The Portland Phoenix

Gimme shelter: Portland bus stops become vehicles for artistic expressions of diversity

​Ebenezer Akakpo during installation of his "Hope & Friendship" bus shelter Sept. 3 on Congress Street in front of Mechanics Hall in Portland. (Portland Phoenix/Jim Neuger)

As Creative Portland worked to install local artist Pigeon’s design onto the side of a bus shelter on St. John Street, a woman waiting for the bus protested the message of his art. 

The four images that line the sides of the bus shelter feature community members Pigeon has met: Two women and two men, all of whom have faced discrimination because of their skin color or outward appearance. 

Under their images, a single word lines the bottom of the design: “Mainer.”

But by the time the installation was finished, Dinah Minot, executive director of the nonprofit arts agency, described the woman’s attitude as “completely changed.” She said the woman had a new perspective on what it meant to call a place home. 

A bus pulls up to “The Mainer Project” bus shelter designed by Orson Horchler, a.k.a. Pigeon, on St. John Street in Portland. (Portland Phoenix/Jim Neuger)

“She was completely undone,” said Minot, who was happy that the woman was able to see the reason why Minot wanted to install art on city bus shelters in the first place: to celebrate Portland’s diversity.

Minot was accustomed to seeing diversity and multicultural environments all around her when she lived in California. But after she moved to Maine she didn’t see the same expressions of culture and wanted to encourage the type of relationships with different cultures that she experienced on the West Coast.

“Putting up a bus shelter in someone’s community, where they are expressing their own cultural traditions or invoking the ability to say, ‘We belong, why do we belong?’ – all of those questions – it seemed like a natural theme,” she said.

Minot brought the Creative Bus Shelters concept to Greg Jordan, general manager of Greater Portland METRO, and he brought the bus service on board. Creative Portland was able to receive money from grants and sponsors, and with that to select three designs to be displayed across the city.

A review panel that included Zoe Miller of Greater Portland Council of Governments, Daniel Minter of Indigo Arts Alliance, Jaime Desimone of Portland Museum of Art, Fred Yalouris of Rock Row/Waterstone Properties, Minot, and Jordan, selected designs by University of Southern Maine graduate Justin Levesque, Maine College of Art graduate Ebenezer Akakpo, and Pigeon.

“The three shelters all have their unique mark,” Minot said. “They show the diversity of Portland, whether it’s economics, or cultural, or environmental.” 

Each shelter is placed in an area that means something to the artists, too: Outside of USM for Levesque, at MECA for Akakpo, and on St. John Street for Pigeon, near where he lives. 

Minot said she hopes the bus shelters can pave way for more art projects in the city. She also wants to plan a second wave of bus shelters to be installed next year.

“Portland is a city that has this diversity, yet also has solidarity and community-based appreciation to live and work,” she said, “yet everyone comes from different backgrounds and communities.”

The three bus shelters will be formally unveiled this week.

Akakpo: An emotional connection  

Ebenezer Akakpo is from Ghana and studied jewelry making there as an apprentice before studying it at Le Arti Orafe in Florence, Italy. He then came to MECA, where he felt as if he was learning everything he knew all over again.

“One of my instructors, Tracy Cockrill, pulled me aside and said ‘Ebenezer, I know you are frustrated, but the only way that you are going to learn anything is if you let it go because every experience in life is good, and you have no idea where it’s going to take you,’” he said. 

​Ebenezer Akakpo: “We only share our story when we open our eyes.” (Portland Phoenix/Jim Neuger)

Akakpo took inspiration from his culture back in Ghana and along with his fascination with lines and patterns, he was able to incorporate traditional Ghanian symbols into his jewelry and now, the bus shelter at 519 Congress St., in front of Mechanics Hall.  

“We only share our story when we open our eyes,” Akakpo said. “When you are walking down the street, and I’m walking past you, we are just walking past each other. But we can break that moment by extending hands to each other, by trying to know who we are and extend a little bit of yourself to tell them who you are.”

The symbols are Akakpo’s way of incorporating emotion into his work. For the bus shelter, he used “Hope” and “Friendship.” He made the symbols into a pattern to imitate the patterns that people make with their lives. 

The Ghanian symbol of hope traditionally means, “God is in the heavens, listening to prayer,” Akakpo explained. Friendship is described as the “teeth and the tongue,” reminding of the need for friendship and interdependence. 

“When people are looking at the bus shelter, you walk in with people, you don’t know them, but friendship can strike,” Akakpo said. “The symbol of hope, that I put on the ceiling and side, people can look up. Where do we look for hope? We look to the heavens. … We all may disagree, we all may not be the same shape, color, ethnicity, but we all must reside. It may be Portland, or it may be anywhere. We have to find a way to work together.”

