In 1854, a mob associated with the Know Nothing party – a colloquial name for a political movement empowered by fear that the country was being overwhelmed by immigrants – burned down a Catholic church in Bath where Irish newcomers worshipped.

In 1923, hundreds of robed members of the Ku Klux Klan mobilized in Portland as a show of strength to intimidate “foreign-born” members of the community.

And under the cover of dark in Augusta in 2014, an unknown vandal threw a rock that smashed the front window of an Iraqi grocery store on Northern Avenue. The vandal was not caught, so a motive was never determined, though it was assumed by many to be a hate crime.

Around Maine this winter and spring, artists, writers and historians are mounting exhibitions that address Maine’s long-standing fear of people “from away” in an effort to provide context to the current political dialogue about immigration and America’s best path forward in its age-old struggle to welcome newcomers.

At the Holocaust and Human Rights Center of Maine in Augusta, program director David Greenham paid $600 to have the broken window removed from Mainly Groceries on Sand Hill, a neighborhood with a long history of welcoming immigrants. He installed the broken window as the centerpiece of a new display, “Yearning to Breathe Free: The Immigrant Experience in Maine.” The exhibition tells the stories of people and agencies in Maine who are working to help welcome new Mainers into their communities.

There’s a display about The Telling Room, a Portland writing center that teaches self-expression through writing; New Mainers Speak, a WMPG radio show that gives air time to the new residents; and the Artists Rapid Response Team, a group of visual artists who make banners in support of justice, equality and equal rights for all.

 Pigeon's Mainer

Pigeon’s “Mainer”

The broken window is a reminder of the challenges they face.

It’s a simple, rectangular storefront pane of glass with lettering announcing the name of the market and its phone number. A large spider crack radiates from one side and across the middle. There is little adornment or anything dramatic about its presentation.

Greenham hopes it’s enough to encourage people to think about why we act the way we do.

“It’s a statement about why we don’t treat each other and things around us better,” Greenham said. “It’s really that simple. We don’t know who did this, and we don’t know whether it was done because the store had Arabic in the window or not. There are a lot of stores in Maine with Arabic in the window that don’t get hit. But we know that it happened.”

Regardless of the motive of the vandal, the broken window sent a message to Augusta’s Iraqi community: You are not welcome here.

Greenham wants to send another message: You are welcome, and you enrich our community with your diversity.

ORSON HORCHLER, a street artist who uses the name Pigeon, recently installed poster-sized portraits of five new Mainers on the exterior columns of the Maine Historical Society on Congress Street in Portland. Their images are rendered in shades of gray and shadowy tones, and affixed to the urban columns with wheat paste. Underneath each face is the word “Mainer” in block letters.

It’s the fourth time Horchler has installed these posters. He put them up, illegally, last summer on a vacant storefront at Congress and High streets, and he has installed them with permission in Berwick and Farmington. He will hang them this spring as part of the exhibition at the Holocaust and Human Rights Center. Each time he installs them, he adds a new face.

Horchler got the idea for the posters last summer when a court affirmed Gov. Paul LePage’s decision to deny General Assistance reimbursements to people seeking asylum in Maine. That’s when he adopted the street name Pigeon and began thinking about ways to remind people that Mainers come in many different colors.

Horchler is a white European. He was born in the suburbs of Paris, and his French accent has been toned down by his geographic wanderlust.

He moved to Maine when he was 18. His dad is from Maine, and he felt naturally drawn to the state because of family connections. But it took a long time for him to feel connected, in part because he felt judged for being “from away.”

The idea that you have to be a native or your family must have lived several generations in Maine before being considered a Mainer is offensive, immoral and often racist, he said.

After Sept. 11, 2001, he felt a sea of angry eyes cast his way, he said. In 2002, he was working a construction job in Orland when a coworker took a swing at him because of his accent, Horchler said. His supposed buddy thought he might be associated with European terrorists.

Horchler’s project is his way of saying that Mainers come in many colors. He makes charcoal-on-paper portraits of Mainers he knows – friends, acquaintances – then turns the drawings into posters. The drawings themselves, as well as preparatory sketches, are installed in the Maine Historical Society gallery, in tandem with the “400 Years of News Mainers” exhibition that examines through historic and contemporary photography the arc of immigration in Maine and the conflicts that have arisen because of it.

“With Pigeon, my main goal is to confront all the things that tell people they don’t belong in the place they live,” said Horchler, 37, who lives in Portland. “It’s that simple.”

 A smashed storefront window from a grocery store owned by an Iranian-born immigrant in Augusta is part of “Yearning to Breathe Free: The Immigrant Experience in Maine” at the Holocaust and Human Rights Center of Maine in Augusta. Gabe Souza/Staff Photographer

A smashed storefront window from a grocery store owned by an Iranian-born immigrant in Augusta is part of “Yearning to Breathe Free: The Immigrant Experience in Maine” at the Holocaust and Human Rights Center of Maine in Augusta. Gabe Souza/Staff Photographer

Kate McBrien, chief curator at Maine Historical, pairs Horchler’s street art with Jan Pieter van Voorst van Beest’s contemporary portraits of new Mainers, and displays them in context with historical photographs and paintings that document immigration in Maine.

The pictures and portraits of Mainers of color hanging among photographs of Klan rallies and paintings of 19th-century mobs burning churches create a powerful and numbing message. “It reminds us that most of the issues we are talking about today are not new,” McBrien said. “These are issues we have been talking about for hundreds of years. There are different groups of people and different perspectives, but it’s all the same issue, of someone new coming into a society and leaving an impact and causing a reaction.”

Van Beest began his portrait project a decade ago, and he thought it culminated with the 2009 publication of his “New Mainers” book by Tilbury House. But the interest has endured, and van Beest is exploring the possibility of a follow-up book. Meanwhile, he continues to show his black-and-white portraits.

“Today, with all the rhetoric going on with the presidential election and also with the international fallout from the war in Syria and the resulting refugee problems in Europe, the subject keeps being pretty current,” he said.

The currency of the issue prompted the Maine Humanities Council and the Maine Arts Commission to create a one-time grant program to encourage arts organization to create programming to honor the 14th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. Passed by Congress 150 years ago, it granted citizenship and equal civil and legal rights to African Americans and slaves who were emancipated after the Civil War. The amendment also laid the groundwork for many of the essential rights of all Americans.

Several key Supreme Court decisions, including those granting black students equal access to public education and gay couples equal marriage rights, hinged on the amendment, noted Hayden Anderson, executive director of the Maine Humanities Council.

The grant program is designed to encourage arts organizations to create new work – performance, visual arts, multimedia – that explores themes of equality in gender, race, sexuality and educational opportunities, or even just the broad concept of liberty and what that means in today’s society.

Grants are available for up to $1,000. The deadline for applying is April 25.

“The cool thing about the 14th Amendment, and the things we are trying to get at, is the history of how that amendment has been interpreted over the years, and trace how we as Americans have thought about inclusion, equality and who’s in and who’s out,” Anderson said. “We want to have a conversation about what equality means to us nowadays and how our thoughts on that issue have changed and evolved.”

A poster here, seen in the main hallway reads " New Mainers Grow a Stronger Portland." Gabe Souza/Staff Photographer

A poster here, seen in the main hallway reads “New Mainers Grow a Stronger Portland.” Gabe Souza/Staff Photographer

Horchler hopes the conversations change how Mainers think and refer to people who come from elsewhere.

“I’d like to figure out why it’s so hard for so many people to accept us who are ‘from away,’ as they say,” Horchler said.


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