(THIS STORY WAS ORIGINALLY PUBLISHED NOVEMBER, 22 2009)
The collection of public art in Portland is growing. New pieces are added annually, while old pieces receive renewed attention, refurbishment and rejuvenation.
Most of the responsibility for this work falls on the shoulders of the Portland Public Art Committee, a group of 10 residents, business people and artists who volunteer their expertise to oversee the collection. At the same time, we’re seeing more and more private individuals and companies add to the collection by donating pieces or commissioning new work.
Public art means different things to different people. Most of us understand it as statuary and sculpture, honoring noble residents or events from the past. But is also can include things like street furniture, architectural details, fixed or temporary lighting, seasonal installations and graffiti walls.
In the most general sense, public art references any piece of art that exists in the public domain.
I recently joined art critics Phil Isaacson and Daniel Kany in surveying the city’s collection of public art, as well as pieces that exist in the public realm but were commissioned privately. We started with a list of about 30 pieces, and began making the rounds.
We looked at each piece individually, and considered its location, its purpose and how well the piece met its goal.
We limited our scope mostly to the peninsula, and tried to reach some consensus about pieces we liked and those we did not. Naturally, our opinions were mixed.
TEMPORARY INSTALLATIONS. SANDY MACLEOD, Fish Point, below the Eastern Prom
Portland-based sculptor Sandy MacLeod has graced our city with his industrial-connected sculptures of wood, granite and steel for many years. His pieces pop up in different spots around town every now and again. This summer, he placed three pieces down in the grassy area below the Eastern Prom, in an area known locally as Fish Point. They are tucked among a grove of small trees and brush, poking up over the rocks and riprap and visible from above the hill looking down on the beach and bike trail. From the trail or the Narrow Gauge Railroad, they are as obvious as a full moon. They stand out in the grove, demand our attention and remind us that oftentimes the best art is that which is least expected. These three will remain up until next summer, but one could make a case for them to remain here permanently. – B.K.
MICHAEL, John Raimondi, Middle and Temple streets
For years, this work struck me as an effort to use some of the forms of its times (1975) with no clearly expressed goal. Then one night, I looked at it from the other side of Temple Street, and I was profoundly moved. I don’t weep, but the elegiac reach of its pinnacle and attendant supports make it an evocative funerary memorial. Looking at it now reminds me that someone has died. It notes a death, rather than trumpeting fame. Unique. – P.I.
This sculpture is notable for being an exception in Portland. It is a strong and dynamic sculpture that energizes the space around it. It is a bold and exciting form, as well as a model for what good abstract sculpture can do in a city like Portland. – D.K.
IN HONOR OF THE FIRE DEPARTMENT Central Fire Station, Congress Street near Lincoln Park
This statue appeals to me without apology or reservation. It’s just terrific. The man is noble, courageous and a little modest — everything I want him to be. This piece may be a commercial product purchased from a catalog, but I see him as a continuation of our folk art tradition — figureheads, sternboard eagles, carousel figures and the like. He doesn’t have their spontaneity, but he does have their naivete — that just-not-quite-right feeling. To find him at best advantage, go down Pearl Street and see him against a late sky. Alone, free of neighbors, he stands up against the cosmos. – P.I.
JEWEL BOX bus shelter, Laura Haddad & Tom Drugan, Congress Street near Monument Square
In 2003, the city decided to replace an aging bus shelter at the central bus stop on Congress Street just west of Monument Square. The public works department was prepared to flip through a catalog and order a generic bus shelter, similar to any other you might find in any other city. Instead, the Portland Public Art Committee asked if it could get involved in the project and come up with something more unique. The result is a glittering little jewel box, which serves both form and function while adding a pinch of spice to the downtown core. It’s especially beautiful late in the day, when the setting sun bounces off the glass side, reflecting color and light. It’s used heavily every day, and most people probably take it for granted, which makes it eminently successful. – B.K.
A touch of whimsy on the streets of an old New England city. What is it? A bit of the seraglio abstracted from the Topkapi in Instanbul? A communal pump house from a great Turkish city? Something left over from turn-of-the-century Paris? It’s exotic, soft, dreamy and a sin to desecrate. Bingo. – P.I.
LONGFELLOW, Franklin Simmons, Longfellow Square, Congress and State streets
A Beaux Arts gem, this is one of the best-sited sculptures in Portland. On the elegantly proportioned pedestal sits the Maine author at an excellent height in an intimate and key spot on Congress Street. The academically robed Longfellow sits casually, yet attentively facing the city center. The work shows up even better in snowy winter. Approaching the holiday season, Longfellow is inevitably found holding a wrapped present. This is the whole package: the site, scale, subject and quality of the work all come together to serve our sense of history and cultural priorities. – D.K.
THE MAINE LOBSTERMAN, Victor Kahill, Middle and Temple streets
The state commissioned this statue to commemorate Mainers who have dedicated their lives to fishing. The lobsterman kneels while pegging the lobster, a gesture that underscores the humble dignity of the fishing industry. The figure is a combination of physical power and well-seasoned finesse. His strength towers not above but among us. Simply as a sculpture, it is a standout work — handsome and well composed. Moreover, the subject is perfect to underscore Portland’s role as Maine’s leading city and helps this well-sited work deliver a fantastic sense of place. – D.K.
LIGHT SCULPTURES, Pandora LaCasse, Throughout downtown
The seasonal installation of lights that goes up throughout Portland’s downtown is perhaps the city’s most visible and signature presentation of public art. LaCasse’s light sculptures tend to be basic but playful geometric forms. On trees or buildings, they are instantly recognizable. As well, they play up the charm of an attractive city that wears snow very well. From trees in Deering Oaks to the historic buildings on Congress Street, these pieces are something of a smart update on the simple idea of holiday decoration. This is Portland’s best holiday suit, and it fits fabulously. – D.K.
