Like a lot of people who live and work in Portland, Justin Levesque watches the container ships that come in and out of Portland Harbor.
Many of us take the ships for granted, barely thinking twice about them unless they tie up bridge traffic. Levesque’s curiosity isn’t fleeting. He wonders what life is like for the crews who work on the ships – where they’re from, what they do when they’re in Portland and what’s inside all those containers anyway?
He got a few of those answers after receiving permission from Eimskip, the Icelandic shipping company with headquarters in Portland, to spend time on a container ship and get to know the people who work on the waterfront. He traveled with an Eimskip crew from Portland to Iceland in the fall and documented his experience in photos and with a podcast that originated aboard the ship.
“I’m interested in making work at the intersection of art and commerce,” Levesque said. “Who are these people, and how do they find their life here? It’s all about the human beings on board and making visible an invisible transportation system. This project is about making it tangible.”
Eimskip is present on the waterfront with large container ships coming in and out of the port. Simultaneously, the city and state are pursuing bigger business relationships with Iceland and Arctic countries.
In January, Levesque will exhibit photos from his journey at PhoPa gallery in Portland as part of a group show of emerging artists, and at the University of Southern Maine Art Gallery in Gorham. Levesque, 29, is a USM alum. The exhibitions are part of a larger multimedia project, “IcelandX207,” that Levesque is pursuing with a grant from the Maine Arts Commission. His goal is to tell the story behind Iceland’s role in the Maine economy, create portraits of Icelanders in Maine and document life on the Portland waterfront.
Cargo being loaded on deck.
Looking down on workers on the pier.
Above: Overlooking the tops of cargo containers. Right: A view of the ocean through the hawsepipe.
Looking from the bridge out to sea.
The project will culminate in early October, when the Arctic Council holds its annual meeting in Portland.
“Justin captures and reveals a world otherwise inaccessible to most viewers,” PhoPa Gallery manager Rachel McDonald said. “He provides insight into an important relationship that exists between Maine and Iceland that many viewers may not know about. So much takes place in the Portland harbor, and this project dives into one of those stories and makes it real and available to viewers.”
Levesque scored a coup when Eimskip granted his request to join the crew of the container ship MV Selfoss for the journey from Portland to Reykjavik on what is known as the Green Line route. Levesque calls the Green Line “the invisible thread that connects our two cities, countries, cultures and economies.”
Levesque boarded the MV Selfoss on Sept. 19 and made two stops en route to Iceland, both in Newfoundland. The journey ended nine days later.
Levesque was given a private cabin on the top deck. He wasn’t able to roam freely, but he did spend a lot of time with the 11-member crew, which included 10 men and one woman. He took hundreds of photos and recorded many hours of interviews for his podcasts. His work continues in Portland as he makes photos at the port.
As for the containers, Levesque had no idea what was in them. He was told not to ask. He also never got a firm grip on how many containers were on the 400-plus foot ship. “The whole container part of it was out of reach,” he said.
Levesque has been curious about Iceland since the mid-1990s, when he became a fan of the Iceland-born musician Bjork. He took his first trip to Iceland in May 2014 and returned again that November.
He was born in Biddeford and graduated from Massabesic High School in Waterboro in 2004.
McDonald called his photos “straightforward and true to themselves in the way documentary work should be.” He provides glimpses into the experiences, idiosyncrasies and realities of life aboard one of Eimskip’s ships through carefully captured imagery.”
His photographs reveal the vastness of the sea and he cramped quarters of the ship, and offer a sense of the lives of the invisible workers on Portland’s waterfront.
WHERE: PhoPa Gallery, 132 Washington Ave., Portland
WHEN: Opens Jan. 6, on view through Feb. 13; opening reception 5 to 7 p.m. Jan. 14
WHO’S INCLUDED: Penn Chan, Portland; Roxanne Cottongame, Rockport; Vivian Ewing, Portland; Greta Grant, Portland; Dylan Hausthor, Portland; Justin Levesque, Portland; Zach Miller, Bristol; Jasper Muse, South Portland; Martha Schnee, Portland; Tristan Stamm, Portland; Gabriella Sturchio, Portland; Nevan Swanson, Brunswick; S.B. Walker, Portland
INFO: 207-517-0200 or www.phopagallery.com
ALSO: The University of Southern Maine Art Faculty and the Union of Maine Visual Artists have teamed up for a group show at the USM Art Gallery, Gorham. “USM|UMVA: Forging Affinities” opens Jan. 28 and will include a collaboration with USM Photography Professor Jen McDermott.