Authors Posts by Larry Clow

Larry Clow

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Larry Clow is the former editor of The Sound and a senior contributor.

Residents gathered outside Portsmouth City Hall on March 14 to protest expanding and upgrading the city’s wastewater treatment facility on Peirce Island. Councilors later approved a $75 million bond for the project on an 8-1 vote. Photo by Michael Sterling

by Larry Clow

News in brief

Portsmouth

Wastewater treatment expansion approved

The city will soon begin work on an $83.3 million upgrade to its wastewater treatment plant on Peirce Island. City councilors voted 8-1 on March 14 in favor of a $75 million bond to pay for the project.

The vote came a week after a nearly four-hour-long council meeting, during which dozens of residents spoke against the Peirce Island treatment facility, citing concerns about the impact construction could have on the South End neighborhood, how it will affect recreation on Peirce Island, and safety issues, among others. Residents held a rally outside city hall before the March 14 meeting and urged councilors to consider relocating the treatment facility to Pease International Tradeport.

Early in the meeting, assistant mayor Jim Splaine, who said he was opposed to upgrading the Peirce Island facility and wanted to see a regional wastewater treatment plant at Pease, asked the council to consider removing the words “Peirce Island” from the bond and discuss other potential locations.

“If we are able to find a way to open the discussion for just a little longer … if we’re able to eliminate the reference to Peirce Island from the motion, we can have that discussion in the next few weeks,” he said.

Splaine’s motion failed, and the council then heard from city staff about the project. The city’s existing wastewater treatment facility does not meet federal Environmental Protection Agency requirements for removing nitrogen from the water. City attorney Robert Sullivan said an agreement with the EPA requires the city to move forward with upgrading the Peirce Island facility in order to meet EPA-imposed deadlines.

“The city’s … obligations in federal court do not allow for a realistic change in plan at this point to go to Pease. There simply isn’t time to do it,” he said.

Councilor Brad Lown said the city has “kicked the can down the road for 30 years, and we can’t keep kicking the can down the road. … Time is of the essence.” Lown said that concerns about how construction will impact Peirce Island and city neighborhoods would be addressed by the council.

Construction is expected to take roughly four years and will temporarily limit recreation on Peirce Island. A full description of the plan is available at the city’s website. Though the public pool and boat launch will remain open, the walking trails and off-leash dog area will be closed during construction. The city has said the state-owned fish pier will not be impacted, and Four Tree Island will remain open.

The council voted 8-1 to approve the bond; Splaine voted against the proposal. The council voted unanimously to ask potential contractors to come up with plans to transport construction materials by barge.

Eliot

State rep holds listening session

Maine state Rep. Bobbi Beavers, who represents Eliot and parts of South Berwick and Kittery, will host a listening session for constituents on Saturday, March 19 from 9:30 to 10:30 a.m. at Eliot Town Hall, located at 1333 State Road in Eliot. For more information, contact rbbeavers@comcast.net.

 

news, arts, and culture for the NH Seacoast

After a nearly four-hour meeting on March 7, Portsmouth city councilors delayed voting on a $75 million bond for upgrading the city’s wastewater treatment facility on Peirce Island.

Dozens of residents spoke against the city’s plans for upgrading the plant, asking the council to consider locating the upgraded facility at Pease International Tradeport rather than on Peirce Island. The council voted to recess the meeting and resume it on Monday, March 14 at 7 p.m. after almost four hours of public comments.

The city’s existing wastewater treatment facility does not meet federal Environmental Protection Agency requirements for removing nitrogen from the water. The total cost of the project is estimated at $83.3 million. Monday’s hearing was for authorizing bonding for $75 million in project costs. Funds from sewer use fees would repay the bonds.

Though mayor Jack Blalock said at the beginning of the meeting that public comments should be about financing for the project and not location, most of the residents and business owners who spoke were opposed to upgrading the Peirce Island facility, with most suggesting the facility move to Pease.

“The city council has already voted multiple times to proceed with upgrading at the Peirce Island location, and the vote tonight is to authorize the bonding of this project, and not to revisit prior decisions,” Blalock said. “The Pease option has been studied extensively and it’s been determined this option is not viable.”

During the hearing, residents and South End business owners expressed concerns about the impact construction will have on the neighborhood and the city as a whole, traffic impacts, safety issues, and other concerns.

Construction is expected to take roughly four years and will limit recreation on Peirce Island. A full description of the plan is available at cityofportsmouth.com. Though the public pool and boat launch will remain open, the walking trails and off-leash dog area will be closed during construction. The city has said the state-owned fish pier will not be impacted, and Four Tree Island will remain open.

Thistle Jones, the director of marketing for Pickwick’s Mercantile, located on State Street, said the “South End is experiencing a renaissance” and that the plan will adversely affect residents, businesses, and visitors.

“Visitors who encounter an unpleasant experience once will not bother to visit (Portsmouth) again,” she said. — Larry Clow

Though the Dover Police Department doesn’t track how many discarded syringes it collects, Lt. Brant Dolleman says there’s been a “dramatic increase” in the last few years, and the proof is in the department’s supply orders.

