My good friends Carl and David Little just published a handsome new book entitled Paintings of Portland (Down East Books $29.95) which details the many ways the city has been seen and painted by artists over the centuries. Here I propose a little corollary essay about paintings on Portland.
The bustle and busyness of Maine’s biggest little city can, like any lively urban environment, overwhelm the senses with stimuli, which is why every once in a while I like to slow down and have a look for the overlooked. Cheap point-and-shoot camera in hand, I make a deliberate attempt to pay attention to what’s going on in my native city.
Portland’s two best murals were erased a few years ago. The mural in Tommy’s Park at Middle and Exchange and the blueprint mural a few blocks away at 48 Free were trompe l’oeil masterpieces, products of the 1980s, which were the height of Portland’s artistic activity.
Designed by Chris Denison, C. Michael Lewis and architect Winton Scott and painted in 1985 by Denison, Lewis, Toni Wolf, Josephine Mussomeli, Matt Blackwell, Greg Chesaux, Wesley Stevens, Don Thayer, Art Cross and Donna Bachle, the Tommy’s Park mural was entitled Palazzo di Tomasino and recreated a marble façade of the 1868 post office that once occupied the Post Office Park site.
The Tommy’s Park mural had a cousin just a few blocks away at 48 Free St. that also became a local landmark. Painted in 1986 by Chris Denison, C. Michael Lewis, Toni Wolf, Josephine Mussomeli, Steven Priestly, and Bertelle Brookings and repainted in 2002 by Denison, Priestley, Wolf, Chris Hayes, Karen Sarfaty and Scott Kern, the Free St. mural pretended to be a blueprint applied to the entire side of the building, the blueprint peeling away to reveal the actual building.
The blank walls of Tommy’s Park and 48 Free St. beg to be painted again. The owners of 80 Exchange St. have, in fact, commissioned Will Sears to paint an abstract mural on the iconic space. Chris Dennison was one of the jurors. C. Michael Lewis was one of three finalists. Public art, of course, is often temporary. At least three other murals have succumbed to development and renovation in downtown Portland in recent years. The Greetings from PORTLAND postcard mural on the backside of the Asylum night club was painted by Mike Rich and a posse of other graffiti artists, but it was lost when the Asylum built a swanky new venue.
Murals often celebrate the past and the passage of time. Just so the mural Tony Taylor and Ken Tacka painted in Congress Square across from Portland Museum of Art in 1997. The mural presented a bifurcated view of how the corner of High and Congress looked in the 1920s and 1950s, but it was lost in 2013 when the Eastland Hotel was renovated. Congress Square now features a verdant floral mural by Tessa Greene O’Brien.
A mural created by taggers Koi and Turdl on the side of Joe’s Smoke Shop on Longfellow Square was an exercise in self-reference, consisting as it did along the Avon St. side of the popular convenience store, of the artists’ orange signatures over a black and white rendering of Joe’s and its immediate environs. The mural was demolished along with the iconic smoke shop in 2015 to make way for a new high-rise building.
One painted paean to Portland past that has survived is the 2008 Ocean Gateway Parking Garage mural by Elizabeth M. Burke and Rebecca Pease. Based on a c.1910 postcard view of Portland Harbor, the mural covers what would have been a huge blank wall with monotone images of sailing ships.
Public art is rarely placed in wealthy neighborhoods, so it should come as no surprise that the richest collection of murals in Portland is in one of the city’s poorest sections.
Bayside, bounded roughly by Washington Ave., Cumberland Ave., Forest Ave. and Marginal Way, is a neighborhood once dominated by junk yards and public housing. Today Bayside is in transition as artists, entrepreneurs and foodies help gentrify the once blighted area. Public art projects are everywhere in Bayside.
In 2004, the East Bayside Mural Project brought San Francisco muralist Andrew Schoultz to Portland to work with kids of the Kennedy Park public housing project to create a mural on the maintenance building at Bayside Park on Fox St. Schoultz’s own mural, which deals with logging and the destruction of the environment, is still on the wall. The World We Are From and the World We Are Making mural that Schoultz did with the local kids, many of whom were from Africa, is gone now, painted over by a Portland Mural Initiative mural, an abstract landscape schematic by Andrea Sulzer.
Portland Mural Initiative, started in 2015 by Will Sears and Tessa Greene O’Brien, has given a new generation of artists a chance to make their marks in Bayside, where there are now abstract murals by Sears, O’Brien, Sulzer and Jenny McGee Dougherty, a band playing by John Knight and a coastal landscape by Greta Van Campen. The murals enliven the dead spaces along the East Bayside Trail.
My favorite PMI mural is the ideographic abstraction by Dougherty on the side of the CrossFit Beacon gym. When I was there the other day I noticed that an anonymous street artist had added a thought to Dougherty’s imagery, “Let the world change you and you can change the world.” Not a bad way to be defaced.
Down an alley from the East Bayside Trail I also spotted a gorgeous white lily and a spotted salamander behind chain-link fences topped with barbed wire and razor-wire. I had to ask around to discover that these unexpected images were painted by designer and muralist Jared Goulette.
The crown jewel of Bayside public art is the East Bayside Community Mosaic Mural that wraps around two sides of the Coffee By Design building at the corner of Fox and Anderson.
The Bayside mosaic was created in 2016 by Muhsana Ali, a Philadelphia-born artist now based in Senegal. Ali was invited to Portland by University of Southern Maine social work professor Paula Gerstenblatt to work with local people in a project designed to foster community and celebrate cultural diversity. The intricate swirl of glass and ceramic tile expresses its theme of “voices of the community” in the objects and images contributed by more than 500 local people. Public art created by the public is a refreshing idea.
In Maine there is often a bit of tension when artists from away are awarded commissions, exhibitions and other opportunities that might benefit local artists. Perhaps the most painful missed opportunity to promote local creativity occurred in 2008 when the Maine Center for Creativity commissioned London-based Venezuelan artist Jaime Gili to paint 16 oil storage tanks in South Portland (visible from Portland so I figure they count as painting on Portland).
The Art All Around project was advertised as “the world’s largest public painting” with 260,000 square feet of surfaced covered with Gili’s abstract designs which read like Suprematism Meets Corporate America. What a shame not to have celebrated Maine talent at such a scale.
Oh well, there is plenty of public art by local artists in Portland as it is. One of my recently discovered favorites is the wall of poppies artist Patrick Corrigan painted on the outside of his Hanover St. studio. Corrigan also teamed up with Jenny Gardiner on the elegant swan and rushes mural that graces the rear of Speedwell projects out at Woodfords Corner. The swans are based on a ceramic tile design by English artist-illustrator Walter Crane (1845-1915).
Speedwell’s parking lot wall also features a floral mural by Mexican artist Pam Chevez. Both Speedwell murals are within sight of Artist and Craftsman Supply where the side street parking lot wall is emblazoned with a jazzy geometric aerosol abstraction by Ryan Adams.
When you go looking for art in the urban environment, you sensitize yourself to the hand-made and start seeing paintings everywhere, in graffiti, advertising, signs and murals.
The meaning of the imagery is not always obvious, but, like tags and tattoos, the intention of street art is clear. Whether it asserts individuality, community, identity, political concern or just decoration, the primary function of public art is to call attention to itself.
[Edgar Allen Beem has been writing about art in Maine since 1978 and looking at it even longer.]