May 16, 2010

Society notebook: So happy together

By Avery Yale Kamila
Staff Writer

Sock monkeys, forged steel, polished emeralds – creativity took endless forms at Thursday night’s five-story party at the Maine College of Art. Called MECAmorphosis, the affair celebrated the completion of renovations to the Porteous Building and the consolidation of all the school’s departments under one roof in the heart of Portland’s Arts District.
Each floor featured something different, including bars, appetizer stations and art-making demos. Like all the guests, I began my party journey in the first-floor lobby, where I had a chance to chat with gallerist, alum and trustee Andres Verzosa, Space Gallery Director Nat May, “Maine Home+Design” Associate Publisher Steve Kelly, and the college’s Vice President for Advancement Tim Kane and Public Relations Director Jessica Tomlinson.
Then I followed the crowd up the open central staircase to the fifth floor, all of us drawn by the pull of the cocktails and the sushi bar. Here one of the first people I spotted was Candace Pilk Karu, chair of the board of trustees. She was standing with her son, Tim Karu, who just graduated from Emerson College with a master of arts degree. Wearing a one-of-a-kind knit sock monkey dress, Candace was hard to miss. A sock monkey collector, she designed the dress and commissioned Minneapolis-based designer Rebecca Yaker to create it. The dress was the talk of the party and truly lived up to the invite’s edict to wear “creative party attire.”
Nearby I ran into birthday girl Lynnelle Wilson, Sarah Wallace and Greg Daly, who, along with Candace, rule the local Twitterverse. They were joined by singer/songwriter Jonathan Edwards, who doesn’t tweet but was toting an impressive portrait that Martha Miller had whipped out in 15 minutes in a studio on the fourth floor.
No doubt I would have hung out near the bar all night, but Anne Zill, the director of the University of New England Art Gallery and one of the founders of the Maine Museum of Photographic Arts, introduced me to MECA alum and thoracic-surgeon-turned-sculptor Ed Friedman. He suggested we take a tour of the adjacent forge room.
That’s where I met alums and sculptors Vivian Beer and Farrell Ruppert. They were stoking a coal fire in the forge and bending red hot steel that would eventually become a series of lanterns.
Both graduated in 2000, which means their freshman year coincided with the first year MECA began its move into the Porteous Building.
“The fifth floor was open,” Beer recalled of the college’s early days in the building in 1996. “The fourth floor was painting. The second floor was a wasteland. It was really like the wild, wild West. The walls were blank. There was nothing in here.”
Ruppert told a similar story.
“It was bare bones,” he said. “It was skateboarding up and down the halls. It felt like we owned the place. There were places you could hide.”
Not being one to hide at a party, I soon found myself back at the bar admiring the exquisite gold and emerald bead necklace worn by jeweler and alum Stephani Briggs.
While she never studied in the building, she did shop there when it used to be Portland’s flagship department store. Briggs noted it was the place to get staples such as “underwear, pantyhose and shoes.”
Fellow jeweler Devta Doolan, who was sporting one of his yummy gold and turquoise rings, said “I used to come in here and ride the elevator. They had an elevator operator. It was opulent.”
Briggs is married to Dana Sawyer, the chair of the college’s liberal arts department, which was one of the final academic areas to move into the Porteous Building.
“They’ve been telling me for 14 years that liberal arts would be in this building,” Sawyer said. “After 12 years I gave up.”
At the end of last year, the promise finally was fulfilled. Now that all the departments are together, Sawyer said “it’s like after a family has healed a rift and everyone’s sitting at the same table at Thanksgiving.”
Newly minted alums Brittany Marcoux, Katie Uffelman and Gregory O’Neill, who graduated last weekend, heaped similar praise on the consolidated building.
“We’re all connected now,” said Marcoux, who majored in photography, which was another late comer to the building. “We didn’t know anyone before. It’s been a nice switch.”
The guest of honor at the party was former MECA President Roger Gilmore, who led the college from 1989 to 2001. Even though he told me he “gets too much credit,” he was the one who had the vision to consolidate the college in the former department store (and who talked down the asking price from $2.8 million to less than $600,000).
“You come into one building and it’s all here under one roof,” Gilmore said, gesturing up the grand red staircase at the physical manifestation of his idea people once called crazy. “It makes such a difference when everyone is side by side.”

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Tim Karu and his mother Candace Pilk Karu, who is the chair of the trustees and the goddess of sock monkey dresses.

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Kathy Mills, a former staff member, Beth Elicker, the executive vice president, Katherine Harmon Harding, a continuing studies teacher, and Ralph Harding, a trustee.

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Greg Day, Tracy Davis, Karee Rhoades, Gretchen Petrone and Michael Tolley.

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Trustee Mary Schendel, with a portrait created by Martha Miller, and Vice President of Advancement Tim Kane.

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Lauren Fensterstock, interim director of MECA's Institute of Contemporary Art, and Aaron Stephan.

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