PORTLAND — A new public art project at the University of Southern Maine’s Muskie School of Public Service draws inspiration from the classic idea of democratic citizenship and service to community.

The artist, Mark Wethli of Brunswick, did not allow the discord of the current political climate to knock him off the lofty ideals he wanted his art to achieve.

“Given its place at the Muskie School, ‘Civitas’ seemed like the most appropriate name for a public artwork that is meant to celebrate the virtues of civic life and community service,” said Wethli, who teaches art at Bowdoin College. “In the current political climate, however, its aspirations feel a bit threadbare — more prescriptive than descriptive given the rapidly diminishing sense of civility and compassion in government and public life.”

Wethli installed the wall-hanging wood sculpture just before Christmas. USM will celebrate the completion of the piece with a public reception from 3 to 5 p.m. today.

“Civitas” hangs on an interior atrium facade of the Muskie school, in the Wishcamper Center at USM on Bedford Street. It’s a three-dimensional piece, 35 feet across and as much as 6 feet tall. It is made of interconnected pieces of poplar, painted with milk paint.

It is an abstract piece, crawling along the wall with point-counterpoint rhythmic cadence.

The artist said the site appealed to him because of its “overall proportions and light-filled quality. It feels a bit like a piazza, a town square or a sidewalk cafe, which is a great setting for a school of public service.”

He hopes the piece draws together the disparate design elements of the room, including mullioned windows on interior walls, a circular staircase, overlooking balconies and a curved wall.

Wethli used his engineering skills to install “Civitas.” The piece has 10 sections, each section made from at least 30 pieces of wood. To install it, Wethli and a team of assistants routed inverted keyhole hanging slots on the back of each piece. It took him six months to build it and two solid days to install it.

This is the second public art piece that Wethli has completed for USM. The flat painting “Locus” adorns a wall at the nearby Osher Map Library. After he was selected for the Osher project, Wethli was invited to apply for the Muskie project. Each piece speaks to the unique nature of its site, and is tied to the other by its common ideals and abstract lines.

The budget for both was $50,000, funded by the state’s Percent for Art program.

Although he is best known as a painter — Wethli’s color-grid mural at the Portland Museum of Art has become a landmark — Wethli considers himself a handy woodworker.

“I am certainly a painter first and foremost, and feel a little bit like Bill Shatner cutting a record when I even start to think of myself as a sculptor … but I’d put my sculpting abilities up against Captain Kirk’s singing abilities any day of the week,” he said.

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

[email protected]

Twitter: pphbkeyes