Norajean Ferris is a local painter who recently embarked on a series of paintings of new Mainers called “Into the Nation.” Derek Davis/Staff Photographer

A year ago the painter Norajean Ferris shared a Portland apartment with three women from African countries who didn’t speak English. One was from Rwanda, another from Angola and the third from the Democratic Republic of the Congo.

Ferris, who is white, grew up in Cumberland, went to high school in Freeport and college in Vermont. She met people from around the world in college but never experienced a situation where she was in the minority and her native language was a barrier to understanding.

She began to understand what it felt like to be an outsider.

At about the same time, she accompanied her mother, the artist Cindy Thompson, to the opening of the Mississippi Civil Rights Museum in Jackson, where Thompson designed and installed a centerpiece exhibition, “This Little Light of Mine.” During the opening festivities, Ferris met women of influence in the civil rights movement, including Freedom Rider Joan Trumpauer Mulholland and Myrlie Evers-Williams, the widow of slain civil-rights activist Medger Evers.

Both experiences shaped her thinking and contributed to a new-found sense of purpose and focus in her art. Ferris, who is 28, made a series of large-scale paintings that she exhibited this past spring under the title “Into the Nation.” Collectively the paintings address the oppression of women and minorities, the challenges of newcomers and Portland’s role in welcoming immigrants. She made the paintings before a large group of asylum seekers came to Portland this summer.

“It’s only until you meet people of different worlds that you get to know what people have been through, who these people are and what their stories are,” she said. “You begin to see them as human beings and you begin to understand that they do want to contribute to their communities and the world.”

Collectively, the paintings in “Into the Nation” constitute a powerful set of images, said John Ripton, who often curates exhibitions at the Portland Media Center for the Union of Maine Visual Artists. “I saw the show as very timely, a direct challenge to those who would judge the other, a condemnation of white supremacy, and the scapegoating of immigrants seeking asylum, and the chance for a better life for themselves and their families,” he said.

While there are no plans to show the paintings again, Ferris is hopeful. She charged her images with emotion, creating human figures of many colors expressing sadness, rage and abandonment, as well as joy and hope. She painted the exploited and exploiter, the chained and unchained. Her figures embraced humanity in all its diversity, sexuality and identity. Other paintings concern the racial composition of the U.S. military, the lack of equality in education and the importance among newcomers of learning to communicate in English.

Ripton appreciates Ferris’ paintings because of their mix of simplicity and complexity. “I think you can feel her soul in the people of the paintings,” he said. “She’s deeply troubled by the world around her, but her commitment to social justice is unmistakable, refreshing and promising.”

Ferris, who keeps a studio at Running With Scissors in Portland, began making art to make sense of the world. She brings empathy to her practice and sees her art as part of a larger community conversation about understanding and acceptance.

She’s interested in the human condition of all oppressed people. Her subjects include women who have been denied opportunities because of their gender, people who are marginalized because of their sexual orientation and those forced to live on the streets. “These are ordinary people and something terrible happened to them,” Ferris said. “It could be me next, or it could be anyone.”


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