Congress Square rendering
A rendering of redesigned Congress Square in Portland, with artist Sarah Sze's updated "Shattered Sphere" in Congress Square Park at the corner of Congress and High streets. A public forum will be held Nov. 6 to discuss the final design. (Courtesy city of Portland)
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The installation of New York artist Sarah Sze’s “Shattered Sphere” in Portland’s Congress Square Park will move one small step forward on Saturday, Nov. 6, when the city holds a long-overdue public forum at the Westin Portland Harborview Hotel to unveil the final design for the square and the public art Sze was commissioned five years ago to create.

Kevin Kraft, Portland’s deputy director of planning and urban development, said Sze was in Portland recently and is “now proposing one iconic structure,” which is substantially the same as the “Shattered Sphere” she originally proposed except without a smaller secondary, satellite structure.

“Shattered Sphere” takes the form of a fragmented concave sphere made of a welded steel frame supporting stainless steel and porcelain shards that mirror the park environment.

On the website of Victoria Miro, the London gallery where Sze had a show in October, the artist explains, “The sculptures camouflage into any space and draw their surroundings into the piece. As you move around the work they transform in real time as a reflection of your location in relation to the sculpture. They have a filmic quality in that they reflect time and weather. On a blue day, they will be blue and on a grey day, grey. Under a tree, the tree becomes part of the palette of the work.”

The Nov. 6 forum will take place at 1 p.m. with both Sze and a representative from WRT, the Philadelphia design firm commissioned to redesign the park, scheduled to speak and to take questions from the public and the media. The forum was originally supposed to take place in the spring of 2020 but then COVID-19 struck.

The Congress Square Park redesign and the Sze commission are slowly becoming the city’s longest-running public art project. The city set aside $250,000 for the project in 2012. An open call in 2015 attracted 97 artists. Sze was selected from four finalists in 2016. Maine Department of Transportation scheduling and then the coronavirus pandemic have delayed work on the park.

According to urban planner Kraft, MDOT will begin reconstruction of the intersection of Congress and High streets next year, and “Shattered Sphere” is expected to be installed in 2023, 11 years after the first funding and seven years after the artist was selected.

By way of comparison, 600 artists submitted to the Art All Around competition to paint 16 South Portland oil tanks in 2008 and the first tank painting was completed the following year.

Artist Pandora LaCasse, whose seasonal lighting displays in Portland are perhaps the city’s most successful public art installations, was on the Congress Square Park artist selection committee. She is not concerned that the project has taken so long to come to fruition.

“Public projects of this scale take time to complete,” LaCasse said. “Inspired by the belief that great public places contribute to community health, the city of Portland, Friends of Congress Square Park, and the Portland Public Art Committee brought together residents, neighborhood associations, nonprofits, and businesses to help develop a vision for Congress Square.

“The project partners have worked closely with landscape design firm WRT and artist Sarah Sze to develop designs that successfully fulfill the community vision,” LaCasse continued. “Years of planning have brought us to this exciting stage.” 

Edgar Allen Beem has written about art in Maine since 1978. He also writes the Universal Notebook opinion column.