A birchbark canoe made in the 1880s is the centerpiece of one of the galleries in “Passages in American Art” at the Portland Museum of Art. Brianna Soukup/Staff Photographer

The reinstallation of the permanent collection at the Portland Museum of Art introduced new work to the galleries. Some were created, acquired or loaned for this exhibit, while others came out of storage for the first time ever. All were interpreted through a new lens.

Here’s some of what you can see for the first time in “Passages in American Art.”

A birchbark canoe attributed to Penobscot makers (1880s)

The name of the reinstallation “encompasses diverse stories of water and land,” said Ramey Mize, assistant curator of American art. It evokes the passage of the tides, the Middle Passage endured by enslaved Africans, canoe passages on Maine’s rivers. This 18-foot canoe, on loan from the Hudson Museum at the University of Maine, is an anchor for the entire exhibit.

The interpretive text about the canoe includes this quote from Jason Pardilla, a Penobscot Tribal Council member, river guide, fisherman and artisan: “This canoe enabled Penobscot people to move freely and allowed us to come from our winter territories in the springtime. As we moved downriver toward the ocean, we would know where to be at the perfect time. We could come for the fiddleheads first. We knew where the best fiddleheads were.”

Nearby, you can pause to listen to five songs by Wabanaki musicians, including “Passamaquoddy Canoe Travel Song” by Wayne Newell, an educator and scholar who worked to preserve his tribal language before he died in 2021.


“Art takes so many different forms,” said Mize. “It’s not just a painting on a wall. That’s a big takeaway of this project.”

“Supeq (Ocean),” a basket made by Penobscot artist Theresa Secord at the Portland Museum of Art. Brianna Soukup/Staff Photographer

“Supeq (Ocean)” (2023) by Theresa Secord

Secord is a Penobscot geologist, activist and founding director of the Maine Indian Basketmakers Alliance. She made this basket this year for the Portland Museum of Art from brown ash, sweetgrass and commercial dye. Its title – “Supeq” – is the Passamaquoddy word for ocean. Mize said the artist used historic color strips from Bigelow Laboratory for Ocean Sciences in East Boothbay to evoke the vibrant blues and greens of a healthy ocean.

The written description includes this detail: “According to researchers, the ocean (supeq) in the Gulf of Maine is changing color over time. Maine biologists from Bigelow Laboratories have discerned a gradual yellowing of the ocean’s appearance due to rising levels of dissolved organic carbon from river runoff, as well as a related decrease in phytoplankton production.”

Secord also shared a traditional story about the origin of sweetgrass, which can be read on the interpretive plaque. Her basket is displayed near other Wabanaki baskets from the museum’s permanent collection.

A video piece titled, “Cosmic Echoes,” by Adama Delphine Fawundu and work by Daniel Minter, “A Quiet Reach #1” and, “A Quiet Reach #5,” at the Portland Museum of Art. Brianna Soukup/Staff Photographer

“A Quiet Reach #1” (2021) and “A Quiet Reach #5” (2021) by Daniel Minter and “Cosmic Echoes” (2023) by Adama Delphine Fawundu


One gallery in the reinstallation is dedicated to island stories. The work housed here includes “Dark Harbor Fishermen” (1943) by N.C. Wyeth (with new interpretive text by Joseph Robbins, a Penobscot chef who works at Bissell Brothers Brewing Three Rivers) and other familiar scenes.

Also in this gallery is a pair of paintings by Daniel Minter, who is the co-founder and artistic director of Indigo Arts Alliance, and a video installation by Adama Delphine Fawundu, who was an artist-in-residence at Indigo Arts Alliance in June 2022. The video plays larger than life on the wall next to Minter’s paintings.

Both artists were inspired by the history of Malaga Island, where the government forcibly removed a mixed-race community in 1912. Minter brought Fawundu to the island during her residency and shared his deep knowledge of its descendants.

Indigo Arts Alliance shared this description of that visit for the wall text: “This deeply moving experience became literal material that Fawundu embedded in this video installation, which includes water from South Carolina, Maine, Ivory Coast and Ghana and considers both the possibilities of healing from traumatic histories and interconnected routes to freedom.”

A collection of glass sugar bowls now on display as a part of “Passages in American Art” at the Portland Museum of Art. Brianna Soukup/Staff Photographer

Glass sugar bowls

In the museum’s permanent collection, curators found a number of ornate glass sugar bowls that had been donated over time.


The Portland Glass Company produced some these bowls and other tableware from 1863 to 1873. The company’s founder and president was John Bundy Brown, who was also the owner of the Portland Sugar Company. The United States had abolished the slave trade decades earlier, but American vessels continued to transport enslaved people to work on sugar plantations. The product of their forced labor came to New England and to Portland for refinement.

This display of 20 artifacts explores Portland’s relationship to the sugar industry and the global slave trade.

“These are family heirlooms that are special to people, and obviously we honor that,” said Mize. “But also, they have very strong material ties to this history that has been submerged and sublimated in our telling. What were the roots of Portland’s wealth? Sugar was a huge part of that.”

Two portraits by James Abbott McNeill Whistler, left, and John Singer Sargent, right, are accompanied with new texts and interpretations as a part of the reinstallation of the permanent collection at the Portland Museum of Art. Brianna Soukup/Staff Photographer

“Miss Florence Leyland” (circa 1873) by James Abbott McNeill Whistler and “Ellen Archer Eveleth Smith (1856-1925) (Mrs. Henry St. John Smith)” (1883) by John Singer Sargent

OK, you probably have seen these two women before at the PMA. The oil portraits have long been favorites in the collection. But the wall text next to these works is all new and highlights the themes of the reinstallation.

In one, Fiona Hopper of the Portland Public Schools poses questions to Whistler’s shadowy subject: “What ambition did she have for her life? Did she feel a sense of control over any of the choices that she was making? Did she feel like she had any power?”

And the description next to Sargent’s portrait of Ellen Archer Eveleth Smith includes research about a man who was enslaved by her ancestors and helped them establish their ties to Maine by claiming land in New Gloucester on their orders.

On the opposite wall in the same gallery, visitors can see “Captain Joseph McLellan, Jr. (1762-1844)” (1789), a pastel portrait attributed to Johann Baptist Hirschmann. The accompanying words are from Vana Carmona, a descendent of McLellan and a founder of the Prince Project, a database of over 2,000 people of color who lived in Maine prior to 1800:”We must start telling the truth about our history because the next generations need to grow up learning what really happened here.”

Related Headlines

Only subscribers are eligible to post comments. Please subscribe or login first for digital access. 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.

filed under: