PORTLAND, Maine — Casco Bay High School senior Benjamin Coursey admits he may not be able to design the perfect flag. But he knows Portland’s city flag isn’t it.
“I’m a horrible artist,” Coursey said, “but I’ve enjoyed drawing flags because they’re confined to a certain space and they’re simple.”
Or they should be simple. Portland’s busy flag features the city’s multilayered municipal seal and — in most versions, anyway — the words “City of Portland, Maine” and the Latin motto “Resurgam,” meaning “I shall rise again.”
Coursey’s senior project at the Portland high school is to convince city officials to replace the blue-and-gold flag with something better. He plans to lobby city councilors — he said he’s already started — and ultimately hopes to propose an alternative to be adopted.
Along with nationally respected flag experts Ted Kaye and David Martucci, he will help judge reader entries into a BDN Maine contest for new Portland flag designs.
The winning flag design will earn a prize of $300 and will be on the short list of designs that Coursey plans to lobby the council to adopt.
“I think [Portland’s next city flag] could very likely come from the contest,” he said.
Coursey’s project is one of a number of concurrent efforts to change the city flag after it appeared in a collage of bad flags last year in a viral TED talk video featuring popular radio host Roman Mars.
A group of Portlanders has been rallying on social media behind the idea of adopting a new flag in recent months as well. Meanwhile, in a separate effort, Portland and Deering high school sophomores involved in the district’s Anatomy of Leadership program are also exploring a possible redesign of the flag, as well as studying a range of other issues in the city.
In his talk, Mars, a flag aficionado, trumpeted Kaye’s five principles of good flag design: Flags should be simple enough for children to draw them from memory; they should featured just two or three colors; they should feature effective symbolism; they should never feature lettering or seals; and they should be distinctive.
Portland’s flag has just two primary colors and, thanks to the maritime imagery on its seal, has strong symbolism. But it fails by every other principle.
In a wide-ranging public survey conducted by the North American Vexillological Association, Portland’s flag was ranked No. 131 out of 150 municipal flags across the country, with an average rating score of 2.74 out of 10.
In his talk, Mars argued that well-designed municipal flags resonate with large audiences, are used in merchandise and flown proudly throughout their home cities. Poorly designed flags, in contrast, are often largely invisible, with few residents in those cities even realizing their municipality has one, he said.
Local historian and former lawmaker Herb Adams told the BDN he could find a record of the city’s official adoption of the aforementioned seal — on April 30, 1832 — but his research didn’t turn up anything concrete on the flag. He said he could find a record of the city producing flags to distribute in celebration of Portland’s 350th anniversary in 1982, but otherwise couldn’t determine when or why the city started flying it.
Over the years, Adams said, Portlanders just took for granted that the blue-and-gold flag was their municipal flag — those who realized it existed at all, that is.
Coursey said he first discovered Portland had a flag when he saw it in Mars’ video last year. It wasn’t a good first impression.
“It was pretty obvious we could do better,” he said.
The Portland city flag currently flies high above City Hall, and can be found hanging on a pole in the corner of the city council chambers. But it’s not noticeable anywhere else in the city.
“It has almost no public visibility,” Coursey said. “You can’t read it from the steps of City Hall.”