“Counting from Thirteen,” a mural and public art project by artists Ryan Adams, Daniel Minter and Titi de Baccarat, goes up at a former gas station on Congress Street in Portland. Ben McCanna/Staff Photographer

Construction was supposed to begin this spring on a boutique hotel on upper Congress Street at the site of an abandoned gas station. Instead, three artists from Portland have transformed the exterior of the building into the city’s latest public art project as a statement of outrage over centuries of violence against Black people.

Daniel Minter, Ryan Adams and Titi de Baccarat each contributed to the project, which will be celebrated with a socially distanced outdoor public reception from 3-7 p.m. Saturday. Inspired by the Black Lives Matter movement, the project at 754 Congress St. is a collaboration among three prominent Portland artists of color – one from Maine, one from Georgia and one from Africa – and several neighborhood business, including The Francis hotel across the street, Tandem Bakery next door and CenterWest, the company that’s developing the hotel.

Ryan Adams paints hand-drawn letters Wednesday on the collaborative public art project “Counting from Thirteen,” which will be officially unveiled on Saturday. Ben McCanna/Staff Photographer

When the pandemic postponed the hotel project, its owners boarded up the building and painted it black, opting to wait out the virus before moving forward. Just as they finished their work over Memorial Day weekend, George Floyd was killed by police in Minneapolis. Soon after, the newly painted building was covered with chalk art as protests rolled through Portland. After the chalk washed away in the rain, the developers approached Minter, co-founder of Indigo Arts Alliance, about using the building as a site for a temporary mural until the hotel project could move forward. Indigo is a year-old community arts organization that supports Black artists and engages in community building.

Minter, a painter, sculptor and illustrator, wasn’t interested in a mural “because that’s not what I do, but I did want to create some artwork that would address our current situation. All of my work really does address social commentary, but this was a chance to do something a little bit different. I wanted to take the idea of a mural a step farther.”

He asked Adams, a painter, muralist and sign-maker, to help transform the building, and de Baccarat was recruited to create a sculpture for the long-neglected metal business sign between the former gas station and Tandem. The Minter-Adams collaboration is an abstract installation called “Counting from Thirteen” that involves 13 painted rectangular boxes on the building representing 13 bodies. Minter designed shapes painted below the boxes, and among them, Adams added the words “the rope they bear is long” from the Laurence Dunbar poem “The Haunted Oak,” which describes the lynching of a Black man from the perspective of an oak tree.

“The full line is, ‘They have no care for his innocence, and the rope they bear is long,’ and those words are a reflection of the brutality that goes along with lynchings and a reflection on the continuum of violence against Black people that continues today,” said Adams, a Portland native. He has painted murals in Portland for many years, and recently collaborated on a mural on the side of Aura honoring Floyd and other Black people killed by police.

An award-winning illustrator of children’s books, Minter is accustomed to making specific representational imagery, and just opened an exhibition of mostly new paintings at Greenhut Galleries. For the public art project, he wanted to create an abstract piece to encourage people to think more broadly about violence against Black people. He and Adams were moved to use shapes to represent human bodies because of the National Memorial for Peace and Justice, which opened in 2018 in Montgomery, Alabama.

There, 816 suspended Cor-Ten steel columns represent more than 4,000 people killed by lynchings, as well as enslaved Black people, those terrorized by segregation and fear, and victims of police violence. The Portland artists chose 13 as a numerical theme because of the 13th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, which abolished slavery when it was ratified in 1865 but also created a legal loophole that allowed the massive criminalization of Black people and gave rise to other forms of institutional racism.

Ryan Adams works on “Counting from Thirteen,” at 754 Congress St. He has painted murals in Portland for years, and recently collaborated on one honoring George Floyd and other Black people killed by police.  Ben McCanna/Staff Photographer

“After the 13th Amendment, the states, especially in the South, were legally sanctioned to arrest Black men just for walking the streets. They could be accused of vagrancy, and it became legal to stop all Black men,” said Minter, who grew up in rural Georgia. “That led to a long line of lynchings that continues. It’s changed form. They’re no longer using ropes – well, some are using ropes – but generally it is just in the hands of the police and people who consider themselves authority, like the men who killed Ahmaud Arbery.”

Arbery was slain Feb. 23 by a white father and son who saw Arbery running in their Georgia neighborhood and thought he was a burglar.

The project’s title, “Counting from Thirteen,” signals the recitation of the names of victims that began with the ratification of the 13th Amendment, Minter said. “We’ve been doing this so long. We say the names and the names get added on to an ever-growing list. We can never complete that list, it’s so long,” Minter said. “We really need to just think what has been happening and what is continuing to happen in the name of what? American progress, I guess.”

De Baccarat, who came to Maine from Gabon on Africa’s west coast, makes three-dimensional art about his African roots and his American life. Lately, he has been making sculptural human figures. For this project he contributed a life-size figure that’s on a knee, arm raised, clad in a Black Lives Matter T-shirt. He called it “a huge, fantastic, powerful and meaningful sculpture” and titled it “The Art of Dying on Your Knee and Rising from the Dead on Your Feet.”

Ryan Adams paints letters on the public art project “Counting from Thirteen.” The artists chose 13 as a numerical theme for the project because of the 13th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, which abolished slavery but created a loophole that gave rise to other forms of institutional racism. Ben McCanna/Staff Photographer

He was installing it Thursday on the dilapidated metal sign, which is near the edge of the property line separating the former Gulf Express Mart from Tandem. The sign has been an eyesore since Tandem opened, said Tandem owner Will Pratt. He is thrilled de Baccarat is doing something with it and pleased to see the public art project evolve into a project for social good.

Pratt and Anthony DeLois, one of the owners of the Francis and CenterWest, said they were contributing money from sales at their businesses to help pay for the project. They also are leading fundraising efforts and are asking people who want to donate to contribute to do so through Indigo at its website, indigoartsalliance.me and mark donations for “754 Congress.”

As soon as the building was used for chalk art, DeLois said he and his business partners realized the benefit of making the building available for public expression. “In talking with some muralists about what to do, it dawned on me that there was only one group to call, and that was Indigo. We just let them have the space,” DeLois said.

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