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A Sense of Time, Place & Indigenous People

By Carl Little

Francis celebrates the return of the sturgeon to the Penobscot River in this remarkable painting. He applied the individual dots with crochet hooks. Passagassawakeag, 2022, acrylic, 40 by 30 inches. Collection of Dr. Kimberly Christen/Photo courtesy the artist

When Penobscot artist James Eric Francis, Sr., talks about sense of place, he often uses the New Moon Drum Project as an example of how his art reflects his ties to the land. Working with drum maker Dominic Polchies, Francis set out to represent the Penobscot people’s lunar year through 13 drums, each featuring an image related to a particular moon. The first moon of their calendar begins in December; every third year they add a 13th, called the “inserted moon.”

Francis’s images relate to what is going on during each cycle. For example, the late winter moon “that provides a little food grudgingly” features a glowing skeletal figure from Penobscot mythology—an apparition signifying death from starvation or freezing. Other drums reference the time of planting and sowing and when “ice forms on the margins of lakes.” The completion of each drum was accompanied by a social event, part of a program of activities that received funding from the New England Foundation for the Arts.

In interviews, Francis has called the drum “the heartbeat of the land”; by playing a drum, he said, “you become intertwined with the place.” The design painted on the drum is “a spiritual tattoo that gives someone a visual sense of who you are as a singer and drummer of any given song.”


Francis collaborated with Dominic Polchies to create these 13-sided drums interpreting different phases of the Penobscot People’s lunar year: