PORTLAND, Maine — Bus shelters are just places to get out of the rain and snow while you’re waiting for your ride to come rumbling up the street. They’re simple, utilitarian and not much to look at or think about.
Not anymore. Not here.
A coalition of community organizations, powered by creative Mainers and funded by a pile of grant money, are transforming the city’s streets into an open-air art museum, one bus shelter at a time. Four stops have already been revamped and more are on the way.
In 2020, Creative Portland (the city’s official arts agency), Greater Portland METRO (the local bus service) and the Greater Portland Council of Governments received a $25,000 grant from the National Endowment for the Arts.
The money helped fund the Creative Bus Shelter Initiative, which hired local artists to “create public art on bus shelters, to spotlight public transit, and to evoke community joy.”
The agencies officially unveiled the first three shelters last August and the fourth one in June. Creative Portland expects to seek more artist applications in July.
Here’s a look at work of the first four artists in the program.
“The Maine Project”
St. John Street, August 2020
Orson Horchler’s permanent bus stop art started out five years ago as a temporary wheat-pasted poster installation on a vacant storefront. At the time, Horchler had no idea it would have such a long life.
“It was only supposed to last a few weeks,” said Horchler, who goes by the name of Pigeon when creating art.
Like the original installation, the shelter on St. John Street bears a diverse collection of drawn human faces with the inscription “Mainer” below them in block type.
As is typical with Pigeon’s street art, a small drawing of his namesake city bird is also included, asking, “Tell me, what’s a ‘real’ Mainer?”
It’s meant as a thought-provoking poke at the old “people from away” trope. It urges viewers to reconsider what a “real Mainer” looks like and if the joke is funny, anymore. None of the four faces on Pigeon’s bus shelter are caucasion.
“When I started this project,” he said. “I was upset because the governor of Maine at the time was trying to make asylum-seekers ineligible for general assistance. I started it as a protest.”
Pigeon, who grew up in France, had just arrived in Portland and felt like he’d finally found a home among a community of artistic Francophones. His fellow French speakers were mostly recent arrivals from central African countries, and Pigeon felt then-Gov. Paul LePage’s rhetoric was divisive.
Orson Horchler, also known as Pigeon, sits in a bus shelter on St. John Street in Portland on Thursday. The shelter’s glass walls are adorned with his drawings of fellow Mainers. Credit: Troy R. Bennett / BDN
Instead of washing away in the next heavy rainstorm, his protest art gained momentum. Before long, he was invited to join a Maine Historical Society exhibition about 400 years of immigration in Maine. From there, Pigeon was asked to speak in a number of schools and install his Mainer art in a number of towns.
That eventually led to the bus shelter, on the edge of his old Francophone neighborhood.
“It puts my work in a new context,” Pigeon said. “This is public transit, which I love. Anything public, this is where I want to be — not on the walls of a museum.”
See more of Pigeon’s work at pigeonnation.com.
“Hope and Friendship”
Congress Street, August 2020
Artist Ebenezer Akakpo is a jewelry maker and industrial designer. That’s why his bold, colorful, powder-coated steel shelter design came naturally.
“I make 3D objects,” he said. “So, I made an exoskeleton structure for the bus shelter — something you can touch and walk through.”
The large steel pieces are made from a repeating pattern that echoes its overall shape.
Akakpo lives in South Portland but was born in Ghana. His design’s patterns are based on traditional Ghanaian adinkra symbols often printed on fabrics in that part of the world.
“The symbols can be identified, without words, by most Ghanians,” he said.
Adinkra symbols show up in much of Akakpo’s work. One steel pattern on the bus shelter symbolizes hope.
“I used that pattern on the ceiling,” he said, “because hope means God is in the heavens, listening to our prayers.”
Artist Ebenezer Akakpo, who was born in Ghana, drew inspiration from the traditional Ghanaian symbols for hope and friendship. Credit: Troy R. Bennett / BDN
Akakpo also used the same pattern on the sides. That way, folks looking up the street, hoping the bus will come soon, are looking straight through it.
The pattern on the front and back of the shelter stands for friendship.
He chose that pattern while pondering human interdependence during the city’s multiple racial justice rallies last summer.
“Having the combination of hope and friendship, it becomes a place where it will hopefully strike conversations between strangers and friends,” Akakpo said.
See more of Ebenezer Akakpo’s work at akakpo.com.
Bedford Street, August 2020
Portland-based photographer and artist Justin Levesque is not a straight shooter. Levesque’s images don’t go directly from his camera lens to a print on a gallery wall.
For him, snapping the picture is just the beginning.
“I mishmash them and move them around,” Levesque said. “They’re sampled, collaged. I like the notion of construction.”
That style blending and bending of images is how he arrived at the translucent, blue design of his shelter on Bedford Street, amid the University of Southern Maine, his alma mater. In his creation, fragments of glaciers mix with swooping arrows and negative space.
The raw material came from pictures he shot while sailing on a tall ship near the Arctic Circle, north of Norway. The arrows represent the mortality rate of cod in relation to flowing currents and the rising temperatures in the Gulf of Maine.
“It’s one of the fastest-warming bodies of water in the world,” Levesque said. “The arrows also represent potential migration paths we might need to take given the rising waters and disappearing coastline.”
Artist and photographer Justin Levesque’s design is a collaged made from photos of glaciers he made aboard a boat, north of the Norwegian coast. Credit: Troy R. Bennett / BDN
Levesque said he understands the irony of talking about climate change with art that’s made out of plastic but he’s not convinced art, itself, can save the world. Instead, he believes art can help spur the conversations, then action, which will make a difference.
Levesque has a lighter side, too.
He calls the piece “Glacial Retreat” not only because of the environmental implications.
“Because it has pictures of glaciers,” Levesque said, “and a bus shelter is an actual retreat from the elements.”
See more of Justin Levesque’s work on Instagram.
Thompson’s Point Road, June 2021
David Wilson thinks contemporary, public structures like Portland’s bus shelters are akin to Soviet-era apartment blocks: Utilitarian, stripped of all adornment, tragic.
“People need some frills,” Wilson said. “Modern architecture is so brutal and universally dull.”
As a partial remedy, he adorned his shelter at the transportation center on Thompson’s Point with graphic, snaking veins of seaweed. Wilson applied a vinyl decal of his artwork on the back of the glass shelter but handpainted the front and sides on site.
“I slept there for days, working into the night by candlelight,” he said, audibly grinning. “No, not really.”
It’s a joke but the humor reveals the artist’s desire to transform ordinary things into something extraordinary.
Wilson is originally from Scotland and moved to Maine in the 1970s. He now lives and works on North Haven, so he’s never far from the water. As a painter, he’s drawn to landscapes but often picks details — like seaweed or trees — isolating them, teasing them out into their essential shapes.
With this treatment, the shelter’s rockweed is splayed flat and monochromatic until it resembles zebra stripes.
“There was an opportunity to make it fanciful,” Wilson said, “to make it interesting, instead of something you overlook.”
Maine artist David Wilson of North Haven hand painted a sea weed design on a bus shelter at the Portland Transportation Center. Credit: Troy R. Bennett / BDN
Another inspiration comes from Portland’s wrought iron fences and railings. He likes how they twist and turn, like black vines growing over an otherwise brick city. In that way, the iron work serves the same purpose as his rockweed. It gives the utilitarian buildings a decorative element, an organic touch of life.
“Given the chance, they would grow all over the building,” Wilson said. “It’s like an invitation to nature.”
David Wilson’s paintings can be seen at Hopkins Wharf Gallery.