Dolleman puts it this way: It initially took years for the department’s sharps container — a secure plastic bin in which needles and other medical waste are stored before disposal — to fill up for the first time.

“I was talking to our evidence and property detective,” Dolleman says. “And he said, ‘For years, I didn’t even know what to do with the stuff, but it didn’t matter because the container was never full.’ Now, we have to order more containers.”

Collecting and discarding used needles have become common practices for area police departments as the region, and the state, continue to struggle with the opioid epidemic. The needles present a multitude of health and safety risks, not just to people actively using drugs, but to the general population.

In other states, needle exchange programs help deal with the problem; drug users are able to trade in used needles for clean ones, and the used needles are discarded safely. New Hampshire is the only New England state without needle exchange programs, and state law effectively prohibits them.

A Seacoast state representative is hoping to change that. The New Hampshire House votes this week on HB 1681, a bill sponsored by Rep. Joe Hannon (R-Lee) that would enable needle exchange programs to open in the state. The bill has attracted the support of recovery experts and other officials, who see it as a small step in responding to the opioid epidemic. According to the state medical examiner, 385 people died from drug overdoses in New Hampshire in 2015, and more than 90 percent of those deaths were caused by opioids.

cs_needles

Removing barriers
Hannon is a retired doctor who received his medical training in north Philadelphia, and his wife is an emergency-room physician in Manchester. He’s heard plenty of stories about used needles turning up on sidewalks and in parks, and he’s seen more than a few himself. Sponsoring the legislation was “kind of a no-brainer,” he says.

Under current state law, only pharmacists are allowed to dispense clean syringes. It’s also illegal to possess a used syringe that contains even trace amounts of an illegal drug. It’s a two-fold problem, Hannon says. “Syringe access is only available through pharmacies, but most pharmacies don’t provide them. (And) there’s no way to get rid of them … because it’s illegal to possess a dirty needle,” he says.

Hannon’s bill tackles both problems; it exempts trace amounts of controlled substances in needles from the state’s drug laws and allows certain people other than pharmacists to dispense needles and syringes.

“My proposal is not costing any money, it’s just removing as many barriers as we can for private individuals to do this on their own,” he says.

The biggest benefit is “harm reduction,” according to Hannon. Having a safe place for people to dispose of and receive needles and syringes means it’s less likely for a police officer or firefighter to get stuck with a dirty needle in the course of their job.

It also helps prevent the spread of diseases and saves the state money. IV drug users are at a greater risk for hepatitis B, hepatitis C, HIV, and other diseases. According to Hannon, it costs between $84,000 and $150,000 to treat someone for hepatitis B; if that person is on Medicaid, the state would be picking up part of the cost.

But, most importantly, Hannon says, having needle exchange programs is the humane thing to do. “They give people on death row a clean needle for a lethal injection,” he says. So why not provide clean needles to people struggling with drug addiction?

cs_sharpsbox

A chance for recovery
There is some opposition to the bill. Critics say a needle exchange program would encourage drug use. But medical research points to the reverse, Hannon says — such programs discourage drug use, and implementing them now will help stem the tide of what Hannon believes will be an increase in cases of hepatitis C and HIV in the future.

“Those numbers are going to catch up to us in a few years, and we’re going to say, ‘Where are people coming from with these diseases?’” he says.

There are other criticisms, too — that exchange programs might make it easier for drug dealers or others to collect used needles, swap them for clean ones, and then sell the new needles, for example. It’s not ideal, according to Hannon, but the benefits are far greater.

“At least (someone’s) getting a clean needle out of it,” he says.

Hannon and other experts also see needle exchange programs as a potential way to put people on the path to recovery. Heather Prebish is the clinical director for Recover Together, which operates seven recovery centers in New Hampshire and Maine. Their eighth location, at 767 Islington St. in Portsmouth, is slated to open this month.

“There ’s really a threat sitting on the horizon, in terms of the spike in this epidemic and the number of needles that are being found with trace amounts of blood.” — Sandi Coyle of Fedcap

Needle exchange programs “are such an important piece of treating individuals and reducing the harm involved in … IV drug use,” Prebish says.

Prebish testified in support of Hannon’s bill. Should it pass, Recover Together has plans to start up a needle exchange program in New Hampshire, she says.

“What we’ve found is that, when you establish exchange programs, you can capitalize on those interactions and refer patients to treatment who otherwise wouldn’t (go),” Prebish says. “You’re not only looking to reduce the harm involved, but also capitalize on those opportunities to provide education and awareness and, in some cases, integrate them into a recovery treatment program.”

Current laws don’t provide those chances, she says. “The number of IV drug users who are going to the pharmacy to get clean needles, we know that it’s low.” Workers at a needle exchange program would undergo training based on protocols established by the North American Syringe Exchange Network, Prebish says.

Sandi Coyle is the director of recovery services at Fedcap, a nonprofit based in Concord, and one of the principals behind Safe Harbor Recovery Center, which is slated to open in Portsmouth in April. Coyle is active in the state’s growing recovery community, and she’s heard a lot of support for Hannon’s bill.

