by Dan Elliott
Recently, I had a chance to sit down with adjunct art instructor and self-proclaimed “Midcoast guy” of the Fine Arts program, Mike Branca. Discussing such topics as artistic identity and community involvement, Mike explains his growth in his multiple roles as a teacher and as an artist in his chosen home of Maine. What follows is are select portions of the interview transcript.
Q: What led you to become an instructor here at Southern Maine Community College?
I have been at SMCC since 2004, and at that time it was the second year of Southern Maine Community College, having recently transitioned from Southern Maine Technical College. A lot was going on to change the school into more of a liberal arts institution, and not just one focused on the trades. The school got a federal grant to take on an artist-in-residence, one each year for the first five years of the community college time period, and I was the second artist-in-residence. At the time that I did that I had no teaching experience at all, and don’t know if you remember me being pretty green (chuckles), because I had you in class in my second year or something. It wasn’t entirely clear at the beginning what the school was even looking for in the artist-in-residence, and the different people at the school I asked about it, everybody gave me a different answer. But I remember when I was being interviewed, it wasn’t clear to me that it was going to be a teaching position, and when I was in the interview, I was asked ‘If you got this position, would you want to teach an art class?’, and of course I said ‘Oh yes, definitely’. And went home terrified, thinking ‘If I get this job, I have to teach! What’s that gonna mean?’ But it was great. It was a really neat way to start off, because I ended up developing the first course—it was Introduction to Drawing and Visual Art. At the time it was perfect, because we didn’t have anything: There was one experimental art class that was taught the year before by the previous artist-in-residence, otherwise there hadn’t been any- thing. I had a studio at the South Portland campus, I did outreach with people in all different departments, ranging from nursing to early childhood development to English classes to…you know, anyone who wanted me to come to their class to do something with them. It was interesting because I came to that position being a resident artist making art on campus, working with people bringing a different perspective to SMCC, something that really hadn’t been there before, and I’ve basically grown as a teacher here, and went from something like ‘yeah, that sounds interesting’ to some- thing that I can’t imagine not doing now.
Q: You’ve had the distinction of working at many different campuses while teaching at SMCC. How have these geographic differences shaped your experience as an instructor?
For me, when I started off in South Portland, I was living down there, and shortly afterwards, within the end of that first year, I moved to Bath, and so for me there’s the commute element. When the campus in Brunswick opened, it was a no-brainer to sort of plant my feet here. Obviously the South Portland campus is spectacular, and I haven’t taught a summer class there in a long time, and that’s what I miss about teaching in South Portland, is teaching summer classes, because in the summer, you can just step out onto the beach and say ‘go ahead and find something to draw’ and people are gonna find some- thing and it’s fun, and you got the great views with the art buildings down near the water. What my perspective is now, being the Midcoast guy, is this campus is so small and intimate and everybody kind of knows each other here, parking is never a problem, all the logistics are easy here. And I really like the community of this small campus, because we don’t offer that many art classes, and I teach more of them than anybody else does at this location, I have the luxury of getting people cycling through my classes more than I think South Portland instructors do. I have a pretty diversified course load. Where there’s five different courses I teach, I only teach three at any given time. And I can also work with students over time in a way that, as a two-year school, we don’t have a lot of advanced level art classes, and so there’s a constant cycle of teaching intro drawing and intro painting. But one of the things I feel that is really great about my position here is that I also teach 2D Design, and I also teach Intro to Visual Art, and I teach the Art of Maine, and so a lot of the students—they’ll take two or three or four or maybe even five classes with me— and those students I get to see their work develop and continue to help them grow as artists and get to know them as people.
Q: Recently, you had a chance to work with local business leaders to bring awareness to community issues. What was that experience like for you?
Fantastic. That was just a really cool project. So, I recently did a pair of murals for the Hannaford Supermarket in Brunswick, and this was part of a project that was spearheaded by Brunswick Public Art, and it had three components: There were my paintings, there’s a series of twelve smaller panels that were painted by Brunswick High Students, and then there’s another work of art that was painted by a collaborative art-making group called The Artists’ Rapid Response Team—ARRT. The idea was Hannaford was working to renovate that store, and Brunswick Public Art approached them with the idea of ‘hey, maybe you could include some fine art in the expansion’. To me, it’s kind of a radical idea: You don’t expect to go into a supermarket and see original, fine art. You might see it in a health food co-op, but it’s kind of an unusual idea. They were very receptive to it, and really interested in this idea of engaging with community, addressing the issue of food security, and also just making their store better by having some original artwork there. The Brunswick Hannaford has a relationship with the Midcoast Hunger Prevention Program, which is a great organization. Midcoast Hunger does a lot of great work; they have a food pantry, and a soup kitchen, and they have a backpack program for kids for getting kids in need food. The ideas that were presented to me for this project were to kind of think about those issues, as well as local agriculture, supporting the local food movement, and just make some joyful art. If you sort of think of the big box culture, and how many towns have lost their identity, with that energy there comes a lack of community identity, you lose track of who you are, what makes you unique. Maine has a lot of community identity, it has a lot of towns that have really retained it, Brunswick is one of those towns. It has a great down- town, and it happens to have a supermarket downtown. And when you walk into that supermarket, you’re supposed to feel like you’re in any supermarket anywhere in the country, right? But in this case, now, you don’t. I really hope it’s just the beginning of something, because it would be great to see them do that in all of their stores, if every store had something that made it unique.