Artist Charlie Hewitt walks in front of Speedwell Projects on Forest Avenue in Portland as a crew from NeoKraft Signs installs his sculpture, “Hopeful,” on the roof of the building Tuesday. Gregory Rec/Staff Photographer

Charlie Hewitt has spent his life trying to change his country. Now, he’s trying to keep his country from changing him.

Hewitt, a Maine-born painter, printmaker and sculptor, has installed a 24-foot lighted sculpture on the roof of the contemporary art gallery Speedwell Projects on Forest Avenue in Portland that says in big neon lights, “Hopeful,” with an arrow that points motorists toward Portland. He’ll flip the switch when the sun goes down on Friday.

“I’m a grumpy old guy, but I am trying to be optimistic,” Hewitt said. “I want to put a positive word out there so when people turn the corner they might think, ‘Hey, I love my wife, I love my kids,’ instead of negative thoughts.”

Said gallery owner Jocelyn Lee, “I can’t think of a better word or sculpture to put up on the roof. We need something that feels a little like a prayer right now.”

Hewitt, 72, grew up in Lewiston and lives in Yarmouth. He is known nationally, with artwork in the collections of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, Whitney Museum of American Art, Museum of Modern Art, Library of Congress, Portland Museum of Art and Bates College Museum of Art. Lately, he’s been taking on public art projects, including variations of his “Rattle” series of installations – pops of brightly colored abstract shapes on tall poles – on the High Line in New York and on Congress Street in Portland.

Across the street from Speedwell, “Luminous Arbor,” a street light sculpture by Portland artist Aaron Stephan, was installed in October. Derek Davis/Staff Photographer

Hewitt designed the rooftop sign at Speedwell with Route 66 in mind. He’s interested in retro signage and distressed by what he calls the “commodification of corporate logos.” His sculpture is splashed with soft tones of yellow, green, red, blue and silver and outfitted with 3-inch bulbs, and Hewitt hopes it livens up the Forest Avenue corridor and helps relieve what he calls Portland’s “burden of brick.” He also hopes his “Hopeful” piece creates an aesthetic conversation with the recently installed abstract street lamp sculpture, “Luminous Arbor” by Aaron T Stephan, just up the block.

The rooftop piece at Speedwell Projects is a bit of an homage to the late artist Robert Indiana and their shared love of the early days of automobile travel “when getting on the road was a big deal and when roadside signs were bold, unique and colorful and had a profound emotional and psychological impact,” Hewitt said. Coincidentally, the Farnsworth Art Museum in Rockland recently re-installed Indiana’s lighted “EAT” sculpture on its roof.

“Hopeful” also continues Hewett’s recent interest in making art in collaboration with other artists and makers. For this piece, he worked with David and Sean Wolfe of Wolfe Editions in Portland to create a typeface consistent with the automobile badges and old-style emblems. NeoKraft Signs of Lewiston handled the fabrication.

Friday’s lighting ceremony begins at 6:30 p.m. with a reception inside the gallery. Hewitt and Lee will talk briefly about the project at about 8 p.m., then lead people outdoors to the sidewalk across the street. The sign will be lit soon after sunset.

As an artist, Hewitt is accustomed to speaking up and making himself heard. He considers this new piece more of a whispered prayer, offered during a time of existential crisis. “I find it very meaningful that I can say it and feel it. I feel it for the homeless. I feel it for all the children who are crisis. I feel it for you and your friends and family, and I feel it for my country – and I have never felt more of a need for it,” he said.


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