SOLDIERS AND SAILORS MONUMENT: OUR LADY OF VICTORIES, Franklin Simmons and William Morris Hunt, Monument Square
This masterpiece is Portland’s most significant work of public art, as hinted by the name of the site: Monument Square. The Beaux Arts-style monument exudes the appropriate solemnity of its subject with a hinted wisp of transcendent grace. The monument notes it is dedicated to the 4,000 Portlanders who served in the Civil War and the 300 who gave their lives to the Union cause. Two sides of the magnificent pedestal, designed by the great American architect, William Morris Hunt, feature high-relief sculptures depicting Portland’s soldiers and sailors. The bronze figure that crowns the monument is by Portland’s Franklin Simmons. She is based on Minerva, the goddess of Wisdom and War, but by her name is deeply grounded in Maine’s Catholic heritage. – D.K.
THE BLUEPRINT, Chris Denison, 48 Free St.
The idea of making a full-scale architectural drawing on a building alone is funny, but this mural delivers the concept handsomely as well. It is not only witty, but educational: even a quick glance can help the casual passer-by understand a bit about architecture and how a building is transformed from an idea into reality. This mural gives a quick journey to the world of ideas and abstraction and back. It also delivers a terrific sense of site and reminds the viewer to take a look at the architecture of Portland. Situated quietly on the back side of a building on a one-way street, this mural is a largely hidden gem. – D.K.
A clever, tidy concept. The interplay between the drawing of the building and the building itself is deft. A very successful result. – P.I.
JOHN FORD, George Kelly, Gorham’s Corner, at Fore, Center, Pleasant, York and Danforth streets
It took a woman from Louisiana to put a sculpture of Oscar-winning movie director John Ford in his native city. Until this piece went up in 1998, courtesy of a Ford family friend from the south, Portland had nary a single memorial to this native son, which borders on shameful. Casual and relaxed with his signature hat and pipe, Ford cuts an elegant pose. But this tribute is problematic in its location. It’s not a pedestrian-friendly corner, which means that the written tablets around the base that explain Ford’s accomplishments are lost. But it’s a handsome, if awkward, sculpture nonetheless. – B.K.
TRACING THE FORE, Shauna Gillies-Smith, Fore Street at Boothby Square
By all accounts, the idea for this piece is intelligent, creative and interesting. Yet it does not achieve the legibility needed to be an effective work of public art. The piece is an homage of sorts to the Fore River that once flowed where Fore Street now runs. The long grass hints at the liquidity of the long gone and long forgotten water of the site. However, it just appears as overgrown grass with a few interrupting shards of jagged steel. We are told that in time, the grass will mature and resemble wave action in the wind. Let’s hope so. In the meantime, smart intentions do not save this piece from being a complete failure – D.K.
MOONTIDE GARDEN, Mags Harries and Lajos Hder, International Ferry Terminal
This installation commissioned by the Maine Department of Transportation is an example of a smart concept that fails to make its content legible to the casual viewer. The terminal itself is handsome, so the failure of this site is a particular disappointment. The concept is based on a series of boulders that sit in a stony yard and are marked by aluminum leaf to a line indicated by the highest moon tides of the year — an exciting idea considering the local tides are more than 10 feet. During a regular tide, however, the field is dry and the installation does not make sense unless the viewer reads an explanation. Even then, the impact of the silver fails to offer any visual strength. Further eluding legibility is a series of strips of eelgrass. Do they have any meaning, or are they just filler? – D.K.
ARMILLARY SPHERE (untitled), Pat Plourde, Commercial Street, near Casco Bay Ferry terminal
This is an example of a timid essay in a great location. The concept — a globe on a stand — is mundane, and offering it in rusting steel diminishes it further. Corten steel requires an aesthetic adjustment. It works on large pieces, but on a small piece it looks as though it’s a step away from discard. The skeletal form of the work adds to the feeling of neglect. — P.I.
AMERICAN BASEBALL FAMILY GROUP, Rhoda Sherbell, Hadlock Field
This statue has been controversial from the moment Portland Sea Dogs owner Daniel Burke first tried to give it to the city. The Public Art Committee denied it because the sculpture did not meet the public art ordinance, but the City Council overrode the decision. Outside of the procedural breakdown, however, the sculpture represents Sea Dogs fans as a kitschy and slovenly lot. Sloppy, unfocused and disunited, this caricature is hardly a model family. As a sculpture, it sits awkwardly on a short pedestal. Its fussy details want it to be high up while its human scale wants it to be directly on the walk. Burke’s noble intentions aside, this work fails as sculpture and delivers a particularly unflattering portrait of the people of Portland. – D.K.
This work is a home run. It exemplifies the place of baseball in our popular culture — a bit of folk art, a bit of kitsch, a bit of fun, although one of the children does look a little fiendish. It follows the trend of current work at Cooperstown, and that’s good enough for me. It is also a meticulous record of what we looked like when it was made. That will fascinate generations down the line. Don’t put all public sculpture on a high moral or intellectual “pedestal.” This piece is just where it ought to be — taking us to the ball game. Maybe you’d feel better about it while eating peanuts and Cracker Jacks. — P.I.
CLOUD BENCH AND RUSTLE DIPTYCH II, Vivian Beer, Winslow Park along Baxter Boulevard
I actually think these pieces are handsome. The artist is a graduate of Maine College of Art and has acquitted herself nicely since graduation. It was an honor for her that these pieces were chosen for this project, which was completed in 2008. But this installation suffers from its location. These pieces are too delicate to be grandly viewed by passing traffic. They work better for pedestrians, but even then they fail to stand out and make themselves known. – B.K.