The hallways and walls inside the common areas of the recently renovated Northfield Green Apartments had been mostly bare.

What was hung consisted of donated prints or mass-produced art purchased from places like Goodwill. On occasion, an inspired resident created something that could be displayed.

Cullen Ryan, executive director of Community Housing of Maine, an affordable housing developer that owns and operates the large complex for seniors and disabled individuals in Portland, knew it didn’t have to be that way. High-end original art need not be displayed only in living rooms of the upper class.

Ryan had been thinking since last year about pursuing opportunities to display artwork from local artists at some properties.

Around the same time, the Maine Art Collective – a newly formed group of 14 artists that launched a successful pop-up gallery inside an Old Port storefront vacated during the pandemic – was looking for additional ways to promote its work. Its mission of broadening access to locally produced original art matched nicely with what Ryan had in mind.

A phone call between Ryan and Maine Art Collective co-founder Marni Prince sealed the deal.

Advertisement

“This really helps us open the door to the kind of housing we want to be involved with, where residents are treated with dignity and respect,” Ryan said. “Why shouldn’t they have gorgeous pieces of art in their common areas?”

Prince said her phone call to Ryan was serendipitous. She originally had been calling organizations to inquire about charitable giving and finding ways for the collective to partner with underserved communities.

“He said they didn’t do that but that they were interested in acquiring art,” Prince said. “And I said, ‘Oh, OK. That will work too.’ It was a bit of surprise.”

Prince said the artists whose work will be displayed benefit in two ways. First, they get paid – it is their livelihood after all. And second, they get increased exposure, another form of currency.

“This really turned out to be a win-win because we’re expanding our reach and supporting our artists at the same time,” she said.

So far, Community Housing of Maine has installed 14 pieces of art at two of its properties, Northfield Green and Central Commons in Hallowell. Some of the pieces had already been completed and were offered by the artists. Other work was commissioned specifically for the spaces.

Advertisement

Artist Sue Vittner is one of the artists whose work hangs in Community Housing of Maine’s Northfield Green complex. Shawn Patrick Ouellette/Staff Photographer

Sue Vittner, a Portland-based artist and co-founder of the Maine Art Collective, produced two fresh paintings after she was shown photographs of some of the common areas.

“That helped me get a sense of size and feel,” she said. “I knew they liked something abstract and peaceful, which is mostly what I do. Oceans and skies.”

Vittner, who is also a massage therapist, paints not with brushes but with her hands, like an adult version of finger painting. She pours colors onto the canvas and allows each painting to take shape from there, a process she likens to spiritual meditation. The pieces purchased by Community Housing of Maine were both skyscapes featuring blue shades layered in an ombre style.

Artist Lynn Ericson of Buxton is thrilled to contribute to the collaboration between Maine Art Collective and Community Housing of Maine. “I think community housing is such a great thing,” she says. Ben McCanna/Staff Photographer

Lynn Ericson, another member of the collective, recreated an earlier painting that was inspired by the coastal grandeur of Frenchman’s Bay and Acadia National Park. Much of the piece is ocean and sky with islands in the distance, but there is a hill in the foreground to create a perspective not unlike what hikers might see from an overlook. Her style is abstract as well – big shapes with little detail but heavy on color, in this case blues and earth tones. She applies her acrylic with brushes but also uses sponges, palette knives, even paper towels to add texture.

“I think community housing is such a great thing,” Ericson said. “There is so much housing out there that just isn’t affordable. And to be part of giving these residents something original to look at, it’s wonderful.”

Lynda Burleigh, 74, has been a resident of Northfield Green for 11 years. She said some walls used to adorned with jigsaw puzzles that were glued together and framed. The new pieces are a big improvement.

Advertisement

“I think the choices with the colors of the walls are just beautiful,” she said. “I’d like to have more, just the entire walls covered in art.”

Ericson, who lives in Buxton, said her experience being a part of the Maine Art Collective has exceeded expectations. The pop-up gallery last summer proved successful for the artists – the collective even extended the short-term lease by an extra three months – and none of the profits had to be turned over to a gallery.

“There’s definitely a place for galleries, but if you only rely on a handful, that can be limited,” Ericson said. “And of course, not everyone can get into a gallery. What we’ve done feels very democratic.”

Prince agreed that galleries are important but not for everyone.

“A lot of people can be intimidated by galleries,” she said. “They don’t feel like it’s accessible to them.”

Vittner said many Maine artists are fortunate to participate in outdoor shows and displays during the warmer months, which often draw tourists who have both an interest in original art and money to spend.

Advertisement

“But shows are a short season,” she said. Being able to sell pieces to organizations like Community Housing of Maine creates new opportunities.

Ryan said the artwork collectively cost Community Housing of Maine about $6,000, about half what the pieces would have retailed for.

“I think we’re lucky to have them,” he said.

Northfield Green resident Sandra Philbrook walks through the common area where the works of Maine artists hang. Ben McCanna/Staff Photographer

Northfield Green, in Portland’s North Deering neighborhood, is a complex of 200 one-bedroom apartments for seniors and disabled adults. It was first developed in the late 1970s but was renovated in recent years after Community Housing of Maine purchased it.

Lucille Cormier, 72, a resident for eight years, let out a gasp when asked what the building was like before the renovations.

“When I first came here I was like, ‘Wow, this is low-income housing,’ ” she said. Now, Cormier sees things differently.

Advertisement

“It’s still not the Taj Mahal, but it’s 90 percent if not 100 percent better,” she said. “The pictures, I think, are fantastic. I think they’re beautiful.”

Community Housing of Maine develops, owns and maintains 915 units of affordable housing at 86 sites in 31 communities across the state, including Northfield Green and Central Commons, which houses 29 efficiencies and one-bedroom apartments for seniors in a historic brick building just off Water Street in Hallowell. The agency also provides advocacy, supportive housing, community inclusion and stability for homeless and special-needs populations across the state.

Among residents of the two properties who will get to see the artwork every day, Ryan said the word he’s heard most often is “thrilled.”

“I think adding artwork like this has really helped to further unite the community,” he said. “And we’re certainly going to see if we can keep doing this for other properties.”

Prince, too, said the collective would welcome any inquiries from other developers or property managers who might want to incorporate local, original art into their projects. Its website is: maineartcollective.com.

Staff photographer Ben McCanna contributed to this story.


Only subscribers are eligible to post comments. Please subscribe or login to participate in the conversation. Here’s why.

Use the form below to reset your password. When you've submitted your account email, we will send an email with a reset code.