PORTLAND, Maine — Candidates seeking to become the next mayor of Portland on Nov. 8 might do well to visit Christina Bechstein’s Public Art Studio class at the Maine College of Art.
The 16-person class is in the final stage of an ambitious project of interviewing and taking portraits of community members with a goal of harvesting popular visions of a better Portland and, ultimately, putting those faces and voices out for all to absorb.
The project is intentionally set to coincide with the ongoing mayoral race. On the weekend before Election Day, the students will post their portraits in a range of sizes on buildings all over the city.
“We started by asking people what they’d do if they were elected mayor for a day,” said Jacob Michaud, a student on the project’s promotional committee. “But as we talked to more and more people, we started to see their ideas were a little bit bigger than they’d probably be able to carry out through the mayor’s position.”
Interview/portrait subjects were found through interactions with other community organizations, and also by approaching passers-by at random.
“We pull people right off the street,” Michaud said. “It’s totally random. Our intent with this project is to be very diverse.”
Gianna Caranfa, who conducted many of the interviews, said people’s comments ranged from the silly to the serious, and included complaints about the city bus schedule and requests for more public pools. Across the body of the comments, Fitzpatrick said listeners will get a good idea about the varied characters in the city and also hear unvarnished opinions about the quality of life here.
“A lot of children [interviewed] go so far as to say they don’t feel safe walking here or there,” she said.
“A lot of [the comments] are connected to what people value and what they care about,” Bechstein said. “This is a great way to get students involved during an election season with the community.”
Using materials on which to print the images, the students can produce pictures as large as 10 feet wide, and Kristin Fitzpatrick of the project’s installation committee said she expects to use that full-sized canvas in at least one location.
The interview clips from the portrait subjects will be posted on a project website as companion pieces.
The topic? Being mayor of Portland, of course.
Bechstein said the stakes are particularly high in the public art program, because it forces students to endure public scrutiny and engage in difficult conversations with strangers. The students also tackle the logistics behind the ambitious project, including approaching building and business owners to get permission to display the portraits prominently.
“Because it’s so public, city officials, reporters and anybody else will be able to see who these people are and what they’re thinking about,” Michaud said. “This project is about bridging the gap between community members who are not always heard and those people who are making decisions that affect them.”