2019 Common Ground Country Fair Poster Design Winner
By Jean English
Art, agriculture and education intersect uniquely for Kevin Martin, winner of the 2019 poster design contest for the Common Ground Country Fair.
“Over the years,” he says, “I’ve been thinking that being an artist is less about what I produce than how I think” – that is, seeing things from many dimensions, being willing to take risks, and approaching problems in unconventional ways in order to understand them. “I’ve taken that mindset to everything I’ve done in my professional career.”
That career for the San Diego native started with earning a fine arts degree from Washington University in St. Louis – where he also met Blair, now his wife.
He and Blair ran an HIV/AIDS education program in Tanzania, and later he earned an MBA with a focus on international development and business.
In 2011 they moved to Maine after Kevin completed a fellowship from an impact investor of a nonprofit that wanted to use philanthropic capital to work with businesses. They had one son at the time, born while Kevin was in graduate school. They also had a link with Maine: In the ‘70s Blair’s grandparents had bought a cabin on Vinalhaven – “not a summer house but a summer project,” jokes Kevin. So Blair had been coming to Maine since she was born. Her father and stepmother ended up living in the Vinalhaven house fulltime.
“We moved from East Africa to Maine to figure out our next steps,” he says. “We were looking all over the country for positions, but we thought Maine was a pretty ideal place to live.” They had previously spent a winter on Vinalhaven, so they knew what life was like here, and Kevin had read an article saying that people were most satisfied if they moved someplace for its culture rather than for a job. When Blair became pregnant with twins, “the need to get settled accelerated,” he says. “We were no longer able to live out of a suitcase.”
So they bought a farm, under 3 feet of snow at the time, in Rockport. “It was called Rockport for a reason,” says Kevin. “The farm was rock and more rock.” They were able to grow blueberries and a nice vegetable garden, but decided to raise livestock – chickens, turkeys, pigs, ducks and geese – rather than crops because of the rocks.
Around that time a colleague from Brooklyn told Kevin about the Fair. “She was doing something in sustainable agriculture in India, loved MOFGA and had been to Common Ground before,” he says.
Kevin and Blair joined MOFGA and went to the Fair, where they learned about Dexter cattle from Eli Berry, a Washington, Maine, farmer who serves on MOFGA’s board of directors. “Eli’s passion and knowledge were an incredible help with finding two girls [Ruby and Maude, now of poster fame] that were right for us, along with fencing and figuring out how to rotate pastures … He spent a lot of time with us over the two months we were getting ready.”
They chose Dexters because their pastures were in such rough shape and the heritage breed can eat and thrive on almost anything. Rotating the cows as well as pigs and chickens helped rehabilitate the land, practices he and Blair learned from the Common Ground speakers and MOFGA workshops. This approach enabled Kevin to access and control the invasive multiflora rose that had grown up – one species the Dexters didn’t eat.
The Martins had planned to breed their cows but ended up selling their Rockport farm when Kevin took a job at New England College as a professor of business administration for five years and associate dean of the business management division for four years. During that time they lived on a few acres outside of Concord, N.H., where they gardened and raised most of the meat they consumed – including chickens, turkeys and rabbits. Their fourth son was born during this period as well.
Now Kevin is in a Ph.D. program in education at the University of Cambridge in Cambridge, United Kingdom. The multidisciplinary program there “is the best fit for what I’m trying to do,” he says – that is, “increase meaningful adult education opportunities in rural East Africa.” Many communities in Tanzania, Uganda and Kenya lack access to electricity, consistent cell service or smart phones, leaving them cut off from most continuing education opportunities, he explains. Cambridge has a center within the faculty of education that focuses on global education equity.
“The real desire for continued education in these communities is around agriculture,” Kevin continues. “I’m working with subsistence farmers who are members of TIST.org, the sustainable agriculture and reforestation initiative run by Ben and Vannesa Henneke, also of Vinalhaven. My research is focused on developing an agricultural education platform that works within the constraints of rural East Africa.”
The university and his visa give him up to four years to do that, and he is thoroughly enjoying Cambridge during this time. “I’m continually taken aback by how beautiful and green it is, with lots of large, open parks and gorgeous medieval buildings.”
Blair loves to garden but is restricted to a small second-story garden growing food in pots at their townhouse in the center of Cambridge for now. They’ve applied for an allotment in a neighborhood garden, but that can take years to get. Still, Blair was outside gardening and enjoying a wonderful spring day in Cambridge as Kevin spoke with MOFGA, noting that this is a transition time for her, as all four boys are enrolled in school fulltime now.
Cambridge celebrates its agricultural heritage, he continues. “It’s a small city surrounded by farmland. We’re five minutes from rolling fields and being stuck behind a tractor. The city allows cattle to graze on public land.” When the family hikes through the city center or when they bike to school, they’re sometimes waylaid by a herd of cattle. They play a game of trying to avoid cow pies.
Between stepping down from his New England College job and heading to England, Kevin had a little time in Maine to paint. He had submitted a design similar to his winning entry for the Common Ground contest years earlier but was told that it wouldn’t reproduce well on a T-shirt.
“I carried that feedback around for years,” he says, until he set up an easel last summer in his mother-in-law Susan’s kitchen in Vinalhaven and painted the image of the cows, posing with oats and crimson clover, over a couple of weeks. While he prefers to paint with oils, he used acrylics this time because they dry quickly and he had such a short time available.
He advises other artists to read the fine print about requirements for the poster contest before beginning their work. “That’s what didn’t work for my first submission. Understanding the medium it will be printed in is key. Beyond that, have fun with it. It’s been years since I painted. It was fun to be able to do that.”
Kevin hopes that art will play a more constant role in his life now – and perhaps in his kids’ lives as well. They had a chance to travel around Italy this spring. A highlight was noting that all four boys brought sketchbooks on their own, and then seeing his 4-year-old trying to draw the “Gates of Paradise” when they visited the Museum of the Cathedral in Florence.
He looks forward to being at the Fair this fall to sign posters. Last year was the first Common Ground Country Fair his family had missed since 2011, when even their then-2-month-old twins attended. He hopes his whole family can come this year. “The boys [now ages 4 to 10] love to camp at the Fair, love the night culture – the dancing, music, eating.” But they will have just started school, and England is very strict about school attendance, he says.
Kevin will be signing posters at the Fair – while his family enjoys the event, we hope. Check the schedule in the fall issue of The Maine Organic Farmer & Gardener and at www.mofga.org for times. Meanwhile, posters for the 43rd annual Common Ground Country Fair are available through MOFGA’s online Country Store. Other goods with the design will be available in the Country Store at the Fair on September 20, 21 and 22, 2019.