“There’s really a threat sitting on the horizon, in terms of the spike in this epidemic and the number of needles that are being found with trace amounts of blood,” she says. “There’s a lot of reasons to be concerned right now.”

Getting started
The House is slated to vote on Hannon’s bill on March 9. If approved, it will head to the Senate. But even if the bill makes it to Gov. Maggie Hassan’s desk for a signature this year, Hannon says, it may take years for the program to start.

Any program will have to be approved by the state’s Department of Health and Human Services, which would then set up rules for programs to follow. There are other details to iron out, too — how to define a “trace amount” of drugs in a syringe, for example. But Hannon’s optimistic about the bill’s chances.

“Needles are cheap,” he says. “Human lives aren’t.”

Craft beer is big business in New Hampshire — in 2014, the nonprofit Brewer’s Association reported that craft breweries had a $248 million economic impact on the state. Soon, the industry will have an educational impact on the state, too.

The University of New Hampshire recently announced a slate of new craft beer-related programs. The initiatives include a new brewing minor in the College of Life Sciences and Agriculture, an analytical testing lab, an on-site pilot brewing system, and a professional development certificate offered through the UNH Cooperative Extension.

“This came from a need to be responsive to a growing industry,” said Marc Sedam. He’s the managing director of UNHInnovation, the campus office that connects businesses in the state with university resources. “We’ve seen that the brewing industry in the U.S. is growing like crazy, and in New Hampshire, it’s growing even crazier than the rest of the U.S.”

The brewing minor program is in development, Sedam said, and is set to begin in the fall of 2017. The analytical lab may be open as early as the end of this summer, and the brewing lab will be open in early 2017.

“Whenever you make beer, if you want to sell it, you have to send it out for testing,” Sedam said. Outside labs use analytical tests to determine how much alcohol is in a beer, among other details. There’s only one analytical lab on the East Coast, Sedam said, and that means New Hampshire breweries have a long wait before test results come back. An in-state lab would be “really responsive to the industry,” he said.

Additionally, the brewing system provides a place for students to get hands-on experience. Sedam said it will also be available for rent to local brewers for testing and experimentation.

“If you own a brewery, first you hire a brewer, then you hire a sales rep … and the next person you hire is a lab tech. We thought, why don’t we produce the students that can fill those roles,” he said.

“We’ll be very excited as we grow to bring in students that can come in with that level of experience.” — Nicole Carrier, co-owner of Throwback Brewery

Scott Schaier is the executive director of the Beer Distributors of NH and vice president of Brew NH, a nonprofit that promotes the state’s brewing industry. As UNH’s beer programs develop, Schaier said Brew NH will help connect the university to brewers in the state.

“We’re more or less going to be like a beer sherpa; (UNH) has questions and needs guidance, and we can answer those questions,” either directly or by putting in touch with partners, Schaier said.

Schaier said the professional certification program will be one of the first of its kind in New England. “In the last 10 years, we’ve gone from 14 or 15 breweries to 55 breweries. There’s going to be a need for quality folks to be assistant brewers or to do apprenticeship programs and internship programs. In New Hampshire, people love to be able to fill those positions from within the state,” he said.

That’s exactly what Nicole Carrier, one of the co-owners of Throwback Brewery, is hoping to do.

“One thing is just getting talent that’s trained in all aspects of brewing — the sciences, but even more, the business side, plus having that hands-on experience with the brew house. We’ll be very excited as we grow to bring in students that can come in with that level of experience,” she said. The UNH program will have another connection to Throwback — the university purchased equipment from Throwback’s previous brewhouse for the pilot lab.

As the craft beer industry grows, Carrier expects it will be more difficult to find experienced employees to work in breweries. Homebrewers might have some of the required experience, but may be at a disadvantage when it comes to understanding the ins and outs of commercial brewing.

“There are things you don’t even think about, mostly centered around quality assurance — water quality, yeast management, those types of skills,” she said.

Left to right, Nick Phaneuf, Mike Walsh, David Goolkasian, Clara Berry, and Terry Palmer of The Texas Governor.
l-r, Nick Phaneuf, Mike Walsh, Dave Goolkasian, Clara Berry, and Terry Palmer of The Texas Governor. photo by Nate Hastings
Time is elastic for musician Dave Goolkasian. It’s been almost a decade since his band, The Texas Governor and the Experiments, have appeared on local stages. When asked what he’s been up to during the intervening years, Goolkasian laughs.

“I don’t really remember them,” he jokes. “People ask me, ‘Oh, when did this thing happen?’ and I’ll think about it, and I just remember it, but I can’t place it in time. It could’ve happened yesterday, or it could’ve happened 20 years ago,” he says. “But at least if I’m creating music, I can kind of catalog it.”

That elasticity might be the result of living what seems like multiple lifetimes in music. Long before The Texas Governor, there was The Elevator Drops, the 1990s cult pop trio made up of Goolkasian on bass, guitarist and singer Josh Hager, and drummer Scott Fitts. Then came the Governor, first as a solo project and then as a band. Now, after a years-long hiatus, The Texas Governor is back.

