A View from the Hill: On the trail of Portland’s public art

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A few weeks ago a small crowd gathered under a great catalpa tree in a lush, peaceful corner of Deering Oaks Park in Portland, a site that artist David Smus called  “a cathedral in the trees.”

Smus, a sculptor, was there for the unveiling of his life-size bronze statue of a very rare great black hawk that students at nearby King Middle School had christened Hector after the raptor took up residence in the park in late November last year.

Unfortunately, black hawks are not designed for northern winters. Hector was supposed to be home in the tropics eating snakes, not picking off squirrels in Deering Oaks. In January, the cold got to Hector’s legs and he fell from his perch. Despite valiant efforts of volunteers at Avian Haven in Freedom, Hector’s legs were hopelessly damaged by frostbite, and he was euthanized. 

The great black hawk, the first ever seen in the U.S. – first in Padre, Texas, and later in Biddeford – “stole and broke many Mainers’ hearts,” one reporter wrote.

Lest this event is forgotten, Friends of Deering Oaks President Anne Pringle and Diane Davison, a board member of Avian Haven, led a fundraising effort to honor the bird, commissioning a $28,000 sculpture from Smus. 

That’s what brought this group together under the catalpa. Hector had touched the Portland community’s heart, and the city wanted to honor that event. The city’s Public Arts program was the ideal vehicle for making that happen.

I had heard of public art and walked past and over and under it many times in my wanderings around Portland, but I had never paid much attention to it or to its noble mission. That was a mistake.

According to the Association for Public Art, “public art is a reflection of how we see the world – the artist’s response to our time and place combined by our own sense of who we are.”

In Portland, the mission is carried out by the Portland Public Art Committee and involves various interests including the private sector, artists, government, and others. The committee’s charge is to commission art “that engages with the surrounding environment to create, enrich, or reveal a sense of place, and to express the spirit, values, visions, and poetry of place that collectively define Portland.”

In Hector’s case, the sculpture was the result of the work of at least five groups, lots of very generous donors, and a clever crew of public works employees. They agreed, as Pringle said, that the great black hawk saga had offered a reflection of the Portland community.

“This is not memorializing someone – not even memorializing the bird,” she said. “It was a community event at Deering Oaks, because of this unusual visitation.”

Other public art installations around the city do memorialize groups and individuals, I found on a five-mile walk I took the other day around the East End and downtown. But it is an extremely diverse collection and, once you take the time to study it, gets you thinking hard about who we are. Every piece is not for everybody, but look closely and something will resonate.

I started with the Stone Dragon outside the East End Community School on North Street. I had seen this sculpture near my Munjoy Hill home hundreds of times. My grandkids had played on it. But I had never taken the time to study it or consider its history.

Maine artist Carole Hanson created the sculpture as The Serpent and it was first placed in Congress Square Plaza, its seven segments leading to the park from the door of a hotel. When the city gave it to the East End Community School, three segments were added and it was renamed The Stone Dragon.

Today the sculpture slithers down the side of North Street, begging for some kid to jump from one segment to the next or a tired walker to sit on a boulder and take in the stunning view of Back Cove and the southwestern sky.

A short way down North Street I took in the memorial to Charles Loring. Loring grew up in Bayside and distinguished himself as a U.S. Army fighter pilot in World War II and an Air Force fighter pilot in the Korean War, where he died on his 50th mission when he crashed his plane into enemy gun positions.

Anyone will find inspiration in the quotes carved in the embedded stones in this beautiful little park, such as “Devoting wholly and earnestly to some purpose” or “Inner resolve.”

Farther down the Eastern Prom at the east end of Congress Street is the Obelix Memorial, but I didn’t linger on a Sunday afternoon during COVID-19 – lots of food trucks, too many people, too few masks. Save this one for a weekday.

I went to see the Standing Bear at Ocean Gateway, but it was locked inside. COVID-19, again. 

At India and Commercial, I looked for the Portland Brick installation but must have missed something. I’ll go back.

Then it was on to the Maine Lobsterman in Lobsterman Park at the intersection of Temple, Union, Spring and Middle streets. It was created for the 1939 New York World’s Fair; three castings were made of the original, with the other two in Augusta and at Bailey’s Island.

I wrapped up my walk with The Fireman Statue outside the Central Fire Station on Congress Street, created in 1898, and moved to various places in the city before finding its downtown home in1987.

By the time I got home, my legs were tired but my eyes were wide open to the possibilities of public art. There is much more to see, including some real gems inside the terminal and on the access roads to the Portland International Jetport.

It was a good way to find inspiration and get some exercise without venturing far from home. Plan your own tour at publicartportland.org

It’s just the right adventure for these times.

Andrew Marsters is an award-winning journalist and former journalism instructor at the University of New Hampshire. He lives on Munjoy Hill.