Salt Institute

Telling tasty stories for forty years

By Timothy Gillis

PORTLAND – The Salt Institute documentary school celebrates its 40th birthday next year, and Donna Galluzzo, executive director, is already amped up about the event.

Currently juggling an international photography exhibit, two directors’ receptions for the Maine Jewish Film Festival, and its regular grueling student schedule, Galluzzo got a chance to catch her breath yesterday. She’s thrilled with their current endeavors, but still was able to take a quick look to the future.

“The number of students we work with hasn’t change too much over the years, but our budget had expanded,” she said. Galluzzo has worked for Salt since 2000 and was a graduate herself in 1997, when the school was located on Pine Street. “It’s been a thrill to work in Maine.”

Salt Institute moved to its Congress Street location in the summer of 2008, into what was Yes Books in the front and the old Casco Bay Weekly in the back space. There was one, non weight-bearing wall between the two spaces, and Salt knocked it down when designing their school. Galluzzo and Christine Hines, from Salt, worked with Erin Anderson (a designer) and Paul Lewandowski (an architect) from SMRT, the local architectural firm started in 1884 by John Calvin Stevens. Lewandowski is also on the Salt board of trustees. The Freeport contractor, Zachau Construction, built the school.

The school has a clean, sharp white-walled gallery and a red-paint workshop or lecture area, as well as offices for staff and workspace for students. But despite the beautiful inhabitability of space there, Salt students spend most of their time scattered throughout the state, on location as they document their research. They are in the Congress Street school once a week for classes, but spend most time on this project-based curriculum in the field.

“That’s one of the great things about this school. Our students get to go out there and do it, spend time all over the state. Maine has been really good to our kids over the years. They’ve been excellent hosts, opening up their homes, their lives, for our students to document.”

Salt Institute, whose booklet says “Storytellers Wanted,” has used photography, non-fiction writing, and radio to tell “1,736 stories and counting” over the last four decades. Students each fall and spring semester immerse themselves for fifteen weeks in one of these three track specialties, and also collaborate with other students on a multimedia project. Salt has collaborated with several Portland groups over the years – SPACE Gallery, the Telling Room, and Casco Bay High School, for example – to tell their stories with several distinct but harmonized voices.

“We’ve had a long-standing collaboration with the Maine Jewish Film Festival,” Galluzzo said. The Festival, which ran this past week and wraps up today, held two events at Salt. “Crime after Crime,” a powerful documentary about Debbie Peagler, an incarcerated domestic abuse survivor, and “Dolphin Boy,” about an Arab teenage named Morad whose family turns to the restorative power of nature, played this week. The films’ directors held receptions at Salt Institute on Wednesday and Thursday, respectively, to discuss their work. Yoav Potash, director of “Crime after Crime,” is passionate about change and hopes to influence Maine law to allow evidence of domestic abuse to be used as a legal defense. Salt teamed up with Family Crisis Services, the city’s domestic abuse agency, to host the Wednesday reception.

“We connect really well in Portland,” Galluzzo said. “Everyone is interested in collaboration. We work well together without stepping on each other’s toes.”

“Flash Forward” is the photography exhibit currently on display in Salt’s gallery. The exhibit is from Toronto, and features “the next wave of photography professionals.” Salt is hosting a small cross-section of the works which make their way to Boston next, and then across country. “We’re very excited to kick it off,” Galluzzo said.

Three times a year, Salt exhibits professional work, and twice a year, student shows take over the gallery walls. The Spring Student Opening is scheduled for May 17, from 5 to 8 pm. Galluzzo couldn’t comment on works in progress – kind of a documentarian’s rule – but visitors to the school can look at work from the Fall 2011 graduates through a digital tour on the gallery computer.

Five students in the writing program chronicled the personal and the political, with a variety of texts from the relationships between a parent and child to Occupy Maine, bath salt abuse, and burning trash.

Ten students in the photography track illuminated the screen with images of Old Orchard Beach in off-season, personalities whose “eyes have seen a lot,” and a moving pictorial tribute to “Dear Raymond,” from which we are to “let us recognize ourselves in the old man.” These photo exhibits also showed people searching for something: either faith at the Deliverance Center or the next party at a St. John Street shared-living space.

Ten students in the radio program created podcasts on education, (the Reiche School’s “no principal principle” and a student exchange from China to Millinocket), American nuns, and Maine lumberjacks.

There are also ten multimedia projects on the gallery’s computer from the Fall 2011 work, beautifully technical displays that combine art, music, comics, writing, photography, video in a variety of clever ways.

Another way to taste a sprinkling of Salt is through Downeast magazine’s website, where the institute posts a lot of its product. Visit http://www.downeast.com/blogs/salt-stories to read and see all about the last sea urchin in Maine, maritime life at the Isle au Haut and Port Clyde, and the St. Paddy’s Day plunge.

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