Goolkasian released a new single, “Sunset Highways,” in late February and a new album is in the works. So is a small tour — the band is opening for The Snails in three New England cities this month, including a March 7 show at 3S Artspace in Portsmouth.

Big in Texas

As musical nom de plumes go, The Texas Governor stands out. It was Goolkasian’s nickname in The Elevator Drops (Hager was “Garvy J”; Fitts was “The Man in the Orange Suit”), and it carried over into his solo project. Goolkasian left Texas for New Hampshire in the early 2000s, but he kept the name. Texas is big, he says, and that immensity gave him confidence. If the state was big and full of possibility, then so was he.

“Driving home across the country, it seemed the further I got from Texas, the smaller and more incapable I felt,” he says. “And when I finally returned home, I felt puny and hopeless.”

Goolkasian was determined to keep making music. He built a “studio” in his apartment — a rough structure of wood, moldy blankets, and cardboard, inside of which he stacked his gear and guitar. He had to crouch down to sing and kept the “door” open with one hand to avoid passing out. The space was small, but the feeling — and sound — was big, just like it had been back in Texas. In 2001, he released the Governor’s self-titled debut album; a second, “The Experiment,” followed in 2004.

“The old stuff was basically made on as little equipment as possible. It was homemade recording,” Goolkasian says. “I’m still doing that, but … I’m going for a more professional, honest sound. A lot of the earlier recordings, since I didn’t know what I was doing, I’d play with effects and just get things to where they sounded neat. Now, I’m attempting to simplify as much as possible.”

Visionary revisions

The roots of the Governor’s revival lie in the annual Bob Dylan tribute night at The Blue Mermaid in Portsmouth. After The Texas Governor went on hiatus in 2007, Goolkasian found that the only time he was out playing music, apart from an Elevator Drops reunion in 2009, was at the Dylan tribute show.

“I’d be all excited, and suddenly a year would go by and the Bob Dylan tribute would come around again, and another year would go by and I’d do it again. And I’d feel terrible — how am I managing only to do these and not make my own music anymore?” he says.

Goolkasian started working with recording engineer Terry Palmer. “The first thing Terry and I did was spend about two months where he’d come over and rebuild my computer, literally pulling out parts and putting new parts in, because that’s how you record music now,” he says.

Though the process has changed, much is the same. “Sunset Highways” has the same jangly, space-pop sensibilities as The Texas Governor’s previous records, a sound that hints at vast, unexplored spaces both internal and external, but with a light pop touch.

Back in office

Goolkasian’s approach to recording new material had been leisurely, he says, until The Snails (a side project of the band Future Islands) contacted him.

“They asked me to do some shows, and I figured, what a perfect opportunity. I’ve known those guys for years and I love their music. It was too perfect,” he says.

That meant putting together a live band, making a website, and re-establishing the Governor for real. Joining Goolkasian in this iteration of the Governor are drummer Mike Walsh, singer Clara Berry, and guitarist Nick Phaneuf, who previously played in the Governor from 2004 to 2007.

All the band members are familiar names in the Seacoast music scene. Walsh is a member of Mother Superior and the Sliding Royales and Equal Time, among other bands, and Berry makes up half of the local band Kid Coyote. Phaneuf plays guitar in numerous area bands, including Tan Vampires and Dan Blakeslee and the Calabash Club.

Phaneuf says the band’s dynamics have changed since his first stint with The Texas Governor.

“There’s a weird role reversal that’s hard to articulate,” he says. “When I met Dave, he was a rock god coming down off the mountain to play with us. In the intervening years, I played a lot more and Dave had taken a break from music nearly entirely. He’s every bit the pop genius he ever was, but I think I’m more confident and competent than I was 10 years ago.”

Stepping back into The Texas Governor is both familiar and totally new, Phaneuf says. “The previous incarnation was like a Texas Governor cover band who took lots of liberties. On the new material we’re developing, I have more of a voice. Or rather, Dave is extremely deferential to me.”

For now, Goolkasian says he’s focused on the upcoming shows with The Snails (he’s preparing for the short tour by “drinking Coca-Cola,” he says). Plans are afoot for a new album, too, but it’s too early to say anything definitive, according to Goolkasian.

“I went through all these ideas of visionary revisions of what I wanted to do with the sound and modernize it,” Goolkasian says. “But now the focus is on writing, good lyrics, and good songs, and less on sonic fireworks.”

The Texas Governor opens for The Snails (featuring members of Future Islands) on Monday, March 7 at 8 p.m. at 3S Artspace, 319 Vaughan St., Portsmouth. Tickets are $12 and are available at 3sarts.org or by phone at 603-766-3330. The Texas Governor is online at thetexasgovernor.com.

Ray Grizzle pulls a cage of oysters out of Great Bay. photo by Krystin Ward/UNH

UNH studies oyster farming

Oysters have made a comeback in Great Bay in recent years — more than 10 oyster farms have opened in the estuary since 2010, raising oysters on about 50 acres. That’s been good news for local shellfish lovers, but it’s also been good news for the bay itself, according to a new study by scientists at the University of New Hampshire.