Justin Levesque beside “Glacier Retreat,” the bus shelter he designed on Bedford Street on the University of Southern Maine campus in Portland. (Portland Phoenix/Jim Neuger)

Levesque: Climate change

Justin Levesque’s interest in Iceland began in eighth grade when he started to love the Icelandic singer, Bjork. 

Levesque was scheduled to see the singer in New York City after leaving Iceland in 2014 when he spotted the same large, rectangular ocean-blue shipping containers that he first spotted in Iceland, and made the connection that he also saw them in Portland.

“I kept saying that a lot of things in Maine reminded me of Iceland,” he said. After his interest in the shipping containers was sparked, he researched Maine’s economics and sustainability and how it intersected with Iceland. 

Justin Levesque: “Some scientists can have a hard time communicating the complexity around their research to the general public and collaborating with artists is one strategy to overcome that barrier.” (Portland Phoenix/Jim Neuger)

In 2016, he received funding from SPACE Gallery and was able to put one of the blue shipping containers in Congress Square and display his photography from a residency that he completed aboard an Eimskip container ship as it traveled from Portland to Reykjavik. 

Levesque said most of his designs have an intersectional aspect. From his experience traveling from Portland to Iceland, the climate change evidence he saw in the Arctic Circle inspired his design for the bus shelter at 88 Bedford St., near the USM Muskie School of Public Service.

“I have taken cod mortality rates – there has been an increase in the mortality rate of cod across the state of Maine,” he said of his design. “Another component of the design is these arrows that map out the way in which the ocean water current is going through the Gulf of Maine. Part of the reason why bodies of water are getting warmer, and in Maine are getting warmer, is because of the particular currents.”

Research done by the Gulf of Maine Research Institute shows that Maine’s waters are warming 99 percent faster than the global ocean. Levesque also completed his own research for the project, concluding that he wanted to visually signify what is unseen in the “changing landscape of the changing ocean.” 

“Some scientists can have a hard time communicating the complexity around their research to the general public,” Levesque said, “and collaborating with artists is one strategy to overcome that barrier.”

Orson Horchler, a.k.a. Pigeon, sits in “The Mainer Project,” the bus shelter he designed on St. John Street in Portland. (Portland Phoenix/Jim Neuger)

Pigeon: Belonging 

A street artist by trade, Pigeon – whose real name is Orson Horchler – started in Bangor, where he would sketch funny pictures and write sayings that only those who lived in the area would understand. He signed his drawings with a Pigeon.

When he moved to Portland, he no longer felt like an “insider” where he could be in on the area and jokes – but he found his community, where he gained the inspiration for the “Mainer” series.

“As a street artist, the main role that I’m doing is trying to make people feel more at home in the place that they live,” he said. “Whether I’m putting it up as a street artist on the wall, they know that I was there putting it up (as) someone from their community. It’s about making people feel like they belong where they live.”

Orson Horchler, a.k.a. Pigeon: “It’s about making people feel like they belong where they live.” (Portland Phoenix/Jim Neuger)

His installation in Farmington four years ago elicited comments like “I don’t understand why he couldn’t represent normal, working families in Maine.” But little did the townspeople of Farmington know, Pigeon did represent normal, working families in his art, which featured a portrait of one of his friends with the single word “Mainer” underneath.

“I think half the people in (the art installation) were working more than one job and more than half were parents,” Pigeon said. “If it’s not someone that is white or Christian, then they don’t think they are ‘normal Mainers.’”

He jokes that the four portraits he chose to be featured at the shelter at 325 St. John St., near Dunkin’ Donuts, were the ones that were drawn the best, but each person has their own story to be heard about being a minority in the state of Maine. 

“One person is from Maine and gets asked about where she is from,” he explained. “One moved out because she was faced with so much challenge in terms of racism against her. One is from the Middle East, going through the experience of thinking everything is cool here and then realizing that he’s not always welcome. The last came from India and escaped a situation that was bad, had to go back, but always talks about coming back.”

Born in the United States to French and Hungarian parents, Pigeon moved to intercity Paris, France, as a young boy. He moved back to the states about 14 years ago. He said his goal with his art series is to hammer the images to the general public, so it’s seen so often that nothing is thought about it being “different.”

“I hope that my son’s kids decide to stay here and I hope that when they go to school and see Hawa with her Hijab, they think ‘I don’t get it, so what?’” he said. “I want there to be a change that happens from exposure and people talking and conversation.”

Emily Duggan is a staff writer at the Kennebec Journal in Augusta.

Exit mobile version