Public art, for instance


Full of fescue: A recent shot of Tracing the Fore. (photo/The Fuge)
Full of fescue: A recent shot of Tracing the Fore. (photo/The Fuge)

Public art, for instance 
By Cliff Gallant

A lot of things around here get chalked up to, “Oh well, it’s a Portland thing,” and that’s all well and good, because it means we have affection for the place and we value the random quirkiness we’ve come to allow one another. But sometimes the line does wear a little thin.

The “installation” in Boothby Square in the Old Port comes to mind. How the hell does something like that even happen? What did the people on the Public Art Committee see that no one else has? 

C’mon, if you like the piece, you are most likely close kin of the artist. There has been an effort at appeasement, though. In response to the maelstrom of angry complaints and scathing criticisms from every sector of society, the committee stuck up a sign at the apex of the installation telling us we should like the rows of long, jagged steel plates because they represent waves, don’cha’ know – Portland being on the water ‘n’ all. 

If that information doesn’t do it for you, hang on, because the piece really isn’t completed, the sign says. A critical element – the growth of fescue – has yet to materialize, and when it does, all will become clear. We have to be patient, the art committee implores, because fescue takes time to grow. 

I looked up fescue, and it’s not what it sounds like, which is a relief. It’s actually “any variety of grasses, often cultivated as pasturage, commonly referred to as straw.” Anyway, the good news from the committee is they’re going to let the pasture go wild, and before we know it, the steel plates will pretty much be all covered up, I guess. The snow will do the job in the meantime.

If there’s any justice in the universe, surely Tracing the Fore is history, but let’s just hope things don’t go from aggravating to tragic before it’s appropriately dispatched. Here’s one possible scenario: an Old Port bar patron comes flyin’ up the street one night after last call, all lit up, hootin’ ‘n’ hollerin’, havin’ a grand time, spots the deep snow covering the grass in Boothby Square and gets it into his head to go merrily bounding through it. Oh-oh-oh-oh, arrggh!

It’s not like the Boothby Square installation is an exception, though. We do have a tendency to be a bit loose with regards to what’s displayed around town. Wander from Boothby Square down to Commercial Street, cross over to the long walkway leading to DiMillo’s and you’ll find a piece of the Berlin Wall. The freaking Berlin Wall. An eight-feet-high, ten-feet-long, three-inch-thick slab of dirty, cracked concrete with impassioned graffiti all over it placed at the approach to a floating seafood restaurant where sleek yachts are tied up and everything else is clean and sparkly and, well, appropriate. 

You’ve probably seen it, but have you asked yourself why it’s there? Why on Long Wharf? Why in Portland? 

Have I missed something? Do we have a special connection to the Berlin Wall? I mean, the tearing down of that wall was a significant event in world history, so you certainly wouldn’t want to throw away a piece of it if it somehow came into your possession. But what do you do with it once you have it? Find a place to exhibit it, I guess. No point in hiding it away somewhere. The chunk of wall was out on the Commercial Street sidewalk for a few years, and has been on the wharf for a few more. Kind of looks awkward there, but, oh well – I’m sure someday it’ll be a hallowed Portland landmark.

Then again, time has shown that things can exist in public places for decades in Portland and still not become landmarks. Let’s take a short jaunt up Exchange Street and over to Temple to contemplate a piece of outdoor sculpture no one has been known to look at twice in the 32 years it’s been there. There it sits alongside One City Center, with its twelve-foot-long, dull black metal shafts streaked with rust erupting out of the ground, pointing here and there. 

Somewhere in the recesses of my mind I recall a city council session at the time of this artwork’s installation where – in response to the same sort of public outcry that’s accompanied the Boothby Square installation – the artist assured one and all that the piece’s “patina” would, over time, evolve to be a shiny black. (Patina is a great word. Like fescue. After an artist lays a word like that on you, you’re in their hands.)

Well, the patina hasn’t turned a shiny black in 32 years, so I wouldn’t look for that to happen anytime soon. 

I remember a city councilor suggested one solution might be to move the sculpture to a less conspicuous place in town, whereupon another councilor agreed and further suggested it could be placed down in Bayside, next to the scrap yards, where perhaps it would get unceremoniously hoisted over the fence some night by who-knows-who. Of course, it wasn’t nice of those councilors to talk about someone’s art like that, especially because it was a gift to the city by John Raimondi, a nationally known artist. In the end, they decided to leave the piece where it is.

I was agreeable to accepting the sculpture when it was being installed, because word was it was to be named after the symbol of Portland, the phoenix – the mystical bird that eternally rejuvenates itself after a fiery death, recalling the city’s revitalization in the wake of several major fires. One could work up some sentiment over that, and the piece kind of works if you have that image in mind. 

But, lo, if you look at the name plate at its base you’ll find it’s not named after the phoenix. It’s named after the sculptor’s little boy, Michael. The artist decided, after some urging otherwise, to go with the name Michael even though he’d said he had a modernistic interpretation of the rising phoenix in mind when he created the piece. 

So we have a monument to Michael Raimondi in town. Which is nice, if Mike is a good person. Let’s hope he is, wherever he is, because he is commemorated in our town.

We have a special tribute to Michael Raimondi in Portland, but what about George Cleeve, ye olde Portland founder? A very well done statue of him was turned down by city officials a couple years ago (it now stands on private property along the East End) because it was determined that he had a slave. 

Gimme a break. Some of the founding fathers had slaves, and they lived a century after Cleeve did. Hey, let’s get real. He was a person of his times, like we all are. One shakes one’s head, one really does. 

Cliff Gallant is a resident of Portland.