The study, conducted by zoology research professor Ray Grizzle and others, monitored oysters at six sites in the bay from 2010 to 2013. Their study looked at the role oyster farming plays in removing nitrogen from Great Bay.

“Every oyster that is harvested represents some amount of nitrogen leaving the system,” Grizzle said in a statement. “We’re beginning to quantify nitrogen dynamics and how oyster farms on Great Bay affect it.”

High nitrogen levels in the bay have been an ongoing problem. A study by the NH Water Resources Center at UNH found that as nitrogen levels have increased in the bay, water quality and aquatic life has decreased.

Oysters feed on nitrogen-containing organisms like phytoplankton, which helps keep nitrogen levels down. However, the oyster population in the bay decreased sharply in the 1990s due to disease. While oyster farming won’t completely solve the problem of high nitrogen levels in the bay, Grizzle believes it will make a difference.

“We are now modeling different levels of oyster industry size and how it would affect nitrogen removal. It’s never going to be a huge amount of nitrogen. I suspect it will be below 5 percent of the nitrogen that goes into the estuary, but 5 percent is 5 percent,” he said. Increased oyster farming can also improve natural habitats and filter water.

Popzup expands

It’s only been two months since the Rye-based Popzup Company began selling it’s Popzup Popper, an alternative to bagged microwave popcorn, but in that time, co-owner Marty Lapham says the response from customers has been so strong that the company is already expanding.  Formerly based in the Rye General Store, Lapham said the company finalized plans in late February to move to a new space in the Washington Mills in Dover.

“We’re excited to be growing and moving where there are so many like-minded businesses who share our passion about supporting earth-friendly options and a healthy lifestyle,” Lapham said.

The Popzup Popper is a microwave-safe paperboard box that expands as popcorn kernels pop. Lapham and his wife funded initial production of the popper with a Kickstarter campaign in December 2015, and the popper is available throughout the Seacoast.

 

New Hampshire held its presidential primary on Feb. 9. Maine gets its turn with caucuses this weekend. Above, voters in Portsmouth on primary day. photo by Michael Sterling

Maine voters will head out to caucus locations and pick their preferred presidential candidate on Saturday, March 5 (if they’re Republicans), and Sunday, March 6 (if they’re Democrats). While Maine’s caucuses fall midway through the presidential primary process — more than 25 states and territories will have caucuses and primaries from March through June — it remains an important contest.

Democratic candidates have 25 delegates up for grabs, while Republican candidates have 23. The campaign field has already narrowed considerably since the New Hampshire primary in February. Martin O’Malley dropped out of the Democratic race, leaving Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders to fight it out in a close contest. The Republican field has been winnowed down to five major candidates as of press time: Ben Carson, Ted Cruz, John Kasich, Marco Rubio, and Donald Trump (though that may have changed by the time you read this, depending on Super Tuesday primary results from March 1).

What will happen at the 2016 Maine caucus? It depends on which party you’re registered with. Republicans in York County will venture to a single caucus site on Saturday, while Democrats will caucus at various locations in their respective communities.

Regardless of your party or where you vote, the proceedings will be largely the same. If you’re a registered independent, or are unregistered, be sure to arrive early at your caucus location. Registration is typically open for an hour, according to Nancy Stolberg, chair of the York County Democratic Committee.

Once everyone’s registered, the caucus begins. Voters will elect a secretary and election clerks — the folks who help out at local polls on election day in November — along with municipal and county party officers. After that’s wrapped up, the presidential action starts.

During presidential selection, voters will gather in groups based on which candidate they’re supporting. Uncommitted voters will gather in their own group. An opportunity for speeches follows, as voters in each camp try to sway each other to commit to one side or change their minds. Once the groups are finalized, and each group gets the absentee ballots for its candidate, a final tally is taken and delegates are allotted.

Stolberg said that caucus sites are expecting a high turnout this year. “We’ve been asking folks to get meeting spaces with a large enough capacity” to accommodate about 25 percent more people than 2008’s turnout, she said.

“I think it’s going to be an exciting year,” Stolberg added.

Where and when 

For more information, contact your town clerk or visit the York County Republicans website at yorkcountyrepublican.com or the York County Democratic Committee website at ycdc.me.

Republicans (March 5)

 Voters from York, Kittery, Eliot, and the Berwicks caucus on Saturday, March 5 at noon, at Biddeford Middle School, 25 Tiger Drive, Biddeford, Maine.

Though doors open at noon, registration and enrollment changes begin at 1:30 p.m. and end at 2:30 p.m. Presidential voting begins at 3:30 p.m. and voting closes at 5:30 p.m.

Democrats (March 6)

South Berwick 

Town Hall auditorium, 180 Main St. Doors open at 2 p.m., caucus convenes at 3 p.m., and voting begins at 4 p.m.

North Berwick 

North Berwick Community Center, 266 Lebanon Road. Doors open at 2:30 p.m.

Berwick 

Town Hall, 11 Sullivan St. Doors open at 1 p.m.

Kittery 

Traip Academy complex, 12 Williams Ave. Doors open at 4:30 p.m. and voting closes at 6 p.m.

