Portland Mural Initiative Celebrates the Vernacular of Place by Jenna Crowder ’09

Tessa Greene O’Brien MFA ’16 and her husband, Will Sears, both painters, had a long-standing dream to fill the city of Portland with colorful, graphic works of art in public spaces. Immersed in the worlds of sign painting, murals, and large-scale festival and installation work, the pair wanted to create opportunities for communities to come together around art that celebrated both the contemporary art world and the vernacular of place. In 2015, with a grant from the Kindling Fund—administered by SPACE Gallery through a regranting program funded by the Andy Warhol Foundation for the Visual Arts—O’Brien and Sears were able to co-found the Portland Mural Initiative, which now has six murals and architectural interventions under its name, and plans for future works underway.

“We have learned a lot about public art and community engagement since our inception,” says O’Brien. The Portland Mural Initiative has worked with several private businesses along Portland’s Bayside Trail that have offered up walls to emerging and established artists whom O’Brien and Sears have commissioned. They’ve also worked as far away as Kittery, in addition to their signature work in Portland. Understanding that artists are not separate from the communities they live and work in, O’Brien and Sears have diligently attended to fostering dialogue among artists, organizations, and community stakeholders. The Portland Mural Initiative has hosted free public meals at openings for murals and a series of artist talks designed to connect the public to the work.

This kind of connection is important, especially for artists like Jenny McGee Dougherty ’05, who was commissioned for one of the Bayside Trail murals in the summer of 2015. “There are elements of the composition that were directly drawn from the surrounding landscape,” she says, pointing to various architectural details and color palettes—like swaths of paint meant to cover up graffi ti—that inform her abstract, collage-like work. Dougherty, whose mural work will be included in the Portland Museum of Art 2018 Biennial, was able to translate the imagery of her smaller works on paper into something larger and much more public through her work with the Portland Mural Initiative: “Working large and having my process viewable to the public was exciting—it allowed me to come full circle with this work.”

For O’Brien and Sears, working with artists who have a connection to the area creates a space for the community to engage in deeper understandings of both art and artists in Portland, and work such as Dougherty’s can highlight hidden moments of beauty in the neighborhood in new, thoughtful ways. “Artists are integral members of the community,” says O’Brien. “We seek opportunities that allow the artists creative license while still aligning with the reality and vibe of the neighborhood.”

As the Portland Mural Initiative moves into its fourth year, O’Brien notes that they have dialed back the scale of the project in order to pursue projects that they’re passionate about, even if that means taking on fewer projects per year. “Our hope is that the artist’s creative vision is not dulled down through extensive design by committee,” O’Brien reflects. As the Portland Mural Initiative gains recognition and momentum, she and Sears are being careful to honor both the artists they work with and their own creative practices. In addition to working on several of her own commissions, O’Brien also has an active studio practice and recently attended painting residencies at the Vermont Studio Center in Johnson, Vermont, and at Hewnoaks Artist Colony in Lovell, Maine.

While new projects are underway, viewers can currently take a stroll or cycle along the Bayside Trail to see murals by O’Brien, Sears, and Dougherty, as well as by Andrea Sulzer and Greta van Campen, and can get updates from portlandmuralinitiative.org.

Jenna Crowder ’09 is an artist who works in installation, curating, and writing. She earned her BFA in Sculpture at MECA&D and has worked internationally on public and collaborative art projects. Jenna is currently a member of the Portland Public Art Committee and is a member artist at Pickwick Independent Press. She is the co-founding editor of the online arts journal The Chart