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PORTLAND, Maine — Most every week, a devoted band of worshippers congregate for Sunday services inside a white barn in the city’s North Deering outskirts. They gather in silence around an altar where the object of their devotion sits in an armchair. Classical music drips from a tiny radio on the shelf. Pencils scrape across white paper in a steady whisper and where there was nothing, faces come to life.

This is church — art church.

“It’s become that,” said artist Larry Hayden, who owns the barn.

For a decade, like-minded artists have gathered around Hayden, on the seventh day of the week, to sketch and paint someone from Portland’s arts and culture firmament.

“We settled on inviting people who are cultural leaders in the community to sit for us,” said Hayden. “Which is an interesting way to get to know people who have really contributed to making Portland what it is — it’s sort of a thank you, an appreciation.”

At the end, the sitter — called the “honored guest” — gets to see how a dozen of the city’s most accomplished artists saw them on paper. They also get a thank you card.

“For all they’ve done, for what makes Portland such a dynamic, artistic kind of place,” said Hayden.

Artist Lisa Pierce lives within walking distance of Hayden’s barn. On Sunday, she sat sketching on a high stool near the window. Though the weekly gatherings are not really church, or religious, Pierce thinks they’re important.

“It’s become a real community, and these people are my friends. I think that matters,” she said. “It’s relaxing, it’s meditative, it’s challenging, it’s the best part of my week.”

Formally, the group is called, somewhat redundantly, the Portland Society Portrait Society.

“But nobody thought that was as cute as I did,” said Hayden, “so we just call it the Portland Drawing Society.”

Their first guest, years ago, was art journalist Edgar Allen Beam. Other honored guests to sit on the dias include Portland photography giant Mason Smith, independent curator Bruce Brown, Deirdre Nice of Silly’s Restaurant and St. Lawrence Arts Center fame, art writer Eddie Fitzpatrick and Joshua Bodwell, head of the Maine Writers and Publishers Alliance. (Full disclosure: the author of this story has also been a guest of the drawing group.)

The Drawing Society’s most recent guest was singer, songwriter and banjo player Chuck Romanoff of the folk music group Schooner Fare. Romanoff said he was surprised when he got the invitation.

“Well, modeling is my life,” Romanoff said with a laugh. “How do you say no to someone who wants to draw your picture, focus on you for a couple hours? That’s very flattering.”

The admiration goes both ways. The artists are thankful for the unbroken, two-hour drawing sessions.

“It’s a rare opportunity to get to draw someone for two hours,” said artist Dominic White. “To actually have someone willing to sit with you is pretty neat.”

Though they’ve drawn dozens of people already, Hayden doesn’t think he’ll ever run out of subjects or artists who want to draw them.

“This can go on forever,” he said. “There’s nothing else like it. It’s peaceful. We have a sign on the door that says ‘politics free zone’ so a lot of the baggage that we’re carrying around all week, with what’s going on the world, we just leave it at the door.”

“I grew up Catholic,” added White, “so I had to go to church every Sunday. This is a lot more fun.”

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Troy R. Bennett

Troy R. Bennett is a Buxton native and longtime Portland resident whose photojournalism has appeared in media outlets all over the world.