Eliot 

Eliot Elementary School gymnasium, 1298 State Road. Doors open at 11:30 a.m. and voting ends at 1 p.m.

A self portrait by artist Bob Nilson, on view as part of the "Hands Together" exhibit at PMAC, through April 1.

Bob Nilson has always been drawing. The 83-year-old Portsmouth artist says the joke in his family was that he was “born with an in-grown pencil.” But he didn’t always draw musicians — the subject that has become his calling card.

That didn’t happen until the 1980s. Nilson remembers walking down State Street past the Rosa Restaurant. The windows were open and the sounds of the Memorial Bridge All-Star Dixieland Band tumbled out onto the sidewalk. Nilson couldn’t resist the music’s call.

“It just grabbed you by the ears and pulled you in,” he says. “I was in there, listening to the music, doodling and drawing the band. And the band said, ‘Can we use this drawing?’”

The Memorial Bridge All-Stars featured a rotating cast of musicians, and when new players sat in with the band, they’d ask Nilson to draw them, too. Nilson was already drawing a weekly “Seacoast Sketchbook” column in the Portsmouth Herald, and it wasn’t long before his editor came up with a proposition.

“The paper came along and said, ‘Do you want to draw bands and get paid for it?’” Nilson says.

He said yes, and for more than three decades, Nilson has been a staple at music venues around the Seacoast, attentively watching the musicians on stage and capturing them on paper. “Hands Together,” a new exhibit of Nilson’s art, is on display through April 1 at the Portsmouth Music and Arts Center (PMAC), and Nilson will be on hand for a reception on Thursday, March 3.

Bob Nilson has captured Seacoast musicians on a variety of local stages for more than 30 years.
Bob Nilson has captured Seacoast musicians on a variety of local stages for more than 30 years.

Night work

Nilson has been many things — a cartoonist, a teacher, an advertising man — but it’s not surprising that his calling card turned out to be sketching musicians. He grew up on a 68-foot Chinese junk boat docked in New York, and his family was steeped in music. His maternal grandparents were both opera singers. His father was “one of the first radio engineers in the business,” Nilson says, and specialized in remote recordings of live bands.

“He went to hotels and places where they had bands and he’d (record) the bands,” Nilson says. “He used to take me around with him when I was a little kid. I’d have to coil up the wires to the mic — there’s nothing dustier than a mic wire. He liked to work nights, and I like to work nights.”

Growing up, Nilson and his two brothers all took music lessons. His younger brother ended up starting his own dance band in high school; his older brother eventually became a music teacher. Nilson wasn’t as musical as his siblings, though.

“I just had no talent for it. I didn’t have a sense of rhythm, I couldn’t read sheet music, I couldn’t carry a tune,” he says. “But I love music.”

What Nilson did have an aptitude for was drawing, and one of his first jobs was drawing advertisements for the Wool Bureau in New York City. After moving to New Hampshire, he drew editorial cartoons for the Canaan Reporter and the Laconia Daily Sun, and eventually began teaching at Oyster River High School in Durham. He was a “utility man,” teaching math, journalism, psychology, sociology, English, and everything else. A co-worker once called Nilson a “renaissance man.”

“I said, ‘Today’s definition for that is attention deficit disorder,’” Nilson jokes.

Hands together

Nilson’s drawings of musicians have been appearing in his column, “Guess Who,” in the Portsmouth Herald every week since the 1980s. He retired from teaching in 1993, and the column has become something of a second career for him.

He’s not interested in the big artists who are coming to town. He’s interested in the local musicians who are playing at smaller local venues.

 — PMAC executive director Russ Grazier

“I’m compensating for not being a musician,” he jokes. “And the musicians like it, so it comes out pretty good. And it gives me access to music.”

In that time, Nilson has watched the Seacoast’s music scene change. Older players die or move away and younger musicians move in and take their place. Venues open and close. Nilson’s drawings, which he creates at shows while the musicians are on stage, have become an ongoing chronicle of the local scene.

Nilson makes a cameo in a drawing of a Friday night at The Press Room.
Nilson makes a cameo in a drawing of a Friday night at The Press Room.

“I see my work as being part of the web of the Seacoast musical community,” he says.

Russ Grazier, PMAC’s executive director, says the new exhibit reflects that ever-evolving community.

“What’s interesting is that there are a lot of people represented in the show who are no longer with us,” he says “It’s fascinating to see how they all fit into the scene … and you can see how eclectic our scene is.”

Grazier helped put the exhibit together with curators Chris Hislop and J.L. Stevens, who got to know Nilson and his work while working at Spotlight magazine (now known as Edge). Because Nilson gives his drawings to his subjects, the three had to ask the community to lend their Nilson drawings for the exhibit. After combing through hundreds of drawings, Grazier says, 83 were selected for the show. Some 400 musicians are represented in the exhibit.

“He’s not interested in the big artists who are coming to town. He’s interested in the local musicians who are playing at smaller local venues,” Grazier says.

