem. Witchy stuff.
Macrame, crocheted or woven pieces with gifts, appeared in a few places. That included door handles or on windshields. The finders were told they could use the little weavings as keychains, to hang from the rear view mirror, or as anything they wanted. They could pass the macramé on, too.
Sandwiched in among all these odd happenings, there was a shooting in Bristol. There was also a robbery and also an attempted rape. Nobody remembered things like that ever happening before. The logical conclusion, they all concluded, was that newcomers were to blame. Something wasn’t right about them.
Two street signs disappeared. That was a terrible act of vandalism. Signs needed to last at least fifty years. They were hard on the budget.
Recipes with sketches cropped up in places with counters. Gift shops, the book store, the pharmacy - lots of places. Each recipe was healthy and 95% were vegetarian. Each was done in exquisite handwriting. Each also had some skilled image done in watercolor. There wasn’t room on the cards for a big picture, but the artist’s or artists’ expertise was very evident. Nobody who found a recipe would part with it.
There was a town council meeting coming up soon. The matter of the newcomers was on the agenda. Vigilante work wasn’t good enough to stem the tide. What if more people arrived - strangers - uninvited? This was the fear of the loudest faction.
Two of the Artivists attended the council meeting. They explained their purpose, or creed, or whatever it was. They simply were striving to support art, creativity, and community. Those were all good things, they felt. Bristol had never heard of anything like that and was still suspicious. The Artivists, also known as the Sun and Indigo Society, asked for a chance to present their work. Their request was approved.
Sun and Indigo members organized impromptu one-hour sessions on eco-dyeing, nature journaling, even foraging for dye plants. They also offered one-hour classes on how to spin, mend, and knit or crochet. All ages were welcome.
There was Stone Soup enactment and story telling. (For those unfamiliar with the parable-like tale, it would behoove you to look it up. It is quite entertaining.) Both adults and children attended.
The town continued to be very uneasy, simply because nobody had done exactly those things before. One thing might be a craft fair or pioneer days celebration, but this was different. There was never any program announced, they were responsible for completely random, unscheduled occurrences.
All the unplanned acts of art and life crafts were really too much to handle psychologically. The effects of what was going on might be negative, for all the Bristolians knew.
Random circles of people? Children in town are ecstatic and well-behaved? Sun and Indigo Society had to go. This was becoming subversive. Things were not meant to be done differently, not in their town on the Penobscot. Bristol got what it demanded, but yet...
By the end of a week, Bristol’s folks had begun to miss the art folks. They missed what the newcomers had done, despite its randomness. Bristol decided to search for the newcomers whom they themselves had made into newleavers.
They would, however, ask who those people were..
The story actually has a surprisingly happy ending, I’ll tell you right now. The process wasn’t entirely straightforward, though, and it wasn’t fast.
Among other things, the Artivist collaborative known as Sun and Indigo Society taught Bristol about its advocacy of the arts in the community. They explained how they were teaching peace through the arts; community through freedom of choice rather than subjection to rules; through shared observance and experience. That meant not just holding a single art event, but rather by trying to create a mentality, a willing participation in the process of scattering and gathering art.
Sun and Indigo had offered some examples of what might happen when art, not war, is a guide for minds and economies. Bilbao, for example, has gone from a polluted, industrial city with art dispersed throughout. The effects can be seen in the crime rate drop, better health of residents, more employment, to give a few examples. Christo’s environmental art with its intriguing, grand-scale installations. was another example. Nobody can overlook the relationship between environment, climate, and art in Christo’s work.
Bristol voted to give Sun and Indigo Society the chance to work out in the open in town. Reports were required annually. SIS (as some had nicknamed the group of newcomers) agreed to all the terms, so the rest of the Bristolians’ transformation can be summed up quite easily:
By the end of the first year, visitors had increased a real lot and new stores had open. No businesses had gone under. People were calling Bristol to find out what was going on. They’d heard via the grapevine that were what you called hopping.
By the end of the fifth year, there was a whopping number of visitors annually. The town had to come up with a couple more bed and breakfast places, plus a motel. Things were looking up. A lot of folks came because they’d heard Bristol had become an “art town” and they thought that was super cool. Bristolians couldn’t quibble with that.
Where did the Artivists come from? Bristol still didn’t know, despite much speculation. They didn’t raise a fuss about that, however, because the newcomers had done so much good for the town economy and morale. Bristolians were not the ungrateful type.
What happened, basically, is that there was a whole shift in the mentality of Bristol. That alone could be a miracle or fantasy, but this thing you’re reading is a work of fiction, so it did happen. Art won the day, you might say.
Art also created a minor problem for Bristol. Perhaps it couldn’t have been helped, since spreading the wealth, getting the word out, was always the Artivists’ goal. The problem was the growing number of visitors, not all of them arriving with the best of intentions. There was also the concern that these golden days of Bristol could vanish like smoke and leave it a ghost town. (There are always some who can’t let go of the past, right?)
Tourism per se was not an option for anybody. Still, in the spirit of scattering and gathering, interest in Bristol’s Artmind community needed to be positively received. That was when the whole town, natives as well as newcomers, devised a manner by which the right people could come and contribute. Bristol wanted to grow organically.
To get in and remain in Bristol, the person had to figure out the method of entry. That usually meant coming to the town line and beginning a discussion with a greeter. Future residents would need to know how to question greeters and also know how to respond when they were asked something. They would also be required to discover the single word that would provide entry to a person who wanted to move there. There was no other requirement, but it required a lot of effort on the part of the newcomer to find the key.
Would you be able to live in Bristol? Do you know that Word?