As folks were gathering on Friday, May 31, for the unveiling of Charlie Hewitt’s “A Hopeful Prayer for Portland” sculpture, which is mounted on the roof of Speedwell Projects in Woodfords Corner, 12 people at the Municipal Center in Virginia Beach lay dead or dying in an ordinary workplace at the hands of a mass shooter.

However excruciating, it wasn’t ironic. It was precisely Hewitt’s concern.

Mass shootings in America have swelled into an epidemic. Hundreds take place across the country every year, claiming the lives of many thousands of Americans. They have become a very real and deeply disturbing aspect of American culture, a recognizable feature of the American landscape.

So, what to do?

Hewitt’s “Hopeful” piece is a large sign, made in the style of 1960s drive-in and car culture. It features the word “Hopeful” in colored letters that are covered in carnival lights. Hewitt says he was inspired by a desire to do something about mass shootings across America.

The mood of the sculpture, here being placed, atop Speedwell Gallery is fun and flashy, but its message is serious. Photo by Kyle Dubay, Courtesy of Speedwell Projects

The work is uplifting, fun and flashy – literally, and in a good sense. Culture is where we perform our values. Art is the stuff of intentional messaging. Hewitt’s “Prayer” is poignantly succinct, so succinct, in fact, that it is anything but heavy-handed, despite the weight of his motivation. His initial idea was to have works from this limited edition series be installed in cities where infamous mass shootings have taken place. He wants them to go elsewhere as well, such as to homeless shelters. The sculpture, right at the nexus of five Portland neighborhoods, is a call for action – as prayers generally are. We have work to do, the sign hints, and we have the ability to succeed.

The fact Hewitt calls it “a prayer” makes this an unusual work of art. Visual art doesn’t typically list its meanings or intentions, a fact that adds to its power. Visual ideas are often at – or just over – the edge of our verbal abilities. When we encounter visual art, we take in the meanings of the signs and symbols through our own knowledge, experiences, values and sensibilities. We also try to consider the perspective and intentions of the artist. Strong works can be beacons of empathy and morality. We meditate on art. Art is an experience based in opening our minds to the perspectives of others. Skill, design, visual delight and entertainment are all qualities of this experience, but at its best, art reflects and amplifies our cultural concerns, our values.

Prayer is sometimes spoken out loud in public; more often we verbalize prayers to ourselves. Prayer expresses something we are hoping for, something good, something positive. In this sense, Hewitt’s “Hopeful” is an extraordinary work of public art. The initial lighting of the work was inspiring, enjoyable and exciting. But it was also a vigil. The work reminds us that we can do better. It’s empowering to believe that you can do good in the world.

Hewitt’s choice to make a verbal piece is key to its success: We need to have this conversation. We need to talk about our problems, our values (liberty, safety and so much more) and potential solutions. The act of being hopeful, while not quite a public policy position, announces that we aren’t helpless in the face of the mass shooting epidemic. We can act, by finding common ground, creating consensus and then crafting and implementing practical policy.

Hewitt grew up in Lewiston in a large French Canadian family. As a boy, he had deep ties to the Catholic Church. It was both a keystone of his community and the building blocks of his morality. The faith on display with “Hopeful” is not sectarian, however, but humanist. Hewitt has hope for people, our communities, our society and our culture. He has faith that public morality will prevail.

Seen at dusk at Portland’s Woodfords Corner: Aaron Stephan’s “Luminous Arbor” and Charlie Hewitt’s “A Hopeful Prayer for Portland.” Together they create a sense of place. Photo by Daniel Kany

While Hewitt’s work is on the roof of a private gallery, because it’s outside and highly visible, it seems like public art. Just a block down the street in front of the historic Oddfellows Hall, also on Forest Avenue, stands a streetlight sculpture by Aaron Stephan, a local artist with a growing national reputation. It is a bona fide work of public sculpture, approved and funded through Portland’s democratic public art process. Stephan’s and Hewitt’s work are within view of each other. Together they create a cultural bright spot, a sense of place.

While Hewitt’s work presses viewers directly into the verbal realm of cultural morality, Stephan’s messaging is quieter, taking a playful route to make some serious commentary about the role of culture. “Public art is often top-down, like with monuments which come from and exert authority,” he explained to me on the night of Hewitt’s opening, “so I wanted to make something that started on the ground, with the people on the street. I wanted it to be fun and accessible.”

Stephan’s “Luminous Arbor” is a working light post with ten lamps snaking off on exuberantly Seussian branches in bendy, dancing rhythms. It’s a fantastic piece that far exceeds its mark: I would love to see a dozen or more of these around the city. It’s Portland in a nutshell – handsome, smart, practical and upbeat.

It’s also meaningful. Stephan’s piece reveals that workaday reality can be uplifting and entertaining – like a good teacher or an excellent meal. Portland artist Pandora LaCasse’s holiday lights have long been my favorite local work of public art (although Stephan’s super-tall table and chairs visible from the street at University of Southern Maine is on my shortlist as well). These days, though, I am enthralled with the view past Stephan’s “Luminous Arbor” toward Hewitt’s “A Hopeful Prayer for Portland” from Woodfords Corner. Forest Avenue, Woodford Street and Deering Avenue meet at that corner, and more than 25,000 vehicles pass through the intersection every day.

At its best, art is a cultural signal of faith in people. This is especially true with public art brought about through democratic communities processes. I want to thank Hewitt and Stephan for reminding us that we aren’t helpless. We can make our society better. Now is the time, and here is the place.

Freelance writer Daniel Kany is an art historian who lives in Cumberland. He can be contacted at:

[email protected]

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