Walls of Affordable Housing Developments Beautified by the Work of Maine Artists
The hallways and walls inside the common areas of the newly refurbished Northfield Green Apartments were mostly bare.
What was hung consisted of donated prints or purchased mass-produced artwork from places like Goodwill. Occasionally, an inspired resident would create something that could be displayed.
Cullen Ryan, executive director of Community Housing of Maine, an affordable housing developer that owns and operates Portland’s large senior and disabled complex, knew it didn’t have to be. High-end original art doesn’t need to be displayed only in upper-class living rooms.
Since last year, Ryan had been considering the possibility of exhibiting works by local artists at certain properties.
Around the same time, the Maine Art Collective — a newly formed group of 14 artists who successfully launched a pop-up gallery in a liberated Old Port storefront during the pandemic — was looking for other ways to promote its work. His mission to expand access to original, locally produced art was well aligned with what Ryan had in mind.
A phone call between Ryan and Maine Art Collective co-founder Marni Prince sealed the deal.
“It really helps us open the door to the kind of housing we want to be involved in, where residents are treated with dignity and respect,” Ryan said. “Why wouldn’t they have beautiful artwork in their common areas?”
Prince said his phone call to Ryan was incidental. Originally, she called organizations to learn about charitable giving and find ways for the collective to partner with underserved communities.
“He said they haven’t done that but are interested in acquiring art,” Prince said. “And I said, ‘Oh, okay. It will work too. It was a bit of a surprise. »
Prince said the artists whose work will be exhibited will benefit in two ways. First, they get paid – it’s their livelihood after all. And second, they get increased exposure, another form of currency.
“It really turned out to be a win-win as we expand our reach and support our artists at the same time,” she said.
So far, Community Housing of Maine has installed 14 artworks at two of its properties, Northfield Green and Central Commons in Hallowell. Some pieces were already finished and were offered by the artists. Other works were commissioned specifically for the spaces.
Sue Vittner, a Portland-based artist and co-founder of the Maine Art Collective, produced two new paintings after seeing photographs of some of the common areas.
“It helped me get a feel for the size and the feel,” she said. “I knew they liked something abstract and peaceful, which is mostly what I do. Oceans and sky.
Vittner, who is also a massage therapist, does not paint with brushes but with his hands, like an adult version of finger painting. She pours colors onto the canvas and allows each painting to take shape from there, a process she likens to spiritual meditation. The pieces Community Housing of Maine purchased were both skyscapes featuring shades of blue layered in an ombré style.
Lynn Ericson, another member of the collective, recreated an earlier painting inspired by the coastal grandeur of Frenchman’s Bay and Acadia National Park. Much of the room is ocean and sky with islands in the distance, but there is a hill in the foreground to create a perspective similar to what hikers might see from a lookout. His style is also abstract – large shapes with little detail but lots of color, in this case blues and earth tones. She applies her acrylic with brushes but also uses sponges, palette knives, even paper towels to add texture.
“I think community housing is such a great thing,” Ericson said. “There’s so much housing out there that just isn’t affordable. And helping to give those residents something original to watch is wonderful.
Lynda Burleigh, 74, has lived in Northfield Green for 11 years. She said some walls were adorned with puzzles that were glued together and framed. The new parts are a big improvement.
“I think the choices with the wall colors are just gorgeous,” she said. “I wish I had more, just the whole walls covered in art.”
Ericson, who lives in Buxton, said her experience with the Maine Art Collective had exceeded expectations. Last summer, the pop-up gallery proved a success for the artists – the collective even extended the short-term lease for another three months – and none of the proceeds had to be donated to a gallery.
“There’s definitely a place for galleries, but if you’re only relying on a handful it can be limited,” Ericson said. “And of course not everyone can enter a gallery. What we have done seems very democratic.
Prince agreed that galleries are important but not for everyone.
“A lot of people can be intimidated by galleries,” she said. “They feel like it’s not accessible to them.”
Vittner said many Maine artists are lucky enough to participate in outdoor shows and exhibits during the warmer months, which often attract tourists who are interested in both the original art and the money to spend.
“But the shows are a short season,” she said. Being able to sell parts to organizations like Community Housing of Maine creates new opportunities.
Ryan said the artwork collectively cost Community Housing of Maine about $6,000, about half of what the pieces would have cost at retail.
“I think we’re lucky to have them,” he said.
Northfield Green in the North Deering neighborhood of Portland is a 200-bedroom apartment complex for seniors and adults with disabilities. It was first developed in the late 1970s, but has been remodeled in recent years after Community Housing of Maine purchased it.
Lucille Cormier, 72, a resident for eight years, let out a sigh when asked what the building looked like before the renovations.
“When I got here I was like, ‘Wow, this is low-income housing,'” she said. Now Cormier sees things differently.
“It’s still not the Taj Mahal, but it’s 90% if not 100% better,” she said. “The images, I think, are fantastic. I think they are beautiful.
Community Housing of Maine develops, owns and maintains 915 affordable housing units at 86 sites in 31 communities across the state, including Northfield Green and Central Commons, which is home to 29 efficiency apartments and one senior living room in a historic brick building just off Water Street in Hallowell. The agency also provides advocacy services, supportive housing, community inclusion, and stability for homeless and special needs populations statewide.
Of the residents of the two properties who will be able to see the artwork every day, Ryan said the word he heard most often was “thrilled.”
“I think adding artwork like this has really helped to unite the community more,” he said. “And we’ll definitely see if we can continue to do that for other properties.”
Prince also said the collective would welcome any inquiries from other developers or property managers who may want to incorporate local and original art into their projects. Its website is: maineartcollective.com.
Personal photographer Ben McCanna contributed to this story.
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