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We should have been discouraged when our first sculptures disappeared. It was late March. We were a week into fumbling our way through life absent our family’s regular work-day institutions. The University of Maine, where my husband and I teach, and the kids’ public schools in Orono had moved to remote instruction. Our favorite neighbor children who usually rang our doorbell five times a day soliciting playmates had disappeared inside. And winter was far from gone. Ice, compacted from months of snowshoe traffic, still lined the forested trails of the Orono Land Trust behind our home.
That first weekend, needing to express ourselves, needing to do something other than sit in front of computers, my family turned to making public art. For years, we had wanted to create some sort of sculpture to adorn the rocky bluff overlooking Interstate 95 a mile from our house through the woods. Maybe a towering cairn of slate gathered from the cliff edge of the bluff? Perhaps a Norse-styled, sylvan creature composed of downed pine trees, birch bark and lichen? But somehow in pandemic mode these natural motifs didn’t seem to fit the bill.
Instead, we gathered scrap lumber in our garage and assembled it into a pair of crude, stick-figure people: a seven-foot-tall parent and child with hair made of stapled-on twigs. We armed the kids with brushes and half-full cans of red, yellow and blue paint leftover from our annual tradition of painting our mailbox in bold patterns and child scribbles. Within an hour, the statues sported smiley faces and red-and-yellow-striped shirts evocative of the children’s book series Where’s Waldo.
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When the paint had dried, we pulled on our boots, grabbed the drill, and hiked our sculptures up to the bluff. As we screwed them down onto their foundations and stepped back to admire our work, passing drivers honked their approval. The pair looked distinctly friendly — each held an arm raised in a wave and their expressions seemed to say, “Hello, I see you. We’re in this together. And somehow we’ll make it through.”
As we tromped back home, the kids flitting between trees on the periphery of the trail, my husband, Tim, whispered to me sidelong.
“How long before they’re vandalized?”
I stopped mid-stride, balanced on a protruding tree root, and scowled at him.
“Impossible. They look like they were made by kids. No one would do that.”
And, yet, the next day the sculptures weren’t just vandalized. They were gone.
We called the police. The officer who answered — a towering, uniformed giant who in normal times could be seen grinning down at kindergartners as they greeted him with leg hugs outside the school — found no mention of a wooden, Waldo-esque pair in the weekend’s police reports. The only records of our sculptures were the few photos on my cell phone and an email a friend had sent out to our neighborhood list, telling all to look right when driving north on the interstate for an art installation that bore resemblance to my family’s whimsically painted mailbox.
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After a day or two of disappointment, we decided we weren’t ready to put the sculptures to rest. We sent out another neighborhood email, this time asking for donations of scrap lumber left at the end of driveways on Friday night to accommodate social distancing. The response was overwhelming.
Over the course of the next several weekends we built and painted with a vengeance. I gravitated toward the bigger pieces of wood, the ones stained by rot or mud that had no other prospect of purpose, and assembled absurd creatures: a ten-foot-tall mother giraffe and her baby, a five-colored mammoth of a bird whose feathers were a mix of scrap trim and molding, and a man with a yellow bowler hat, a red and white plaid shirt, and legs that were either disproportionately long or augmented by stilts. Pandemic times seemed to call not for perfect representation, but for overstatement, color and scale.
Tim, who had grown up doing summer carpentry work with his school-teacher father, puttered around the periphery of my grandiose creatures, shoring up foundations, covering exposed screw tips, adding horns to the giraffes, and sawing their square rumps at an angle to help them look less like long-necked horses. In spare moments, he assembled eight-foot-tall sunflowers with symmetrical petals, their heads tipped up toward the sun.
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On a Sunday near the end of April, we shuffled down the road, clutching towering sculptures between us to deposit in willing neighbors’ yards. One man — a dentist cum full-time pandemic companion to his pre-K daughter — popped his head out his door just as we were walking away from settling the behemoth bird at the edge of his front yard. As he studied the creature’s red breast and plume, its oversized yellow beak and sparse angular feathers, I sensed he was trying to call up the relevant taxonomy.
“How about if we call it Thunder Chicken?” he proposed.
We laughed. “Perfect.”
As we were unloading the mama giraffe from the top of our minivan into a daffodil-lined yard at the bottom of the street, a couple new to the neighborhood walked by. They wanted to know where their sculpture was. We had installed eight creations up and down the winding street and explained there was only one left — a squatting, abstract figure, painted solid red, who just didn’t feel complete. They insisted upon adopting him anyway.
Over the next few days, the neighborhood email list lit up. The retired engineer, who clocks hours in his yard cultivating new varieties of magnolias and grafting apples, sent around a drive-by video he and his wife had made entitled “Viral Sculptures.” Another neighbor proposed that our next neighborhood video be a flash mob with families dancing at the end of their driveways. The number of new offers to host creations on our street, Winterhaven Drive, was so high, we made plans to rotate the sculptures between yards in a week.
And our abstract, red, squatting man suddenly looked complete. His hosts had outfitted him with an umbrella for the dusting of snow we got that first night. The next day he wore a scarf and clutched a snow shovel. And the day after that he held a poop scoop bag and a wired dog leash that appeared to be encircling an invisible dog.
I wrote to his adoptive parents. “You’re amazing.”
They reported new, daily outfit plans for the next two weeks.
It’s been a month, and we’ve cycled the sculptures to new yards three times now. They will move to the neighborhood just north of us next week, where someone has lined up eight hosts and a volunteer to make a new sculpture to add to the repertoire. Our hope is to keep them traveling to new neighborhoods throughout the summer.
It occurs to me that in a regular spring with lawns beginning their recovery from mud season, neighbors might not have been so inclined to host our oversized folk art in their yards. In normal times, we would have needed to invent a cohesive theme for our giraffe-bird-and-sunflower menagerie, or an explanation for our creations’ relevance to central Maine.
But in these times, all of us seem to share an unstated understanding.
And that’s enough.
Katie Quirk lives in Orono. She is the author of the middle-grade novel, A Girl Called Problem.