PORTLAND – It’s a performance piece, an abstract sculpture and a roadside attraction – all rolled into one perfectly round ball of hay.
It wobbles atop a Toyota Yaris belonging to Portland artist Michael Shaughnessy.
The “Hay Ball,” as he calls it, has been a familiar sight in Portland since he weaved it together with twine and rolled it out of his garage two years ago.
Shaughnessy enjoys the puzzlement and amusement it evokes. As he drives around the city, people point and smile.
“Sometimes they burst into cheers,” he says during a drive down Congress Street. “It’s good to hear that.”
A small crowd gathers as Shaughnessy parks on Exchange Street. Tom Scarpa, owner of Scarpa’s Restaurant, looks out the window and sees what appears to be a giant tennis ball.
He runs outside and shouts to Shaughnessy, “Hey, what’s that for?”
“It’s exactly what we are doing now – a conversation piece,” Shaughnessy replies.
Scarpa pokes at the Hay Ball. “Isn’t that cool?” he says. “A ball of hay. Just to make people go and say, ‘What the hell is that?’“
But is it art?
“I think the answer is definitely yes,” said Bruce Brown, curator emeritus at the Center for Maine Contemporary Art. “It’s a wild and brilliant idea.”
Brown saw the Hay Ball earlier this year on Dana Street, while Shaughnessy stood on a stepladder and pretended to give it a trim with hedge clippers.
“Any material these days is acceptable as an artist’s medium if they say so, and it’s a sculpted object that he has created,” Brown said.
Affable and easygoing, Shaughnessy, 54, wears a frumpy Stetson hat and appears more like a laid-back farmer than an artist.
He teaches sculpture at the University of Southern Maine and has built a long career making art from hay, which he weaves through bailing twine over a wooden substructure.
His twisted and gangly abstract creations, some of which take up an entire wall, have been shown at the Bates College Museum of Art, the Space Gallery in Portland, the Lehman Art Gallery in New York and the Mesa Arts Center in Arizona.
Shaughnessy won the 2011 Portland Museum of Art Biennial Jurors’ Prize for his sculpture “Cascade, Current and Pool (For the Vanquished Falls of the Presumpscot River),” which featured twisted, tentacle-like threads of hay crawling up a lobby wall, mimicking the eddies of the Presumpscot River.
He said he likes working with hay because it’s an earthy, working-class material that’s associated with agriculture and ancient objects such as basketry and thatch roofs.
It took him a couple of days to build the Hay Ball, which is 2½ feet in diameter. Riding on his car, it looks ready to wobble off at any moment. Shaughnessy insists that it’s secure, and so far police haven’t questioned him about it.
For Shaughnessy, a big part of the project is interaction with the public.
He likes photographing the Hay Ball in various lighting, such as under a streetlight or at a gas station at night. He often photographs people standing in front of it so it appears as a kind of corona, or halo, around their heads. He considers the photographs part of the work.
In fact, he wants people to submit their own photos of the Hay Ball to the project’s Facebook page.
Shaughnessy said he’s ready to introduce the Hay Ball to the nation. He plans to drive it to the Pacific Ocean and back. He’ll document the trip with video cameras attached to both sides of his Toyota and compile it all into a video and book.
When he embarks on his solo, two-month journey in two weeks or so, he’ll become an ad hoc ambassador for Maine’s quirky art scene.
“In effect, this is like taking a bit of Maine creativity on the road,” he said.
Shaughnessy plans to roughly trace the journey taken 52 years ago by John Steinbeck, who wrote a famous travelogue about his encounters with ordinary Americans, called “Travels with Charley.”
Steinbeck’s French poodle, Charley, was an icebreaker when Steinbeck met with strangers. The Hay Ball will serve the same purpose, Shaughnessy says.
He hopes to raise $14,000 for the project by Aug. 18 using Kickstarter, a crowd-funding website for creative projects. He has raised more than $1,500 so far.
Investors will get email updates and postcards from the road, and can help shape the journey by suggesting destinations and meeting places.
The goal of the project, Shaughnessy says on Kickstarter, is the journey itself and the “wonder and delight it produces, the interactions it enables, and the interesting situations evoked by a simple but perplexing object on a car.”
Dan Porter, an executive in a research and analysis firm, donated $50 to the project. He likes the message.
“It’s the whimsical nature of what he’s doing, combined with the underlying theme of individuality in an increasingly homogenized word,” Porter said.
Shaughnessy says the Hay Ball tends to develop its own persona and he sees himself as its caretaker.
“It see it as this thing that I drive around with, and people seem to be drawn to,” he says. “New insights are constantly being revealed. It shows me about human nature and how people relate to each other. I’m sure on this journey I will learn more and more.”
Staff Writer Tom Bell can be contacted at 791-6369 or at: