PORTLAND — For more than 30 years, one of the most popular pieces in Portland’s public art collection has languished behind bars, literally and figuratively.

With the reopening of the Portland Public Library this week, the Little Water Girl fountain finally has come out from behind the forboding, fenced-in courtyard in front of the library and been relocated front and center within the main lobby.

Better yet, the water is flowing, and the piece looks spectacular as an integral element of the lobby redesign.

The classic sculpture finally has a prominent, appropriate spot and is visible to both library visitors and those walking by on Congress Street.

“She was not in the public eye before, which was really too bad, because it is one of the truly spectacular pieces in our collection. She has been moved from an inopportune place to a place of honor,” said Jack Soley, who chairs the Portland Public Art Committee, which oversees the city’s art collection.

“She was hidden around the corner, and because she was hidden, there was very little surveillance. She was subject to frequent vandalism, and we spent a lot of resources trying to clean the vandalism up.”

The relocation of the Little Water Girl is among several positive changes at the newly renovated library that bring greater attention and respect to its collection of art. A painted installation by Frederick Lynch has been tidied up and relocated in better light, as has a marvelous mixed-media piece by Duncan Slade and Gayle Fraas.

In addition, the library has created a lovely gallery space on its lower level. Peg Golden of Greenhut Galleries has curated the first show, selecting key works from eight prominent art galleries as a sort-of “best of” Portland gallery spotlight exhibition.

The show will be on view beginning Thursday, when the library reopens, through May 14. The gallery will be open for the First Friday Art Walk on May 3.

But the real story here is the Little Water Girl.

With a soft smile on her lips, the little girl stands barefoot holding a bowl, from which water flows.

The statue honors Lillian Ames Stevens, who was the second president of the Women’s Christian Temperance Union. In Maine, Stevens led the union’s support of the woman’s suffrage movement, as well as the establishment of shelters for women in trouble.

The Women’s Christian Temperance Union donated the statue to Portland in 1917. The piece was originally placed at Deering Oaks park, but was moved to the library courtyard on Congress Street when the “new” library opened in 1979.

According to Portland Public Art Committee records, Portland has one of four water girl statues. The others went to London, Detroit and Chicago. Portland’s appears to be the only one of the four still in its original condition.

While the statue was in storage during the current library renovation, the city of Chicago commissioned a mold to be made from our sculpture so Chicago could create a replica to replace its original sculpture, which was stolen in 1958.

During her time away, the Little Water Girl also got a makeover. The city hired conservationist Jonathan Taggart to clean the statue and its granite base, and to restore it as a working fountain.

In all, the public art committee spent less than $3,000 for the work.

“The conservation work is a hugely important part of what we do,” Soley said. “The base was a mess. There were rust stains and graffiti, and we had to do some other conservation work to her. Now, she looks her finest. She is clean and beautiful.

“The bottom line is, we have restored some grace to the sculpture and given grace to the library.” 

Staff Writer Bob Keyes can be contacted at 791-6457 or at:

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