The city’s sculpture collection includes many monuments and statues that stand in tribute to prominent figures from the past and a handful of contemporary pieces.
Can we at least agree that Portland has great art? The Portland Museum of Art is among the finest regional museums in America, and as a community we support our artists in words and action.
When it comes to outdoor sculpture, it’s a mixed bag. The city boasts gems and duds. Art that’s sited in public places is almost always controversial, because it’s difficult for art of any kind to create consensus among the public.
The city’s sculpture collection, under the stewardship of the volunteer Portland Public Art Committee, includes many monuments and statues that stand in tribute to prominent figures from the past. We also have a handful of contemporary pieces, some of which blend well with Portland’s built environment and create visual excitement in a city that’s full of red bricks and cobblestones – and many unattractive buildings that resulted from the bad-design decade of the 1970s.
We compiled a Portland peninsula walking tour of what we think are the city’s most interesting outdoor sculptures. It begins in the West End, moves east through Congress and Monument squares toward Munjoy Hill, then down to Deering Oaks. You’ll see nice art. The fresh air and exercise are bonuses.
We start at Longfellow Square and the handsome bronze cast statue of Portland’s native poet Henry Wadsworth Longfellow. Another Portland native, Franklin Simmons, made this piece in his studio in Italy. It was dedicated in 1888, which means it’s been part of Portland’s cultural landscape for parts of three centuries and has outlasted much of what surrounds it. The square has undergone several changes over the years. Early on, State Street traffic passed both sides of the statue. The pedestrian area on the east side of the seated poet came in the 1970s, and the square was redesigned again in 2005.
Longfellow looks scholarly, seated in his chair, a scroll in one hand and books at his feet. He faces east, looking toward downtown.
INTERESTING FACT: It cost $17,000 to make the sculpture. The Longfellow Statue Association collected coins from kids across New England. Their names are sealed in the pedestal’s base.
Heading east down Congress Street, we come to the Portland Museum of Art and Robert Indiana’s newly installed “Seven.” It is what the name implies: a fabricated steel numeral 7, which Indiana originally made as part of his numbers series. The museum purchased the sculpture last year, and installed it outside its front door – at 7 Congress Square – in the fall. One of the subtle delights of Seven is the way the top curve of the number mimics the curves of the museum’s design. That’s purely coincidental, but it’s nice serendipity.
Vandals have not been kind to “Seven.” It has been tagged with graffiti at least twice and defaced with the kick of a boot. The museum’s purchase of this piece does at least two things: It makes a statement about contemporary art having a prominent place at the museum, and it contributes to the conversation about Congress Square and the intersection of Congress, Free and High streets. The museum’s placement of a prized piece of contemporary art in the square signals its intention to take a leadership role in the clean-up of its neighborhood.
INTERESTING FACT: The artist, Robert Indiana, lives on Vinalhaven Island off the coast of Rockland.
Take Free Street and aim for Gorham’s Corner at the intersection of Fore, Pleasant, York and Center streets. There you will find a sculpture of the great film director John Ford, who before finding fame in Hollywood grew up in Portland. He spent his early years in a house not far from the statue, and graduated from Portland High School. He directed more than 100 movies, and won multiple Oscars.
This piece presents him with his legs crossed, seated in a director’s chair, pipe in hand. Granite blocks ring the statue at its base, naming his Oscar-winning films.
The New York artist George Kelly made the piece, which was dedicated in 1993.
INTERESTING FACT: A Ford family friend, Linda Noe Laine of Louisiana, visited Portland to get a better sense of the city’s influence on the director. She was surprised to find scant evidence of him, and donated $250,000 to make the sculpture.
Work your way back toward Temple Street and One City Center. On a grassy knoll just outside the office building stands Michael, a dramatic and often overlooked piece of art. It was created by the sculptor John Raimondi, and installed in what was then known as Canal Square. Raimondi studied at Portland School of Art (now MECA), and used the creation and installation of Michael as a teaching tool for students.
He named it after people in his life named Michael, and drew inspiration from the letter M. Its inherent tension between upward and downward movement suggests birds in flight, or perhaps an angel.
INTERESTING FACT: Raimondi was a student of Norman Therrien, the sculptor who cast “The Maine Lobsterman” across Temple Street from Michael.
In the heart of Monument Square is Portland’s most visible piece of public art, Our Lady of Victories, also known as the Portland Sailors and Soldiers Monument. It was erected in 1890-91 in honor of the 5,000 Portlanders who died in the Civil War. The 14-foot bronze female figure symbolizes unity and was modeled after Minerva, the goddess of wisdom and war. She holds a sword in her right hand and a shield and maple branch in her left hand.
Much has changed in the square that surrounds this beauty, but she remains steadfast and solid.
INTERESTING FACT: Franklin Simmons, the Portland native who made the Longfellow statue, also cast Our Lady of Victories in his Italian studio. The granite base and smaller, bronze sculptures were designed by Richard Morris Hunt, the New York architect who also designed the base for the Statue of Liberty.
A little further east at Lincoln Park, near the base of Munjoy Hill and across from the courthouse, stands another under-appreciated gem, the Lincoln Fountain. It’s made of granite, and includes small cherub-like figures under the upper bowl. The fountain was made functional again in 2012, after a long period of neglect.
The story of the park is as interesting as the fountain. The park was constructed in 1866 after the Great Fire destroyed much of the city. It was named Phoenix Park, and served as a firebreak. The park included flower beds and elm trees, and was considered the centerpiece of Portland for many years. It also is Portland’s oldest park and was once much larger. About a quarter of the park was lost to the construction of Franklin Street in 1968.
INTERESTING FACT: The city changed the name to Lincoln Park in 1867, to honor the slain president.
In Deering Oaks stands “The Hiker,” an oft-replicated sculpture of a gun-toting soldier standing in a battlefield. This bronze monument honors soldiers who fought in the Spanish-American War, the Boxer Rebellion and the Filipino-American War.
We like it because of its dignity and simplicity. It’s a quiet piece, situated in a section of the park that’s isolated. The artist Theo Alice Ruggles Kitson named it The Hiker because that’s how soldiers sometimes referred to themselves.
Kitson created the highly realistic sculpture in 1906 based on a photo selected from a national contest. There are 50 or so versions of this piece across the country. It was placed in Deering Oaks in 1924.
INTERESTING FACT: Because of the placement of these statues near and far and because they are useful in monitoring corrosion, scientists use them to study air pollution over time.
The last stop on our tour is “The Circle of Life,” also in Deering Oaks. Maine artist Carole Hanson conceived the piece as an expression of beauty in honor of the late Kay
Wagenknecht-Harte, Portland’s urban designer and a supporter of the arts. Hanson worked with landscape architect Stephen Mohr to create a reflecting pool surrounded by a long path of paving stones. The oak branches above create a natural canopy, and remind us of everyday beauty and the wonder of life.
INTERESTING FACT: Hanson began the project in November 1999, and worked through the winter amid snow and cold to complete it in time for dedication in spring 2000.