These creative Mainers turn humble urban bus shelters into works of art

PORTLAND, Maine – Bus shelters are just places to protect yourself from the rain and snow while you wait for your car to pull up the street. They are simple, utilitarian, and not much to look at or think about.

No more. Not here.

A coalition of community organizations, fueled by Creative Mainers and funded by a stack of grants, is turning the city streets into an open-air art museum, one bus shelter at a time. Four stops have already been rearranged and more are on the way.

In 2020, Creative Portland (the city’s official arts agency), Greater Portland METRO (the local bus service) and the Greater Portland Council of Governments received a $ 25,000 grant from the National Endowment for the Arts.

The money helped fund the Creative Bus Shelter Initiative, which hired local artists to “create public art on bus shelters, highlight public transportation, and evoke community joy.”

Agencies officially unveiled the first three shelters last August and the fourth in June. Creative Portland expects to seek more artist nominations in July.

Here is a look at the work of the first four artists in the program.

Pigeon

“The Maine Project”

Rue Saint-Jean, August 2020

Orson Horchler, also known as the Pigeon, sits Thursday in a bus shelter on St. John Street in Portland. The shelter’s glass walls are adorned with his designs by other Mainers. Credit: Troy R. Bennett / BDN

Orson Horchler’s permanent bus stop art began five years ago as a temporary installation of wheat-glued posters on a vacant storefront. At the time, Horchler had no idea he would have such a long lifespan.

“It was only supposed to last a few weeks,” said Horchler, who calls himself Pigeon when he creates art.

Like the original installation, the shelter on St. John Street carries a diverse collection of human faces drawn with the inscription “Mainer” below them as a block.

As is typical with Pigeon street art, a small drawing of his town bird of the same name is also included, asking, “Tell me, what is a ‘real’ Mainer? “

This is a nudge that prompts reflection on the old trope of “people from afar”. He urges viewers to reconsider what a “real Mainer” looks like and if the joke is funny, more. None of the four faces of the Pigeon bus shelter are Caucasian.

“When I started this project,” he said. “I was upset because the governor of Maine at the time was trying to make asylum seekers ineligible for general aid. I started it as a protest.

Pigeon, who grew up in France, had just arrived in Portland and felt like he had finally found a home within a community of Francophone artists. Most of his French-speaking compatriots were recent arrivals from Central African countries, and Pigeon felt himself to be governor at the time. Paul LePage’s rhetoric was divisive.

Orson Horchler, also known as the Pigeon, sits Thursday in a bus shelter on St. John Street in Portland. The shelter’s glass walls are adorned with his designs by other Mainers. Credit: Troy R. Bennett / BDN

Instead of being swept away by the next heavy rainstorm, his art of protest has gained momentum. Soon after, he was invited to participate in a Maine Historical Society exhibit on 400 years of immigration to Maine. From there, Pigeon was invited to speak in a number of schools and to install his Mainer art in a number of cities.

This eventually led to the bus shelters, on the edge of its former French-speaking neighborhood.

“It puts my work in a new context,” Pigeon said. “It’s public transport, which I love. Anything public is where I want to be, not on the walls of a museum.

See more of Pigeon’s work on pigeonnation.com.

Ebenezer Akakpo

“Hope and Friendship”

Rue du Congrès, August 2020

Artist Ebenezer Akakpo sits in the bus shelter he designed on Congress Street in Portland. Akakpo, who was born in Ghana, was inspired by traditional Ghanaian symbols of hope and friendship. Credit: Troy R. Bennett / BDN

Artist Ebenezer Akakpo is a jewelry designer and industrial designer. That’s why its bold, colorful, powder coated steel shelter design came naturally.

“I make things in 3D,” he said. “So I made an exoskeleton structure for the bus shelter – something you can touch and walk through.”

Large steel pieces are made from a repeating pattern that echoes its general shape.

Akakpo lives in South Portland but was born in Ghana. The designs for his designs are based on traditional Ghanaian Adinkra symbols often printed on fabrics in this part of the world.

“The symbols can be identified, without words, by most Ghanaians,” he said.

Adinkra symbols appear in much of Akakpo’s work. A steel motif on the bus shelter symbolizes hope.

“I used this design on the ceiling,” he said, “because hope means God is in heaven hearing our prayers.”

