SOUTH PORTLAND – The secret to success is this: When you see a good idea, steal it.

That’s exactly what Bill Alexander did 32 years ago when he ushered in Art in the Park, an event that has become one of South Portland’s crowning cultural attractions.

Described by City Manager James Gailey as “the highlight of the summer in South Portland,” Art in the Park – set for Saturday, Aug. 13, 9 a.m.-5 p.m. – annually fills Mill Creek Park with 185 fine artists, allowing them to display their work in one of the city’s most tranquil settings, alongside festive music, good food and a tons of free fun for the young.

For more on Art in the Park, click here.

The sights, the sounds, the smells – it all combines to make Art in the Park a sensory delight. But what really makes the show, says organizing committee chairwoman Linda Eastman, are the people – attendees, artists and volunteers – who make each year’s event seem less like a picture sale than an “old-home, family reunion.”

In fact, this year the event is dedicated to Mary Kahl, a South Portland resident and longtime Art in the Park volunteer who died last month at the age of 59. Kahl was chairwoman of the event for 11 years, after being active in Art in the Park since 1991.

“I just love it,” said Eastman. “It’s just a really fun day, and I think it’s astounding that a city should for 32 years give this gift to its citizens.”

Perhaps nobody finds that more astounding than Alexander.

“No,” he said with a laugh, from the porch of his Cape Elizabeth home. “I never, ever, would have guessed it would have lasted this long.”

It all started in 1978 when then-Mayor Terry Christy created a “quality-of-life committee” and tasked it with finding out what residents wanted from their city, in services and amenities. Alexander, who’d emigrated only a few years before from Westerly, R.I., to become South Portland’s library director, thought the question over. He recalled an annual art exhibit held in a Westerly park, next to the town library, called – not coincidently – Art in the Park.

Alexander put forward the possibility of staging a similar show in Mill Creek Park and, just as quickly, found himself drafted to rough out the particulars.

He soon hooked horns with Pauline Hinman, who was the local PR person for McDonald’s at the time, and Gene Guthrie, owner of a Broadway frame shop. Together, the trio approached Art Hahn, a WCSH-TV employee who co-founded Portland’s sidewalk art show. Hahn was willing to share his list of artists and, armed with invites, the South Portland organizers were on their way.

“We actually ended up getting 85 artists that first year,” said Alexander, still seeming half-surprised.

Today, Art in the Park is capped at 185 artists, including photographers, who were added by popular demand after the first few years.

“We keep it at 185,” said event administrator Mary Perry, “because bigger is not always better.” As it is, the park is “packed,” said Alexander.

Still, the public “didn’t really leap right up” to embrace Art in the Park, Alexander said. “Those first years, there were probably more parents who came to see the student work than the public,” he said. “It was nowhere near the attendance there is now. There were times when there weren’t 50 people in the park, but we kept at it. We thought it was a good idea, a worthy effort, and nobody told us we were a failure.”

Eventually, the show caught on, but there certainly were lessons along the way – from the size and amounts of prizes, to exactly what constituted fine art, to concern that musicians might actually distract attendees from the principal purpose of the event.

Then there were the more spectacular oopsies, often seeming to involve the pond. On the night before the inaugural show, artist numbers were written on pie plates and stapled to wooden stakes at each space. Volunteers who arrived the next morning found spirited youngsters had transformed the plates, first into makeshift Frisbees, then into flotsam for the pond. Another year, a gust of wind blew an artist’s tent, paintings in all, into the drink. Who, demanded the irate artist, was going to pay for the destroyed works?

“We got a lot of grief,” said Alexander with a laugh. “Sometimes I was like, ‘Oh, God, what are they going to come after me for next?’ We were new at it, and some of the artists weren’t very forgiving.”

But, before too many years went by, Art in the Park went from being an event that was considered a success if it broke even to one that actually contributed to the town in its own right.

The Art in the Park committee soon found itself flush enough to buy materials for the first gazebo in the park (built by the public works crew), as well as an eventual replacement. It paid for a new fountain and gave $5,000 to the Green Belt Pathway. Eventually, it began to offer a scholarship each year to a local graduating senior who meant to study art.

“I think, over the years, Art in the Park has become a real attraction,” said Alexander. “For years, South Portland had an identity that was just ‘The Mall.’ That’s not really much of a cultural identity.”

Certainly, what Alexander and others helped to create, and what Eastman, Perry and others try to perpetuate, has proven to be something South Portlanders can point to with pride.

Perhaps nothing attests to the quality of Art in the Park so much as the number of artists, despite those admitted early stumbles, who return year after year.

In fact, two painters – Dudley Bostwick, of Cape Elizabeth, and Shirley Lewis, of Bath – have participated in every event to date.

“Yup, getting a little long in the tooth,” said Lewis, 78. “I don’t do too many outdoor shows anymore, but that’s one I make a point to get to.”

At age 83, Bostwick can’t set up his booth any longer. He depends on his wife, Mary, and helpers to do that, but he said he, too, wouldn’t miss the show.

“I like people, period,” he said, “but I’ve always liked the people who run the South Portland show. They’re very nice people, and the setting is perfect.”

“It’s one of my favorite places,” agreed Lewis. “The park is nice and the show is very well run. It’s just a pleasure to be there.”

The Bostwicks used to do the Portland show, but gave it up after Dudley won Best Artist in 1985. The sidewalk event, like many of its ilk, is “hot, dirty and dusty,” they say. Art in the Park, on the other hand, is “relaxed” and “serene.”

“It just seems like people are so much more at ease,” said Mary Bostwick. “South Portland’s is a happy art show.

“It’s a very good show,” agreed Dudley Bostwick, adding with a laugh. “The ducks add a great deal.”

“I’ve always sold well there,” he said, “but I’d go even if I didn’t. I like to go just because it’s a real nice way to visit with some really nice people.

“I’ll keep going until the day I die.”

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