PORTLAND, Maine — The artist Pigeon’s playful bird-themed work appeared in 2011 in Bangor, but his latest installation has a political edge, asking Portland viewers to think about what it means to be a “Mainer.”
“A Mainer is somebody who lives here in Maine,” he said. “It’s as simple as that.”
Pigeon, also known as Orson Horchler, said he seeks in his artwork to “confront the institutions, the people, the companies and the laws that tell us that we’re not at home in the place where we actually live,” something he said he experienced growing up outside of Paris — after his first five years in the United States — and returning to Maine at the age of 18.
“There’s people all over the world in any situation and any demographics who are being told in some way or another that they don’t belong where they live, and I want that to be considered something that’s immoral,” Horchler said.
His acquaintances from other countries who live in Maine populate the latest work, but the idea was in part informed by his own experiences.
Horchler said the court decision reinforcing the state’s ability to deny General Assistance reimbursements to people seeking asylum in Maine prompted the installation attached with wheat paste on a long-boarded-up but highly trafficked corner of High and Congress streets.
The installation includes eight pen and charcoal drawings of people Horchler said he’s met in Maine, with the word “Mainer” printed below in block letters. Horchler, who makes a living as a carpenter, said it took about 40 hours to put together the project.
One subject, he said, also is the focus of his most recent work in Bangor, installed on a park bench in Norumbega Parkway where that friend slept for about two years.
Another, he said, came to Maine from central Africa and received General Assistance when he arrived.
“The concept that you have to have several generations in Maine to be considered a ‘Mainer’ for me is also xenophobic and racist and also excludes a lot of people who are here living and are part of the economy and part of the quality of life here,” Horchler said, adding he sees new immigrants as a way to bolster the state’s aging and dwindling population.
Horchler said he thinks the term “Mainer” is typically used in a benign manner, but that it also is used rhetorically in the fight to cut General Assistance benefits for legal nonresidents here seeking asylum. Gov. Paul LePage and his supporters have referred to them as “illegals” in seeking to cut those payments from the state.
The governor’s administration has proposed elimination of state funding for General Assistance to noncitizens, arguing that it diverts limited state public assistance funding from other programs for disabled and elderly Mainers.
LePage’s administration and other lawmakers have employed the word “Mainers” in making the argument that newly arrived immigrants should not get state funds before nursing homes that treat Medicaid patients.
“We are putting asylum seekers and so forth ahead of those wanting to get on the bus who are Mainers — our elderly, our disabled,” Rep. Jeff Timberlake, R-Turner, said earlier this month.
Horchler said his installation aims to question those uses of the term “Mainer.”
“I want [viewers] to think about the small ways in language or everyday life that we either tolerate or perpetuate that idea that some of us have more of a right to be here, that some are more Mainers than others,” Horchler said.
The artist, who moved to Portland from Bangor about a year ago, said he thinks “it’s both right and wrong to say Portland is a great city for the arts.”
“I feel the biggest role of art is to serve the community and to create images and idioms that are local,” Horchler said. “You can’t just put in a gallery, you put it on a wall somewhere.”
Horchler, who spoke to the Bangor Daily News unaliased while near the installation Tuesday, said he still prefers to go by Pigeon. And his signature pigeon character sits below his latest work, too, with a speech bubble asking: “Tell me … what’s a ‘real Mainer’??”