Mark Wethli posted this on his Facebook page at 12:13 a.m. Jan. 1:
“First New Year’s Resolution: Finish Mural.”
Resolution met and conquered.
Wethli, who teaches art at Bowdoin College in Brunswick, used his winter break to complete a painted mural on a wall of the Osher Map Library at the University of Southern Maine in Portland. The mural greeted USM students when they returned to campus from winter break earlier this month.
Wethli’s painting, “Locus,” is the second high-profile public art project completed in the Portland area in recent months through the state’s Percent for Art program. In December, Portland sculptor Aaron Stephan culminated nine months of work with the installation of the piece “RE: turn,” which mimics an old-growth tree in the atrium of the new Westbrook Middle School.
Both projects represent new work from two of Maine’s busiest and most accomplished contemporary artists working in the public realm.
Until a decade or so ago, Wethli spent most of his time alone in the studio making representational two-dimension paintings of domestic interiors. But when he was presented with the opportunity to paint a mural at a hospital, he found his career changing in a dramatic, public way.
“I went from being a guy working quietly in a studio every day to being engaged with committees and fellow workers. It was a much more dynamic experience,” he said. “I know a lot of artists who do not want the hassle of doing public art. They do not want to work with committees. But I love the challenge. These committees are composed of people with different visions, and as an artist I must engage all of their visions and come up with something that fulfils their needs and my needs as an artist.”
The USM project has two related elements. The first is “Locus,” which is Latin for “place.” The second, which is still in progress and won’t be finished until summer, involves taking a design motif from “Locus,” repeating it as a low-relief wood sculpture, and wall-mounting it above the entrance to the Muskie School of Public Service at the nearby Wishcamper Center.
Wethli is calling that piece “Civitas” in tribute to the nature of public service.
The “Locus” mural presents itself as an amalgamation of mossy-green geometric shapes and connected lines. Wethli, the author of the “Transom” color grid at the Great Hall of the Portland Museum of Art, took a cue from his surroundings when he conceived the idea.
Both the painting and the sculpture are rooted in a sense of place and very much inspired by their setting. Wethli designed both to work in tandem with one another, to tie the buildings together.
For “Locus,” he turned to an old friend: Buckminster Fuller (1895-1983). Wethli has long admired the American engineer and inventor and conceded that he is, metaphorically speaking, a lifelong member of the Buckminster Fuller fan club.
Fuller, who spent some of his youth in Maine, is best known for designing geometric domes, but is also famous for creating what is known as the Dymaxion map, which shows the continents with minimum distortion when printed on a flat surface.
He reasoned there are not seven continents, but one long continent.
Wethli has always been attracted to that kind of thinking. “He saw the earth as having one long, beautiful thread. It’s a beautiful idea, the continents strung together like pearls on a string,” he said.
A representation of Fuller’s Dymaxion map is etched into the exterior skin of the library building. Wethli simply brought that idea from the outside in, and represented his vision of the map on the slightly curved wall that leads to the entrance of the library.
His mural measures 9 feet by 27 feet. Its background is a cool green, the sort of color we associate with topographical maps. Overlaid on the cool green background is a series of lines that connect and intersect. Wethli’s overlay idea is loosely based on an ancient painting by Ambrogio Lorenzetti, “The Effects of Good Government” in Siena, Italy — but very loosely.
“I feel like this design, in the context of a map library, resembles an abstraction of a map, whether you’re thinking of roadways, air routes or other ways we mark the way from here to there,” Wethli said.
‘LOTS, LOTS, LOTS OF LABOR’
Stephan’s project required nine months of hard labor. He grew a tree in the atrium of the Westbrook Middle School.
It’s a gorgeous, leafless, canopied representation of a tree from an old-growth forest. Stephan used lumber reclaimed from the bowels of Moosehead Lake to make his tree, which measures about 25 feet high and 16 feet wide, branch to branch.
Like Wethli, Stephan looked to his surroundings for ideas. The new school is situated near the old Oxford-Cumberland Canal, which connected Sebago Lake with Stroudwater Village in the late 1800s. Westbrook was an important stop along the way, and Stephan’s project is an homage to Westbrook’s history as a lumber, pulp and paper hub.
“RE: turn” helps make the argument that Westbrook’s very reason for being may well be wrapped up in the trunk of a tree. It seemed like a perfect element for a learning environment, he said.
Stephan called this project “more of a challenge than I thought it would be, which is saying a lot. It was a lot of, lot of, lot of labor. Pretty much my whole year was dedicated to making that.”
As time wore on, Stephan realized the absurdity of his project. He was taking wood from old trees, processing it so he could handle it in the studio, and then reassembling it in small pieces to create a finished work of art that looks exactly like what this wood might have resembled when it was green and growing.
“That pretty much became my day-to-day activity, making a tree out of wood in the studio in the most meticulous way possible. So yes, it was absurd,” he said.
“Meticulous” aptly describes the process. Stephan received his wood in 8-foot rough sections. He milled the wood and made thin pieces of tapered laminates. He shaped and vacuum-pressed the laminates together to create the tree form, which he then sanded several times over.
He finished the tree with many coats of Fubulon, which is best known as a bowling alley-quality wood finish. It stands up to rough treatment, and Stephan has long favored its strength. “It glows for me,” he said.
Stephan made the tree in his studio. He has a big studio, but only 8-foot ceilings, so he had to build the tree sideways and in small sections.
The tree has about 100 pieces. It took Stephan and two assistants a full weekend to assemble it at the Westbrook Middle School one weekend in early December.
Students and teachers had quite a surprise when they showed up for school the following Monday.
Stephan finished the tree just in time. His year is quite busy. He has a show of new work with Kathy Bradford that opens Feb. 16 at Aucocisco Galleries in Portland, in which he is showing a group of drawings.
He is also working on a public art project for Cambridge, Mass., that involves funky designs for bike racks.
But what is occupying most of his mind and time these days is a major solo show at the DeCordova Sculpture Park and Museum in Lincoln, Mass., scheduled for 2012.
Staff Writer Bob Keyes can be contacted at 791-6457 or at:
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