A story of forgiveness: Maine artist to embark on nationwide trek to share others' tales in The Forgiveness Project

Aug. 27—In 1977, when Maine artist Amy Stacey Curtis was 7 years old, her father, a police officer and classical violinist, died by suicide in their home, after having called their mother to pick up Curtis and her three younger brothers.

"My father put on our winter coats and hats. He had us hold hands and he pulled us out onto the porch. I watched as he went back into the house. And then I saw this beautiful classical violinist pull down all the shades from the inside of the apartment.

"I was staring at the green siding of the house and the brightness of the light made it look white. And it seared into my eyes. It was very intense," Curtis remembers.

Her mother called their grandfather before racing home. He collected the kids and brought them to a neighbor's house. He tried to stop her mother from going inside their home. But she got there first. She saw her husband's body.

"She was never the same," Curtis said. "It was as if invisible hands had pulled her beautiful face down."

Describing the shock of that day, Curtis said, "I'll never forget the feeling of my little brothers' hands. He's holding the next brother. And he's holding the next brother. Just like that on the neighbor's couch. Shoulder to hip, supporting each other. It was so scary."

After that, their lives changed.

"My mother entered a state of functional catatonia," Curtis said.

"She was feeding us. She was dressing us. She was even going to work, but she was not really there."

Shortly after her father's death, her mother was preyed upon by a pedophile who moved in with the family and molested Curtis.

"Because my mother wasn't there (mentally), she wasn't able to do anything about it," she said.

Life was not good. Her mother beat the four children. Curtis said she was raped at 16 years old.

In January 1994, when Curtis was 23 years old and her youngest brother was still in high school, their mother abandoned the family. "She left a note on the table, saying, 'I'm moving to California.'"

"I haven't seen or heard from her since," said Curtis, who lives in Saco.

She was diagnosed with complex post-traumatic stress disorder. "I had been traumatized by the suicide, by trying to protect my brothers, the beatings, and molestation," Curtis said.

Her feelings toward her father have evolved over the years.

"He was sick. He was really sad. I forgive him," Curtis said.

She came to understand that her mother was also sick. "She didn't know what was happening. She couldn't control her anger. None of this ultimately is her fault. I forgive her," Curtis said.

Curtis went on to earn a degree in studio art from the University of Maine and a master's degree in art and psychology from Vermont College of Fine Arts.

She launched her art career in 2000 with an 18-year series of nine interactive installations in large Maine mill spaces — one installation every two years — starting and ending in the Bates Mill complex in Lewiston.

The solo installations invited viewers to move the work and add and subtract from different pieces. Much of the work revolves around Curtis processing the trauma of her childhood.

"I was able to get materials donated for the show," she said. "I used a lot of recycled materials from the town transfer station. And I used the entire 25,000-square-foot space for my work."

"Any community where there's a mill that's been emptied out, you can sense the presence of the workers. You can see every footfall. As I scrubbed every inch of the floor, I was revealing things underneath. I was honored to be doing this," Curtis said.

It is important for her to be able to give back to the communities that have supported her work. "After I clean the mill up and do my thing, it looks like a million bucks," she said.

Her work on this project earned her The Maine Arts Commission's 2005 and 2017 Individual Artist Fellow For Visual Art.

As she neared the completion of her nearly two-decade installation project in 2016, her thoughts returned to her mother. She recognized that her mother had been a victim, as she and her brothers were. She conceived of The Forgiveness Project.

She decided to travel west to find and forgive her mother. "I wanted to tell her I'm sorry that this happened to her and none of it was her fault."

She planned stops along the way to collect personal stories about forgiveness from other people.

She hired a private detective and began tracking down her mother.

Five months after her final mill installation in 2016, Curtis said, untreated Lyme disease affected her brain, which put her plans to reunite with her mother on pause.

"I had no control over my muscles or my speech, couldn't form words. I couldn't walk. I couldn't control what my legs and arms were doing."

She got medical attention and continued to make and show art from a wheelchair with the help of assistants and the support of the arts community in Maine.

"I just kept working," Curtis said.

"Making my art was helpful to me to not give up. I did nine exhibits from my wheelchair. I had an artist-in-residency at USM."

Her therapists told her that she would improve. It was just going to take a long time. Meanwhile, she was relying on public transportation and was frustrated that her trip to forgive her mother was still on hold.

This July she had an epiphany that learning how to play the ukulele was going to help her heal. She suspected the complex nature of playing an instrument would help her brain conquer how to manage simultaneous tasks.

"If you play the ukulele, then you are doing something with this hand, something different with this hand," she said. "You're reading chords and you're singing. You're doing four different things at the same time."

After about a week of playing the ukulele, she said her speech snapped into place. Her body snapped into place. Her walking returned to normal.

She said she had a revelation, "Oh, my gosh. I can feel it in my brain. I can drive now!"

She resumed her plans to drive across the country for The Forgiveness Project.

After she designed her website and secured grants for the project, she learned that her mother had passed away in April 2021.

"I was too late," Curtis said.

She decided to drive to California anyway to collect her mother's ashes.

Curtis learned that while her mother had been married seven times, she had been alone at the end of her life.

A public administrator tasked with resolving her mother's estate told Curtis that he'd had other cases of women who'd been married many times. "'Hopeless romantics,' he said. He gets this real positive sense about them, which I loved," Curtis said.

"It was nothing about the pain that they might have experienced or that they might be toxic. It was all about them being free spirits," she said.

"It was so appropriate for what I was doing. This forgiveness, not judging. He helped a lot," Curtis said.

Curtis started talking up The Forgiveness Project to accumulate resources and line up interviews.

"I have a big following (on social media), people have been spreading the word. My website is set up. People have the option of sharing their stories right from the site," she said.

"I've gotten about 60 people to sign up across the country. I have this map at home that I've been putting pins into. There's a white dot in Maine and a white dot in San Jose where she is. Her ashes are in the next town over," Curtis said.

"I'll be there a week, trying to meet people who might have known her, knocking on some doors," Curtis said.

She put out a request on social media to find places to stay along her way. "I need to couch surf. I can't afford the lodging," she said.

"All of my projects are a risk," Curtis said about the haphazard way her project has been lurching ahead. "I keep moving forward as if it's going to happen and I do everything I can to make sure it's going to happen. But there's no guarantee until it happens."

When she returns to Maine in November, she is relocating to Lewiston full time.

"I've been wanting to live in Lewiston for over 20 years, ever since I had my first solo biennial exhibit at the Bates Mill," Curtis said.

She is in negotiations to rent the Lewiston Fire Department substation on Lincoln Street.

She's planning for a shared community artist studio. She's divided the space up on paper into different size studio spaces. She plans a ground-level gallery space and a shared workshop, kiln and welding equipment.

"Everyone's been in isolation so long with COVID," Curtis said, "We are craving companionship. And one of the reasons why I moved to Lewiston in the first place is wanting to be part of our community."

Like much of her life, Curtis is forging ahead with no firm plans. "I never knew if a mill was going to work out, but I proceeded with the art-making anyway. This may or may not work out," she said.