Ghana-born artist Ebenezer Akakpo was inspired by traditional Ghanaian symbols of hope and friendship. Credit: Troy R. Bennett / BDN

Akakpo also used the same pattern on the sides. This way, the people looking down the street, hoping the bus will arrive soon, are looking straight through.

The design on the front and back of the shelter represents friendship.

He chose this model while reflecting on human interdependence at the city’s multiple racial justice gatherings last summer.

“With the combination of hope and friendship, it has become a place where it will hopefully spark conversations between strangers and friends,” Akakpo said.

See more works by Ebenezer Akakpo on akakpo.com.

Justin levesque

“Glacial retreat”

Rue Bedford, August 2020

Artist and photographer Justin Levesque stands in a bus shelter on Bedford Street in Portland. Levesque designed the blue, glued images of glaciers and arrows adorning the glass. Credit: Troy R. Bennett / BDN

Portland-based photographer and artist Justin Levesque isn’t just a shooter. Lévesque’s images do not go straight from his camera lens to a print on a gallery wall.

For him, taking the picture is just the beginning.

“I mix them up and move them,” Levesque said. “They are sampled, glued. I like the concept of construction.

This style of mixing and curving images is how he came up with the translucent blue design of his shelter on Bedford Street, in the middle of the University of South Maine, his alma mater. In his creation, fragments of glaciers mingle with plunging arrows and negative space.

The raw material comes from photos he took while cruising on a tall ship near the Arctic Circle in northern Norway. Arrows represent cod mortality rate as a function of currents and rising temperatures in the Gulf of Maine.

“It’s one of the fastest warming bodies of water in the world,” Levesque said. “The arrows also represent potential migration routes that we may have to use given the rising waters and the disappearance of the coastline. “

The design by artist and photographer Justin Levesque is a collage made from photos of glaciers that he took on board a boat, north of the Norwegian coast. Credit: Troy R. Bennett / BDN

Levesque said he understands the irony of talking about climate change with plastic art, but he’s not convinced art itself can save the world. Instead, he thinks art can help spur conversations and then action, which will make a difference.

Levesque also has a lighter side.

He calls the room “Glacial Retreat” not just because of the environmental implications.

“Because it contains images of glaciers,” Levesque said, “and a bus shelter is a real refuge from the elements.”

See more work by Justin Levesque on Instagram.

David Wilson

“Algae shelter”

Thompson’s Point Road, June 2021

Judith McAllister waits for her bus at a shelter at the Portland Transportation Center in Thompson’s Point on Friday. The shelter was painted and designed in a rock weed motif by North Haven Island artist David Wilson. Credit: Troy R. Bennett / BDN

David Wilson thinks contemporary public structures like Portland bus shelters are akin to Soviet-era apartment buildings: utilitarian, stripped of adornment, tragic.

“People need frills,” Wilson said. “Modern architecture is so brutal and universally boring.”

As a partial remedy, he adorned his shelter at Thompson’s Point Transportation Center with graphic, sinuous seaweed veins. Wilson applied a vinyl decal of his artwork to the back of the glass shelter, but hand painted the front and sides in place.

“I slept there for days, working the night away by candlelight,” he said, audibly smiling. “Not really.”

It’s a joke but the humor reveals the artist’s desire to turn ordinary things into something extraordinary.

Wilson is originally from Scotland and moved to Maine in the 1970s. He now lives and works in North Haven, so he’s never far from the water. As a painter he was drawn to landscapes but often chose details – like algae or trees – to isolate them, teasing them in their essential forms.

With this treatment, the shelter’s wrack is flared flat and monochrome until it looks like zebra stripes.

“There was an opportunity to make it whimsical,” Wilson said, “to make it interesting, instead of something you overlook.”

Maine artist David Wilson of North Haven hand painted a design of seaweed on a bus shelter at the Portland Transportation Center. Credit: Troy R. Bennett / BDN

Another inspiration comes from Portland’s wrought iron fences and railings. He loves the way they twist and turn, like black vines growing on an otherwise brick city. In this way, the ironwork serves the same purpose as its wrack. It gives utility buildings a decorative element, an organic touch of life.

“If the opportunity presented itself, they would grow all over the building,” Wilson said. “It’s like an invitation to nature.

David Wilson’s paintings can be seen at Hopkins Quay Gallery.

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