March 11, 2010

Meet Mister


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Staff Photo by Shawn Patrick Ouellette: Artist Jaimie Gili projects images of his paintings on oil tanks in Portland Harbor Monday, May 11, 2009.

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Staff Photo by Shawn Patrick Ouellette: Artist Jaimie Gili who was commissioned to paint oil tanks in Portland Harbor in South Portland Monday, May 11, 2009.

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Staff Writer

PORTLAND — Jaime Gili laughs at the question: What made you want to become an artist?

''Because I think I couldn't be anything else,'' he says.

Gili, 36, was chosen last fall as the winning artist in the Maine Center for Creativity's Art All Around design contest for oil tanks owned by Sprague Energy in South Portland. He was born in Venezuela, educated in Barcelona and works and lives in London.

He was in town last week to huddle with Sprague engineers and the Maine-based painters who will actually paint the tanks, to hammer out details, and to review the six-color specifications.

While in town, he hosted a gallery talk at Whitney Art Works on Congress Street, which is showing a small sampling of his work in the group exhibition ''Stratum,'' and he offered a sneak peek at what one of the tanks will probably look like by projecting elements of his design after dark.

Motorists driving by on Veterans Memorial Bridge after sundown last Monday might have noticed, if they were paying attention.

Gili's whirlwind tour of Portland also included dinner with Portland artist Aaron T. Stephan, whose sky-reaching sculpture, ''Boom,'' will anchor the Portland end of the Veterans Memorial Bridge. Gili's painted tanks will be at the other end, and while both projects are independent of one another, the artists hope and expect their work will interact in unforeseen ways, transforming what has traditionally been an industrial section of Portland Harbor into a place for modern art.

''I think what you'll see is that they will play off each other somehow,'' said Stephan, who met Gili for the first time at dinner and accompanied him to the after-dark projection. ''Just the idea of substantial public art is important. Gradually, it is entering the public psyche, which is pretty cool.''


The installation of Stephan's 60-foot sculpture should begin later this year, while the painting of the tanks is scheduled to begin this summer. If the schedule holds, Gili's blazing, zig-zag designs will be painted on three tanks by the end of the year.

The goal is to paint eight tanks and eight tank tops over the next three years -- a total of 261,000 square feet of surface, requiring as much as 4,500 gallons of paint to create art that will be visible to satellites in space.

The project is being paid for with private money raised by the Maine Center for Creativity, a Portland-based nonprofit dedicated to the growth of the arts and creative industries. The budget for the project is $1.2 million, said Jean Maginnis, the center's director.

When it's all completed, Gili (pronounced ''jill-ey'') will have earned the distinction of creating one of the largest -- if not the largest-- public art projects in the world. Some of the installations by the French artist Christo have been larger, but Christo's work is temporary. Gili's tank project is designed as a permanent piece of art.

His motivation for entering the international contest that resulted in his selection had everything to do with the challenge. He wanted the largest painting surface available, and wanted to pioneer an international movement toward making art that is viewable on Google Earth and other similar programs.

''From the very beginning, I was interested in the possibility of seeing it from the satellites,'' Gili said. ''That's why I entered, and that's my motivation still. My paintings have had a tendency of not staying in the canvas and taking over a large space. It's a natural progression for me to create paintings that keep getting bigger, bigger and bigger.''


Since it was announced a few years ago, Art All Around has been a convenient target for critics. Among the complaints: The idea of painting oil tanks is old; the art community ought not partner with a private energy company for moral and ethical reasons; the project should be open only to Maine artists.

As the artist selected to paint the tanks, Gili has absorbed the barbs, and has become easy prey for anonymous online critics. He's not applied a single stroke of paint to any of the tanks, but already people have condemned his work.

Gili is not fazed by the criticism, or deterred. To make art on such a grand scale, he said, an artist must have a big ego.

And he does.

He is confident that people will applaud his work when it is finished, if they only give it a chance. He understands the concerns of those who object to the project because of its association with fossil fuels. But no matter how you feel about that issue, the tanks are still going to be there.

Given that, they might as well look good, he says: ''The only thing that somebody could say is that they look better plain, but they don't.''

As for the notion that the painted tanks are an old idea, Gili dismissed that too. Yes, oil tanks have been painted before, he said, but never before have they been painted on this scale for the explicit purpose of being seen from space. That idea, he said, is new, and Portland should garner attention as a creative and progressive place because of it.

And of the criticism that this project should have been given over to a Maine artist, Gili noted that his proposal was judged anonymously. Only when the five finalists were announced were their identities revealed. Two of the five were from Maine, so local artists received due consideration, he said.

Further, the actual painting will be done by a local business. Sprague will use its Maine-based contractor, which it hires to paint all of its tanks, to execute Gili's vision.

Mark Bessire, director of the Portland Museum of Art and one of the jurors who selected Gili's art for the tanks, called Gili ''the right artist at the right time. He's got a lot knowledge about public art, and he knows how to work with a corporation like Sprague, how to work with a community. He's got all the tools. I just feel that we ended up with the right person.''


To be sure, Gili is a hot artist at the moment. In the past few years, he has completed major public and private art projects across the globe -- in London, Amsterdam, Netherlands, Caracas, Venezuela, Miami and New York, among other cities.

In April, he completed a temporary installation at the Bloomberg corporate space in London that transformed existing skyscraper architecture into an explosion of color. What once was drab suddenly became vibrant.

Writing about the project, a critic said of Gili's work, ''His art constantly wrestles with the relationships between order and disorder, unity and multiplicity, containment and dispersal, system and randomness, discipline and spontaneity. Probably the only way to fail in this game is to be boring, and Gili's work is never that. It always contains the potential for exploration, for discovery.''

That is Gili's hope with the oil tank project.

His design is a series of abstract triangular, colorful forms -- apparent random slashes and stripes of mostly blue, green and brown, with lesser amounts of red and black. The design presumes that people will see it in transit, either by car, train, plane or boat. It is a dynamic design that will give the appearance of change as one's perspective with the tanks shifts.

When seen from above, the tank tops will appear to connect, with a pattern hopping from one top to another.

Gili said public art has always been a part of his vocabulary. Growing up in Caracas, he saw buses and buildings adorned in colorful paint and posters all the time. It was part of the cultural tradition of Latin America.

He suspects the society-wide acceptance of bold public images influenced him from a very early age and sent him down this path. He's always been a visual thinker and always sought out color.

''This is all I have ever known,'' he said, ''and all that I have ever really wanted to do.''

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

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Additional Photos

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Staff Photo by Shawn Patrick Ouellette: Artist Jaimie Gili projects images of his paintings on oil tanks in Portland Harbor Monday, May 11, 2009.


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