Charlie Hewitt works at his studio in Portland, where he’s creating a new line of NFTs, digital images traded like cryptocurrency. Derek Davis/Staff Photographer

Last winter, Portland artist Charlie Hewitt walked into a local Cumberland Farms for a cup of coffee.

He was wearing a pin with an image of his “Hopeful” sculpture.

You’ve seen it. Maybe the original 24-foot neon lighted metal sign on a rooftop in Woodfords Corner. Or another version on the old Bates No. 5 mill in Lewiston, where Hewitt grew up. Or at one of nearly 50 other locations (and growing) across seven states from here to Maryland.

The cashier, a young woman, told Hewitt she liked the pin.

“I really love that sign, too,” she said. “It means a lot to me.”

Reflexively, Hewitt took the pin off, handed it to the woman and told her he was the artist responsible for the increasingly ubiquitous image. The gesture was genuine, but he regretted it instantly. The moment he outed himself, the connection the woman had to his work was broken. He could see it in her face.


“The best thing about ‘Hopeful,’ and I think the reason it’s been successful, is that it doesn’t have anything to do with me,” the artist said in an interview this month inside his studio in Portland’s Deering neighborhood. “It belongs to the world.”

The Portland studio of artist Charlie Hewitt whose work has been exhibited in galleries and museums since the early 1970s but gained a new level of exposure from this 2019 “Hopeful” sign. Derek Davis/Staff Photographer

Hewitt has been exhibited in galleries and museums since the mid-1970s, mostly in Maine and New York, where he also has a studio. But the recent success of “Hopeful” – a piece of artwork rooted in nostalgia that has become a part of popular culture in a way not seen since another Maine-connected artist, Robert Indiana, created his “Love” sculpture with the tilted “O” – has given Hewitt a level of status and recognition he’s still sorting out.

It also has given him license to take risks, even at age 76.

This month, Hewitt launched a collection of NFTs, or non-fungible tokens, becoming one of the first major Maine artists to explore that market. NFTs are unique digital representations that buyers can use or share however they wish. They are increasingly seen by some as an investment, a notion that was boosted in March of last year when a digital artist known as Beeple sold an NFT collage at Christie’s Auction House for a staggering $69 million in cryptocurrency.

Hewitt knows he’s not exactly the profile of an artist who might be eager to jump into a still-evolving medium, but he’s always been something of a rebel, and he relishes the risk.

“My highway as a painter is packed. Every other painter is entering the lanes, trying to be someone who stands out in that,” he explained. “With NFTs, there is no one on the road but me. Or very few people.”


Hewitt’s NFTs – digital versions of abstract, colored drawings he’s been creating over the last several months – are available to view and purchase online already, and he’s creating more. Elizabeth Moss Galleries in Portland will exhibit a selection in January.

Moss, who featured Hewitt as one of her first exhibits when she opened her downtown gallery in 2019, said one of the things she likes most about his work – especially “Hopeful” – is its accessibility. She also said NFTs are, on some level, a rejection of the art establishment.

“His spirit is very much in line with that,” Moss said. “He wants to be a disrupter.”


There are two versions of Hewitt, the artist. The one who combs his hair, puts on a suit and is on his best behavior when presenting an exhibit at a gallery or museum. And there is the rabble-rouser who has never felt at home in the traditional art world, even when it’s been good to him.

He was born and raised in a large French-Canadian family in working-class Lewiston in the 1950s and early ’60s. He later moved to Maryland, where he graduated from high school. For much of his teenage years, Hewitt was looking to get out, and he did, landing in New York City in 1969.


It was a formative and formidable scene for an aspiring artist. All around him, artists were pushing the boundaries of abstract expressionism and what would become known as pop art.

“The world was there, waiting for me to join it,” he said.

For many of those years, and many more after that, Hewitt was “a drunk.” He was self-destructive, but “loved every minute.”

It wasn’t always easy. At one point, he was struggling to find work and had no place to sleep, so he was on a park bench. One night, a panhandler approached him, someone Hewitt recognized had likely spent many more nights unhoused than him.

“He just said to me, ‘Don’t do that,’ and it felt a little like an angel was talking to me,” Hewitt said. “I never forgot it.”

He began taking classes at the New York Studio School and found an early mentor, Philip Guston, a Canadian who was a major player in the city’s art and culture scene at the time.


Hewitt’s artistic roots were expressionism and surrealism, but he’s always been peripatetic. He’s done murals, sculpture and ceramics, even produced theater. He started an arts center in southern Maryland decades ago. He’s also been a prolific printmaker, an art form that he said has fallen out of fashion.

“I love the plurality of printmaking,” he said. “The pope can buy one and a guy down the street in a double-wide trailer can have the exact same one.”

It was printmaking that brought Hewitt back to Maine in the 1980s when he worked at Vinalhaven Press, a print shop and studio on the island east of Rockland. It’s also where he got to know Indiana, who already had crossed over from art to pop culture with his one-word sculpture “Love.”

