I don’t know how artists do it.

Month after month, they labor away in the studio, channeling their creative juices into their latest masterpiece. Then comes the day of the big unveiling and inevitably, some killjoy at the back of an otherwise silent crowd says, “What the hell is that?”

“It’s what I do,” Portland sculptor Aaron T Stephan said last week. “I always say I’d be more worried if I created sculpture that everybody likes than if it were one that a few people don’t like.”

Good for him. Because Stephan, commissioned by the city of Portland last week to create a piece of public art for the city’s soon-to-be-overhauled Woodfords Corner intersection, is already getting it in both ears – and he’s yet to come up with so much as a rough sketch.

As City Councilor Ed Suslovic, who voted against the $25,000 expenditure, put it so succinctly during Monday’s council session, “The challenge with public art is always that it is public.”

Here’s the problem: Among Stephan’s existing body of work are two sculptures, one in Farmington and the other in Texas, in which he took clusters of everyday streetlights and reconfigured them into, shall we say, something different.

The Portland Public Art Committee, from whose budget surplus the project will be funded, wants Stephan to come up with something similar for what will eventually be a small plaza in front of the Odd Fellows Hall at Woodfords Corner.

Local reaction to photos of the streetlight sculptures in Farmington and Texas, however, has been mixed at best.

“It seems clear that many in the community are not all that enthused about this cluster of lights,” Councilor Nick Mavodones noted before joining Suslovic on the losing side of a 6-3 vote to proceed with the project.

(He’s right: One Portland Press Herald reader commented the next morning that the light sculptures look like the aftermath of a tornado. Observed another: “This disordered spectacle renders one speechless.”)

Still, it could be worse. Back in 2011, after four years of howling from the business folk in Portland’s Boothby Square, “Tracing the Fore” by Cambridge, Massachusetts, landscape artist Shauna Gillies-Smith was unceremoniously uprooted and sold to a sole bidder for $100. (It was either that or a scrap metal dealer.)

The $135,000 work, composed of aluminum “waves” and a specialized grass that quickly succumbed to weeds, was nicknamed “Sawblades” and “Razorblades” by the 150 petitioners who successfully pleaded with City Hall to get rid of it.

“It definitely was frustrating and disappointing,” Gillies-Smith told The New York Times after her work was run out of town.

Stephan, 42, heard the grumbling last week about his pending streetlight creation. Didn’t faze him a bit.

“I’m totally conscious, especially with a project like this, that it’s certainly riding that line (between widespread acclaim and outright insurrection), which I like a lot,” he said.

He’s not kidding.

Two years ago, as part of his first solo exhibit at the Portland Museum of Art, Stephan included a series of audio recordings from calls he made to pay-per-minute phone-sex lines. But rather than talk about, well, you know, he engaged the women who answered in discussions about art.

“You probably won’t even think it’s art but I think Thomas Kinkade is pretty awesome,” one of the madams told Stephan. “I mean, OK, so it’s on collectors’ plates primarily, but I love the feel, there’s something very homey, and very Norman Rockwell about it.”

The phone calls cost him $3,000.

It’s all part of what drives much of Stephan’s creative spirit when he embarks on a new project: “I’m taking something from that environment and just altering it a little bit and putting it back.”

He did it with “Lift,” an eye-catcher at the University of Southern Maine’s Hannaford Hall in which he created a normal-looking maple table and six chairs – except their legs all rise 20 feet off the ground.

He did it with “Becoming,” a map of the world at Hampden Academy made entirely out of pencils embedded, erasers up, on a white wall.

And now, brave man, he’s about to do it with Woodfords Corner.

How hard can it be?

Just a few weeks ago, two teenagers from San Jose decided during a visit to the San Francisco Museum of Art that people tend to take all this art stuff a bit too seriously. So one took off his Burberry eyeglasses, placed them on the floor in front of a blank wall, and stepped back.

Within minutes, the glasses were surrounded by museum visitors, some with cameras, captivated by the “exhibit.” The two pranksters took pictures of the art lovers taking pictures before the blurry-eyed Burberry owner finally stepped forward and reclaimed his spectacles.

But this is different. Stephan is well aware that whatever he creates for Woodfords Corner will be there (he hopes) for many, many years – long enough for people to perhaps start off hating it and, who knows, grow to love it.

He’ll begin by researching the intersection and, in particular, Odd Fellows Hall, located less than a mile from his studio on Walton Street.

“I’ll ask myself: What’s expected to be here? What would be here? How can I play with that?” Stephan said.

Then he’ll come up with his design, which he’ll share during one, maybe two, public forums planned by the Portland Public Art Committee.

That’s where things could get dicey. Nothing gives an artist like Stephan worse heartburn than the phrase “design by committee.”

“That’s the fine line you have to walk, right?” he said. “I’m certainly considering and listening to and interacting with all the information that’s coming in.

“You kind of learn to deal with it and decide what to listen to and what not to listen to and how to digest that in a way that your voice is still there, your strength is still there.”

In other words, he’ll listen to the naysayers – to a point. But sooner or later, the man’s going to have to close his studio door and get to work.

No butterflies? No sleepless nights worrying that whatever he comes up with, as good as he thinks it might be, will be assailed by the 20,000 critics who drive past it each day?

Hey, the guy’s a public artist. He’s got nerves of steel, right?

Right. But he also has ears.

“Talk to me in a week,” Stephan said.

 


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