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UMFK Acadian Archives exhibit "Maman Disait" opens December 2

November 18, 2005



Author and Artist Rhea Cote Robbins shows one of the collages she will display in the Acadian Archives at UMFK beginning December 2 to Archives Director Lisa Ornstein.

The Acadian Archives/Archives acadiennes at the University of Maine at Fort Kent invites the public to meet Rhea Cote Robbins, an acclaimed Franco-American writer, on Friday, December 2 from 2:00 p.m. to 4:30 p.m. for the opening of her exhibit entitled "Maman Disait".

The exhibit, which will be on display at the Archives through February 2006, is dedicated in memory of Cote Robbins' mother, Rita L. St. Germain Cote (1919-1982), who was born and grew up in Wallagrass, Maine.

"The exhibit features a series of collages that are the story of my experience of the proverbs, sayings, maxims that 'maman disait', had access to, from where I do not know, but without meaning to, passed onto me. I have a memory of them being said in both French and English," said Robbins.

Cote Robbins' mother attended the Madawaska Training School (a forerunner of UMFK) in 1933 and left after two years to work at lumber camps in Allagash. At 17, she moved to Bangor and never returned to live in Aroostook County.

In 1940, she married Raymond Cote and moved to Waterville, Maine where she lived for the rest of her life. The couple raised four children Raymond, Charlie, Bob and Rhea.

"I am shocked to find how many of the proverbs my mother knew that I remember having heard as daily fare. Something would happen she'd walk by and in rapid-fire French express a proverb in response. I knew something special something different had just been said. I would stop what I was doing and demand an explanation, a translation because even though I understood French completely no need for translation for most things said here was a language unfamiliar to me," said Cote Robbins.

"Sometimes, she'd try to translate, or explain, mostly she'd say, Oh, it's just one of those old sayings they always used to say. And here she was repeating it to me like rapid-fire out of her memory. Who used to say this? Oh, les vieux. How old were the vieux et vieilles? I don't know. All I know is that the proverbs lived in her came to me, and I recognize them by sounds once spoken to me and they prompted the visuals to match my own interpretation of them in the collages," added Cote Robbins.

The impetus behind creating the exhibit was Cote Robbins' desire to see these proverbs of her mother, in print, in a frame, as home graffiti, kitchen art or as she puts it- "to experience the French in places one has seen in English. To render the French on the wall as a way of marking the spaces as chez-nous pour nous - to simply have French on the wall".

"Not that maman was unique, but just the opposite. The proverbs, sayings, were ubiquitous everywhere and understood by many. The point of exchange is unselfconscious understood culture transference. She knew as many proverbs in English as she did in French, but I wanted to focus on the French proverbs because I wanted to see the French language in a 'frame' hung on the wall," explains Cote Robbins. "The exhibit allows those who see it to be surrounded by visuals that address the question of French language existence through artistic problem solving and to see and experience things which 'maman disait à moé toutes les journées'".

"This show is not simply an exercise in nostalgia, but how I choose to reclaim for myself the proverbs, and to give meaning to them as I see them, part of the everyday magic of life," according to Cote Robbins.

The writer and artist was able to better understand the origin of some of the notable sayings of her mother because of her work tracing the family tree back, on both sides of her parents families.

She found that in Québec their people settled in close proximity to each other, and on a further search into their origins in France, she discovered that in the 1600's they lived within ten miles or less of each other.

"At least three of the branches of the original settlers came over on the same boat," said Cote Robbins. "I have spent many years researching the origins and visiting the hometowns of these people in Canada and France."

Robbins attended the University of Maine at Presque Isle where she graduated in 1982 with an associate's degree in art. She also attended the University of Maine in Orono on a bilingual education scholarship, which was in part funded by a federal grant in recognition of the Franco-American population that exists in the State of Maine. She earned her master's of arts degree from the University of Maine in May of 1997.

Robbins worked as editor of an international, bilingual socio-cultural journal entitled, Le FORUM, formerly known as Le F.A.R.O.G. Forum, at the Franco-American Center at U-Maine from 1986 to 1996.

In 1997, she was the winner of the Maine Chapbook Award for her work of creative nonfiction entitled, Wednesday's Child. She has also written a sequel entitled, Down the Plains.

Robbins also included three of her poetry selections, written primarily in English for the final edition of the River Review, a UMFK literary journal. Her work is peppered with French words that are commonly used in the Valley.

Robbins has had the luxury and opportunity to spend much time contemplating what it means to be Franco-American and a female in the United States. She has made contact with many people, across the country who are also interested in this cultural group.

She has traveled to Louisiana and to Canada and France to learn more about the culture, its origins and how it has evolved in different parts of the world and to visit the hometowns from where her ancestors emigrated.

In 2004, Robbins was awarded an Honorary Doctorate in Humane Letters from the University of Maine at Farmington.

Currently, she teaches literature courses in Franco-American women's experiences, general literature and creative nonfiction writing at the University of Maine.

Robbins is also working on a book of literary criticism on Grace de Repentigny Metalious, author of Peyton Place and other Franco-American women writers and their experiences.

She is a founder and executive director of the Franco-American Women's Institute, which encourages Franco-American women to tell their stories and those of their mothers and grandmothers.

The "Maman Disait" exhibit will be on display in the Acadian Archives through February 2006.

It will be open to the public between 10:00 a.m. and 2:00 p.m., Monday through Thursday, or by appointment. For more information, call 834-7536.