Hewitt would go back to New York regularly – he still has a studio in Jersey City, New Jersey, just across the Hudson from Manhattan – but stayed in Maine even after his time at Vinalhaven Press ended. In addition to making art, Hewitt is a developer and contractor.

He recently bought an old greenhouse and storefront on Brentwood Street in Portland that he’s renovating into his studio and gallery. He calls  it “Electric Greenhouse.”



Hewitt created the “Hopeful” sculpture in 2019 during a dark time in his own life. It was a reaction to increased polarization in the world and a desire to return to something elusive, a sense of we’re-all-in-this-together community.

“I wanted it to be this retro marquee sign, the kind I remember seeing a lot as a kid but that you don’t really see anymore,” he said.

The font was modeled after text from a 1940s Packard. The line of the “p” in hopeful curves to the left in an arrow. The top of the “f” curves hard to the right and connects with the “l.” Light bulbs outline each letter so that when it’s plugged in, the message glows like a beacon.

Hewitt’s first “Hopeful” sign was installed in 2019 atop Speedwell Projects in Portland’s Woodfords Corner. He’s since installed 50 more, from Maine to Maryland. Derek Davis/Staff Photographer

Annika Earley, managing director for the nonprofit art gallery Speedwell Projects, whose rooftop was the site of Hewitt’s first “Hopeful” sign, said the reasons why it has become so popular are not complicated.

“It has a sort of diner, drive-in typography that speaks to American history,” she said. “People can recognize it. They know where to place it in their consciousness.”

Added Moss: “It’s a piece of art created for the American spirit.”


The timing helped, too. The reaction was instantly positive and only grew during the pandemic, when the need for such a message was great.

After the first sculpture was installed, others around Maine were interested. Hewitt also wanted to expand the project further south, so he paid for billboard space in New York and New Jersey to install signs along the road.

More requests came in. It seemed everyone wanted their own “Hopeful” sign. So far, he’s installed more than 50. It’s art that people can enjoy without the intimidation of walking into a museum or gallery, that’s untouched by socioeconomics or politics.

“I’m left of Lenin, but I had this right-wing guy talking to me about how much he loved the sign,” he said. “My wife said, ‘You’ve got something that appeals to everyone.’ ”

Earley said she loves telling people the gallery is located underneath the “Hopeful” sign.

“It’s become a beacon of hope in our neighborhood certainly and I think all of Portland,” she said.


Hewitt said once he understood that the success of “Hopeful” had nothing to do with the actual sculpture, nothing to do with the lights and the color and the shape, it only had to do with the idea, he understood NFTs.

“It’s the idea, not the thing,” he said.

Hewitt, right, behind one of his large “Hopeful” sculptures with Phil Bolduc, owner of Neokraft Signs in Lewiston, which helps him to create the installations. Derek Davis/Staff Photographer


Walking up to the Electric Greenhouse, you can see the impact of “Hopeful.” There is a giant sign in the parking lot, waiting to be delivered to its latest destination. There is a small sign in the front window. On at least two cars, there are “Hopeful” bumper stickers.

Inside the studio, which hadn’t been filled as of this month, there are light-up signs and electric cords running along walls. On a table are Hewitt’s latest drawings, which will become NFTs.

“I love to paint, but I was sort of scratching underneath to find another audience,” he said. “NFTs are like a world with no walls, no columns, no facades, nothing to tell you what art is or what should be famous.”


There was another reason, too.

“I don’t want to be seen as old, or irrelevant,” Hewitt said. “And I’d rather drive a truck than just rest on ‘Hopeful’ until I’m dead.”

Hewitt walks through his studio “Electric Greenhouse,” a former florist shop in Deering Center. Derek Davis/Staff Photographer

When an artist creates an NFT, it provides proof of ownership through an online ledger, known as a blockchain. It also ensures scarcity. Digital images can be copied infinitely, but with a record, there is an original, which is the investment.

Jon Ippolito, a professor of New Media and director of the digital curation program at the University of Maine who has closely monitored the NFT market for art, said there have been active digital art collectors for decades, but NFTs have brought in a newer audience, mostly tech-savvy investors.

When an NFT is put up for auction by a big-name auction house like Christie’s, that helps legitimize the sale, Ippolito said, but it remains a risky proposition.

“The whole NFT phenomenon relies on the belief that it doesn’t need anything to prop up the work,” he said. “I think the guy who created ‘Hopeful’ is sort of perfect for that.”


Moss bought four of Hewitt’s NFTs. She said she sees them as another art form, “a photograph versus an oil painting versus a sculptural piece.” But she knows plenty of artists, even ones she represents, who roll their eyes at the very mention.

“It’s not going to work for everybody,” she said.

Even Hewitt recognizes his latest venture might not pay off, but he feels fortunate he’s able to take the risk.

“I think the things that have happened for me only happened because I came back to Maine,” he said. “This is such a wonderful place to do this.”

Hewitt knows “Hopeful” will be the thing he’s remembered for, but it also has reinvented him as an artist, even if he doesn’t know what the next version looks like.

“I don’t want to be a noun, you know,” he said. “I want to be an adjective.”

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