MDI As a Beacon to Appreciators of Nature and the Sea
Dick Atlee
(inspired by the Northeast Harbor Library "Beacons" art show)

MDI Beacon Mobile
(25 shells)
Scallop Shell
(with MDI map of
crushed mussel shells)
Crab claws Whelks
Mussels Periwinkles
Clams Sand dollars
Crab shells Mother of pearl


In March, 2011, the Northeast Harbor (Maine) Library announced an art show based on the theme of "Beacons," to be held later in the summer. I thought of the way MDI (Mount Desert Island) has served as a beacon attracting people from all over the country. This brought to my mind an image of a mobile with a symbolic MDI at one end and a lot of "other things" at the other.

Shells were the obvious "other things," but what were they supposed to represent? I'd originally thought of four elements, each representing one of MDI's four towns (Bar Harbor, Mount Desert, Tremont, and Southwest Harbor). But the beacon metaphor broke down with this -- the towns are already here. So the idea of something more like a crowd of people "from away" took over.

I had a variety of shells and other sea-related items in my collection of materials -- at least nine different types. One of these would represent MDI, the other eight the crowd. But a "crowd" would require more than eight items. I'd need to use multiple items of any given type.

I am partial to what I call "binary" mobiles, in which each element balances all the other elements below it. The smallest example is a triplet -- one element balancing two others. The next size larger (four) involves one element balancing the triplet, a configuration that takes up significantly more space than the triplet, especially when multiplied eight times.

Width matters -- you have to make sure that no matter how the mobile moves, no part of it will crash into or tangle with another. So a binary mobile, with each part balancing the rest, can get very wide very quickly. Eight triplets would spread out too far and require too much open space. But a true binary mobile of eight triplets would also be too high, hitting people in the head unless it were so high it was effectively invisible. So a compromise of the binary structure was made. The crowd would have to consist of two sets of four triplets hanging beside each other. This cut the height to a manageable 33 inches.

The beacon itself had to weigh enough to balance the crowd. The obvious candidate was a large scallop shell. To remove any uncertainty about its identity, I emblazoned it with a purple image of MDI made from crushed mussel shells. I'd originally thought that, as a beacon to the rest of the country/world, it should be far removed from the crowd. But the way a mobile moves, making it more amorphous and open than it appears when laid out compactly (as in the image above). A distant beacon would have seemed overly-isolated, and would have made the mobile a lot harder to handle. So the beacon has been placed a bit closer in than its symbolism would suggest. (And getting it to remain facing the crowd, as a beacon should do, turned out to be a less-than-trivial matter -- not the kind of requirement involved in most mobiles.)