Portland-based artists Bee Daniel, left, and Ryan Adams were commissioned by the Frannie Peabody Center and Coffee By Design to paint a mural for World AIDS Day at the Diamond Street coffee roaster. The artists said the theme of the mural is the importance of community, which is also relevant during the coronavirus pandemic. (Portland Phoenix/Elizabeth Clemente)
advertisementSmiley face

The need to overcome the challenge of isolation has helped spur the work of two artists and their mural in honor of World AIDS Day.

Artists Ryan Adams and Bee Daniel were commissioned by the Frannie Peabody Center and Coffee By Design to paint the mural at CBD’s Diamond Street location. It features a flowing red ribbon, which is a symbol of solidarity for people living with HIV or AIDS, and images of people doing everyday activities like reading and playing music.

First observed in 1988, World AIDS Day is observed every Dec. 1 to bring attention to the HIV epidemic and increase awareness and knowledge about the virus on a global scale. According to HIV.gov, approximately 1.2 million Americans live with HIV today, and about 14 percent of them, or one in seven people, are unaware of it.

As Maine’s oldest and largest HIV/AIDs services organization, the Frannie Peabody Center is serving Mainers living with HIV/AIDS during the coronavirus pandemic via telehealth. It has also recently rolled out new initiatives in response to COVID-19, like its free curbside HIV testing and the new PrEP 207 program

The organization has seen the pandemic challenge its clients by instigating a type of isolation and stigma similar to what was experienced during the AIDS epidemic of the early 1980s.

“In a time when we are separated by a new pandemic – and for our clients with compromised immune systems – the lack of physical contact is especially challenging,” Katie Rutherford, executive director of the Peabody center, said in a press release last week. “This mural is an opportunity for those who cannot be together physically to still experience community.” 

The center hopes to reach a wide audience through the public artwork and to honor those living with HIV/AIDs, as well as people who have died from AIDS-related illnesses. 

Adams and Daniel, both native Mainers, have been friends and have painted together several times, but the CBD mural was the first time they collaborated on a design. Each has a distinct painting style that may seem incompatible at first glance with the other; Adams is known for his geometric shapes, and Daniel’s work often depicts figures reminiscent of storybook characters.

This summer, Adams and two other local artists created a spray-paint mural on the wall of the Aura dance club in honor of George Floyd. Adams’ work can also be seen on the patio of Novare Res Bier Cafe, at Goodfire Brewing Co., and at Nosh on Congress Street, among other places.

Adams got his start creating large-scale public art more than a decade ago when he spray-painted graffiti on a boarded-up Binga’s Wingas after its Congress Street location burned down in 2008. His art was featured on the cover of the Portland Phoenix, and the attention led the owners of Binga’s Stadium to ask Adams to create a mural inside their Free Street location. 

Adams said he “caught the bug” and has been painting murals ever since. 

Daniel also developed her painting style in an unorthodox way. After spending more than a year studying photography at Maine College of Art she left school and battled depression. There was a point where she was unemployed and sleeping in her car, she said, and began going to the park and drawing smiley faces. Her work is inspired by illustrations from the 1970s, as well as children’s books.

“I didn’t really have a style before a really dark time in my life,” Daniel said. “And then I was just forcing myself to create anything and that came of it.”

Daniel’s work can be seen on the wall of Gorham Bike & Ski on Congress Street, and she has also created work for several changing murals around the city.

When Rutherford proposed the World AIDS Day mural to Adams, he said he thought Daniel’s work would be perfect for the project, because it communicates serious issues in a heartwarming way that is “palpable and not too on the nose.”

The artists decided Adams would paint the mural’s red ribbon, which includes “windows” that contain Daniel’s illustrations. In creating the illustrations, Daniel said she wanted to create scenes that were “warming and representative of the things that we all love and sometimes maybe take for granted.”

The mural took five days to complete, and in addition to CBD, was also funded by the Maine Humanities Council and the Maine Arts Commission. 

Daniel said she enjoyed the opportunity to blend her style with Adams’; Adams agreed, and said it was an “absolute honor” to be asked to create the artwork for the Peabody center. Through the mural, he said, he and Daniel hope to illustrate how people taking part in their community can “help battle feelings of isolation.”

Connecting with community members and their experiences, Adams added, can also help people understand the macro need for initiatives like universal health care.

“When you see your neighbor as another person,” he said, “it’s really a lot easier to understand the need for these things.”