 Ambidextrous artist Bob Nilson drawing with both hands in his studio. photo by Brad Maushart
Ambidextrous artist Bob Nilson drawing with both hands
in his studio. photo by Brad Maushart

It helps that Nilson works fast. Maybe you’ve seen him at The Press Room or other local venues, a sketchbook on his lap and a pencil in each hand. He’s ambidextrous, a trait he developed to help him do sketches at fairs.

“I can draw 100 people in a day, but after about the third day, I don’t want to draw anymore, so I said to myself that I have to teach my left hand how to draw … so I can rest my right hand,” he says.

It took three years to get his left hand up to speed, he says. Now, he can make multiple drawings of a band in a single set — so long as he doesn’t think about it.

“If I think about my right hand, my left hand stops. So I just do it,” he says. “If it’s got a beat or a rhythm to it … I can draw fast if the music is fast.”

Where the music is

Nilson lives in Portsmouth’s Atlantic Heights neighborhood. Along with his weekly column, he’s also a regular volunteer at Boston Children’s Hospital. One day a week, he arrives at 7 a.m. and starts drawing caricatures for the kids who are set to go in for operations that day.

“I’m fulfilling my mother’s prediction. She always said, ‘You boys will drive me to distraction!’ Now, I am a distraction. The drawing takes the kids’ mind off the procedure. They have to choose what they want to be in the picture (I’m drawing), a princess or a mermaid or a cowboy,” he says.

cs_Gary_andDan

This is the second time Nilson’s drawings have been exhibited. He’s honored, he says, and he’s glad local musicians love the drawings enough to use them on posters and keep them in their personal collections. But even if no one knew he was drawing, he’d still be out in Portsmouth every week, looking for good music and a comfortable place to sit and sketch.

“I love what I do and I love drawing bands,” he says. “I go where the music is. … Even though I can’t play, I’m part of the music scene, and I’m very happy about it.”

“Hands Together” is on view at the Portsmouth Music and Arts Center, 974 Islington St., Portsmouth, through April 1. Bob Nilson will be on hand for a public reception on Thursday, March 3 at 5 p.m. Call 603-431-4278.

 

illustration by Alyssa Grenning

Seacoast middle- and high-school students hoping to catch a little extra sleep before school may get their wish — but probably not for another few years.

School boards in Portsmouth and the Oyster River school district, which encompasses Durham, Lee, and Madbury, are in the early stages of considering plans for later start times at their middle and high schools. According to medical experts, later start times hold a wealth of benefits for students. However, local officials say shifting start times is not as simple as it sounds.

“There are lots of tendrils,” said Portsmouth School Board member Patrick Ellis, chair of the board’s late start time subcommittee.

According to Ellis, board members and city officials have been talking about later start times since as far back as 2008, and the board did research and conducted surveys. But the proposal “fell off the table” when then-superintendent Robert Lister retired and the board had to search for a replacement.

The current discussion began in 2014. That summer, the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) released a study recommending middle- and high-school students start school later. According to the AAP study, students with school start times earlier than 8:30 a.m. aren’t receiving “optimal levels of sleep” (between 8.5 and 9.5 hours), which can lead to problems with physical and mental health and academic performance. According to the Center for Disease Control, two out of three high-school students in the United States get less than eight hours of sleep a night. Adolescents who don’t get enough sleep are at greater risk of obesity, depression, engaging in risky behaviors, and performing poorly in school.

That report reignited discussion at the local level, Ellis said. But, as the board began to look at the issue, the members found that changing start times can have far-reaching effects. Because of that, Ellis said, a firm start-time plan won’t be finalized until October of this year.

The first wrinkle was getting the timing right for a plan. Portsmouth receives students from Rye, Greenland, New Castle, and Newington. Those towns finalize their school budgets for the following year in March, while Portsmouth finalizes its budget in June. According to Ellis, if later start times have a financial impact, such as more bus routes, those towns have to know well in advance.

“We wanted to slow the process down a bit … and make a firm decision by October, so it’s right at the start of (their) budget-making process,” he said.

There are plenty of other considerations. Moving back start times for high-school and middle-school students could affect when elementary-school students start their day. Right now, middle- and high-school students start school at 7:30 a.m.; elementary students in Portsmouth begin their day at 8:20 a.m. Any changes could affect bus schedules, and could mean the city has to fund more bus routes.

After-school sports and extracurricular activities also become more complicated to schedule. Ellis said that the board has already heard from families in which older students act as after-school caregivers for younger siblings or have after-school jobs. Later start times could change those dynamics, too.

“(Sports, extracurricular activities, and after-school jobs) are some of the larger issues that have been brought up, and it’s why we didn’t want to be nonchalant about this.”
— Portsmouth School Board member Patrick Ellis

“Those are some of the larger issues that have been brought up, and it’s why we didn’t want to be nonchalant about this,” Ellis said.

Ellis said the Portsmouth School Board has already surveyed parents, teachers, and students in the district and is aiming to host a community forum in early April.

“We’d be able to present some of the science behind why this makes so much sense, as well as talk about what other communities have done,” he said.

In the Oyster River School District, school board chair Thomas Newkirk said the board has been discussing later start times in earnest since the spring of 2015, when a group of residents advocating for a later start time asked the board to take up the issue.

