Tacked to the wall of Buzz Masters’s studio is a piece of paper ripped from a sketch pad. Like a child’s copybook, the page is covered with a repeated line of text written in cursive:
This is not your emergency.
“That’s the mantra of emergency medicine,” she explains.
“Stay calm, don’t get involved in other people’s grief.
It’s a way to keep working.”
Since moving to Deer Isle 23 years ago, Masters has volunteered with the local ambulance corps. “My family was very big on community service,” says the 61-year-old artist. “You had to be a part of something.” Her father, the novelist Hilary Masters (son of poet Edgar Lee Masters), volunteered with the local fire department in upstate New York. Her mother, Polly Jo McCulloch Masters, an actress and founder of The Hyde Park Playhouse, was president of the school board.
Initially, Masters was trained to drive the ambulance. “But it was a disaster,” she says with a laugh. “After two weeks the guy teaching me said, ‘Maybe we need to find you something else to do.’” Ill at ease in the front of the vehicle, Masters tried her hand in the back. She joined a basic EMT class, and then kept training to upgrade her license.
“It’s very natural to me,” she adds. “I find the back of the ambulance completely comforting.”
In fall 2017, Masters took her EMT skills to another island, joining the Red Cross to help with relief in Puerto Rico following Hurricane Maria. “It’s a humanitarian disaster beyond anything we’ve ever seen,” she says. “The hurricane devastated the whole culture. Fifth-generation farms disappeared off cliffs.”
Masters’s studio walls are filled with her response to that catastrophe. To create her highly textural mixed-media works, she employs a process similar to those used in Renaissance frescoes, a form she studied as an art student in Florence. Masters first slathers a homemade cement of clay compound, crushed shells and polymer binder onto a primed wooden panel. Before the mixture has fully dried, she grinds down the surface until it’s smooth and applies paint while still porous, allowing the cement to absorb the pigment. Additional paint—acrylic, casein emulsion, gouache, watercolor—is layered on the surface, along with bits of paper and varnish.
Several of the pieces stem from Masters’s personal observations of Maria’s aftermath: the graffiti wall in San Juan, where traditional tags overlapped with the names and numbers of people trying to connect; the difficulties of navigating the island’s interior without street signs, electricity or GPS. The majority of paintings, however, recount the struggles of survivors who felt compelled to share their stories.
“I like narrative,” says Masters. “What I didn’t expect in Puerto Rico was that people were desperate to talk—they just wanted someone to listen. So I sat there with an interpreter, and he spoke as fast as he could, trying to get their message across.”
She walks over to Quick Rescue 2, a dramatic work featuring expressionistic streaks of color and broad spaces of white, upon which are delicate sketches of water cascading out of a house and pooling at the base of a ladder.
“An old man came up to me in the central mountains and wanted to tell me how he had saved his neighbor,” Masters recalls. “As the water rose, he climbed a ladder to her window and carried her out on his back. It made me want to cry.”
Masters picks up a booklet that she produced for her exhibit at the Brockman Gallery in Brunswick last fall. “I wrote down exactly what he said—or what the interpreter said.”
She opens it and recites:
He is 92 years old. His wife died 11 years ago. He knew she lived alone. She does not have any family. She is very old. Maybe 92 or 93 years old. She lives alone and maybe she has a family but he does not know where they are. They told her to stay home. She is very old, maybe 92 years old. It was raining and she sat on the couch. She put canned food on the counter. Canned beans, canned corn, canned green beans. She sat on the couch. The wind was strong. The rain came in a hole in the roof and out the window. The house was very small. There was food on the counter and she sat on the couch. The water was very deep. She could not swim.
“He kept repeating things,” Masters says. “It became almost like staccato rap music.”
Next to Quick Rescue 2 hangs We Called Out to Her, an intricate painted collage rife with symbols: a solitary figure by a roofless house; furniture and other domestic items sketched on empty patches of canvas; a fallen door; a bed covered in water. And the handwritten pages of another survivor’s story.
“We found this old woman, probably also in her 90s, sitting by the side of the road,” says Masters. “She told us that she lived alone and that her house blew away. It was right on the edge of this cliff; all that was left was a piece of cement and a door. It had started to rain and was getting dark. So she lay underneath the door, waiting for help.”
Scanning the paintings, Masters says, “The water swept across the island and changed everything.”
Masters had already explored water as an instrument of change in her previous body of work, created while her mother was dying. “I set up a little studio area in the corner of her room,” she says. “I stayed in there with her, for days. It was my childhood home—I knew every object. When my mom died, suddenly everything became unfamiliar. It was as if rain had come shooting out doorways and rushing through the house and changed things.”
The resulting “Rain Room” series is markedly different from Masters’s Puerto Rico paintings. Small and delicate works on paper, the pieces feel quieter, scaled to a personal loss. Yet here, too, are the pale outlines of houses and rooms, ghostlike silhouettes, and water powerfully propelling through space.
“In those drawings I was using water as a metaphor for change,” Masters says. “Then I ended up in Puerto Rico, where water literally changed not just buildings but the whole society. It was funny to do both things and have one be metaphorical and one be literal.
“Water, to me, creates memory,” she continues. “How it cuts through a piece of land, changes a piece of land. What memories do we hold onto after something happens to change the familiar to unfamiliar? What do we let go of? The junk that’s left in your head after any event. That’s what the narrative is for me.”