“The board had an advisory committee take it up in the fall (of 2015), and it made presentations to us and did a survey and came up with some options. It’s in the board’s hands right now,” he said.

Newkirk said the board will host a public workshop on start times on Thursday, March 3 at 6 p.m. at Oyster River High School in Durham. It’s the first in what will likely be a long series of meetings, according to Newkirk.

“We anticipate setting up forums to get input from the community. Start times affect so many things,” he said. “In terms of a timeline, we haven’t set one, and my own sense is (changes) won’t be for the 2016-2017 school year, but possibly for the fall after.”

Strafford County unveils new health plan

Strafford County residents could be healthier, and a newly released plan aims to make that happen in the next three years.

The Strafford County Public Health Network released a three-year community health improvement plan (CHIP) earlier this month. The plan, developed by more than 165 local stakeholders, including medical and social service providers, educators, government officials, and law enforcement, identified five top priorities: substance misuse, mental health, obesity and nutrition, emergency preparedness, and heart disease and stroke.

According to the plan, which is available online at scphn.org, Strafford County is ranked eighth of the state’s 10 counties in terms of healthiness. The county includes the cities of Dover, Somersworth, and Rochester, as well as the towns of Lee, Durham, Rollinsford, Farmington, Milton, New Durham, and others. About 125,604 residents live in the county.

According to the plan, 31 percent of adults in the county are obese, and the county ranks third in the state for the number of adults diagnosed with and hospitalized for coronary heart disease. The county also ranks poorly in stroke mortality rates, with 204 deaths between 2009 and 2013, and overall quality of life and health measures.

The plan’s recommendations include increasing access to substance misuse treatment and recovery facilities and developing crisis response teams to attend alcohol and drug overdose events. Other measures include establishing a mental health workgroup made up of representatives from local hospitals and health organizations, increasing access to free and low-cost physical activity programs, collaborating with municipalities on emergency preparedness outreach efforts, and increasing awareness of heart disease and stroke prevention. — Larry Clow

City seeks ideas for grant program

Got an idea for a project that might benefit low- or moderate-income families living in Portsmouth? The city wants to hear from you. Portsmouth’s Citizens Advisory Committee will meet on Thursday, Feb. 18 at City Hall on Junkins Avenue to discuss ideas for community development block grant (CDBG) projects. The meeting is part of the 2016-2017 CDBG budget and planning process.

The city receives about $500,000 each year in CDBG funds, according to Elise Annunziata, the city’s community development coordinator. The funds come from the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) and are used to fund projects and services that benefit individuals and families who earn less than 80 percent of the median income for a four-person household, currently about $86,100, Annunziata said.

During the meeting, city staff will provide an overview of which projects meet CDBG requirements and will ask for input about new projects. Funds from the grants are used to improve very low-income to moderate-income neighborhoods, increase accessibility for people with disabilities, and other projects.

“Suitable, safe, affordable housing is one of HUD’s big goals,” Annunziata said.

According to Annunziata, CDBG funds have been used in the past for housing rehabilitation programs, in which eligible residents can receive funds to bring their homes up to code, and to install lifts or ramps in the homes of elderly residents or in city facilities or local nonprofits, among other projects. A small portion of CDBG funds also go to human services agencies, she said.

The Citizens Advisory Committee will hold another public hearing this spring and submit its recommendations in May. Annunziata said the city is also working on submitting a proposed budget and action plan to HUD.

Residents who can’t attend the meeting can share their comments at 603-610-7281 or eannunziata@cityofportsmouth.com. — LC

Portsmouth police release trading cards

For the first time in 20 years, you can bring the members of the Portsmouth Police Department home with you in trading card form. The department revived its police trading card program this month with 28 cards featuring city police officers. The cards include the officers’ name and photograph on the front and short biography on the back.

Children ages 6-12 who live in Portsmouth or attend city schools can collect the cards and receive tickets for a bi-weekly raffle. The first bi-weekly card check will take place at the Connie Bean Recreation Center, 155 Parrott Ave., on Wednesday, Feb. 24 from 3:30 to 5:30 p.m. Adults can collect the cards too, though the raffle is for kids only.

Cards are available from city police officers, though the department reminds collectors to avoid asking officers for cards while engaged in their duties.

For a checklist of cards and card collection program rules, go here, or contact detective Rochelle Jones at 603-610-7503 or rjones@cityofportsmouth.com. — LC

Warm up (or cool down) the Rep

The Seacoast Repertory Theatre in Portsmouth is asking the community for help warming up and cooling down. This month, the theater launched a $150,000 crowd-funding campaign for a new heating and air conditioning system.

Kathleen Cavalaro, the theater’s executive director, said the Rep does not have a dedicated heating and air conditioning system. The theater spends about $49,000 a year on a variety of “alternative inadequate methods of heating and cooling,” she said.

The fundraiser, posted on generosity.com, had raised about $5,000 as of Feb. 16. The project is part of the Rep’s new five-year facilities plan, which calls for a renovation of the lobby, bar, bathrooms, and box office, as well as a complete remodel of the theater and administrative offices.

To see a video about the campaign, go here— LC