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A ‘Hopeful’ sign for Bangor

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A ‘Hopeful’ sign for Bangor (All images courtesy United Way of Eastern Maine/Charlie Hewitt)

BANGOR – A new art installation is set to shine its message of hope over Downtown Bangor.

The piece – titled “Hopeful” – is part of a series of neon artworks displayed outside and/or atop buildings all over the state. Bangor’s entry into the series will be installed and displayed on the side of 152 Main St., aiming its light and its message toward the city’s bustling downtown area.

“Hopeful” is the work of Charlie Hewitt, an artist based in Yarmouth. Versions of this piece can be seen in cities all over the state. There’s one atop the Speedwell Gallery in Portland – that was the first, back in 2019. Since then, Hewitt has completed commissioned versions for a number of other municipalities; there’s one on the Bates Mill in Lewiston, for instance, as well as in Brunswick and Yarmouth and towns in Connecticut and Maryland.

And soon enough – Bangor.

Bringing something like this to life (and to light) requires a concerted effort by a lot of people. Public art is a wonderful thing, but there are processes in place and rules to be followed with regard to such an undertaking.

The beginnings of this collaborative effort came from a simple, yet wonderful place: inspiration.

Jesse Moriarity is the Chief Operating & Experience Officer at the United Way of Eastern Maine. She was the one who initially got the ball rolling on this project, starting from that inspirational spark.

“The first time I saw Charlie’s work – specifically the ‘Hopeful’ sign – was a few years ago,” said Moriarity. “I had taken one of my kids to a doctor’s appointment in Portland, which is not usually a good thing. I left the appointment feeling really worried for my child. I was driving down Forest Avenue when all of a sudden, like a beacon, this big beautiful 24-foot fully-lit sign that said HOPEFUL came into my view.

“I actually started to cry a little and knew in that moment everything would be okay.”

That feeling persisted, staying with Moriarty for some time. That message of hope lingered, so when an opportunity to reconnect with it – and help others find that same connection – she jumped at the chance.

“A few years after first seeing the ‘Hopeful’ sign, I was working with Shultzie Willows, the Director of Marketing at the United Way of Southern Maine, and she brought up the idea of using this piece of art for our statewide United Way campaign. I was immediately in!”

To Moriarity, the image was an obvious fit to represent the organization and its goals.

“Our job at the United Way of Eastern Maine is to make sure that folks in our community have what they need when they need it,” she said. “But as I think about the past 18-plus months, this message of hope is something we all need. We’ve all been through a huge trauma, we’ve all had loss, we’ve all experienced fear about the future. This sign for me is a gift to the entire community, because we all need a little extra hope right now.”

Of course, that then raises the question – how does one go about bringing a massive art piece like this to the public? What are the processes required?

Tanya Emery is the Director of Community and Economic Development for the City of Bangor, and she offered up some answers to those questions.

“The City has a process, established by the Commission on Cultural Development at the City Council’s direction, to deal with public art,” Emery said. “It’s called the Public Arts and Monuments Policy. It deals with things like whether or not the City should accept a new gift of public art, decommissioning a monument (as we did last year), etc.”

The Public Arts and Monuments Policy establishes the path to approval for any work of public art. Suffice it to say, Bangor takes it all very seriously – these sorts of public works serve as representation of the City, both to visitors and to its residents.

Emery spoke to some of the logistical and other journeys taken to make “Hopeful” happen.

“The City was approached by Jesse and UWEM about this idea, and then we asked the Council if there was interest in exploring it and possibly accepting it,” she said. “The Council was very enthusiastically in support of the idea. Staff worked with Jesse on the elements necessary for approval via the Public Arts and Monuments Policy, and provided general information about things like permitting, electrical support needed, etc. There are several public discussions as part of the process, each of which was met with enthusiasm on the part of the Council.”

As you might imagine, getting municipal support can be a significant hurdle to clear when dealing with this sort of project, but that was never a problem here, thanks to the general and enthusiastic support of Bangor’s City Council.

Moriarity was nothing but complimentary when talking about working with the city on this endeavor, whole also recognizing the many other factors that had to fall into place to make it all happen.

“We knew to make this sign a reality we’d have to get the cost of the sign, installation, electric – all of it donated,” she said. “Luckily, we work with some incredibly generous organizations and individuals in our community including Bangor Savings Bank, Cross Insurance and two anonymous donors, as well as the City of Bangor’s Commission on Cultural Development who provided all of the resources needed to purchase, install, and maintain this wonderful piece of art.”

She went on to discuss more about the experience, including getting a bit of a crash course in public art from a guy who might know a little bit about it all – Zillman Art Museum director George Kinghorn.

“I’ve actually learned a lot about public art since embarking on this project,” she said. “One of the first calls I made was to George Kinghorn at the Zillman Art Museum in downtown Bangor to get his advice. It’s not every day that you purchase a piece of art that’s 25 feet long by six feet tall. George explained that typically such a piece of art is often gifted to the City as public art. I then reached out to the folks at the City of Bangor, and they have been beyond helpful walking me through the process from start to finish! [I’m so grateful for] the hard work of folks like Tanya Emery and so many others from the City.”

Of course, public art isn’t public unless there’s a place for it to be seen. Choosing just the right spot was another collaborative endeavor, with Charlie Hewitt once more leading the way.

“Charlie has been an absolute dream to work with,” Moriarity said. “He actually came to Bangor when we first talked about getting a sign and he fell in love with our city!

“Charlie really helped pick the location. What we were looking for was a building without a lot of lights or windows that would distract from the sign when it’s fully lit at night. Charlie really wanted a large, generally blank wall so that it would be prominent.

“We both landed on the McGuire Block, which currently houses the Robinson Ballet and the Main Tavern. On one side of the building is the ‘Welcome to Bangor’ mural [painted by Annette Dodd] and on the other will be the ‘Hopeful’ sign.

“What I love most about it,” she continued, “is that you’ll be able to see it the entire time you’re driving up Main Street through downtown. The owners of the building have been extremely generous with their time and resources to make this sign a reality.”

There are a lot of things that make a city its own place, rather than just somewhere where people live and work. The artistic and creative endeavors that are shared with the people – that’s the lifeblood of a city. And projects like “Hopeful” are precisely that, reminders that the place we live truly is special, a place with its own energy and its own ideals.

(This is where I cast aside any pretense and make clear my own personal view regarding projects like “Hopeful,” which is that they are incredibly important and vital contributions to the community. I want to live in a place where public art is celebrated, particularly when it is art that carries with it such a kind and inclusive message. We can all use a little more hope these days, and I find it comforting that soon, I’ll be able to look up Main Street and be reminded. I’ll climb down off my soapbox now.)

As for what others should take away from this project? When she was asked, Moriarity was, well … hopeful.

“I hope they have the same moment I did when I first saw it,” she said. “I think it’s sometimes hard right now to remember to have hope. Lots of people are struggling in lots of different ways and my goal is that this sign reminds them, in those moments, there’s always a reason to hope.”

About the Artist

So we should probably talk about Charlie Hewitt, the artist behind “Hopeful.”

Hewitt was born in Lewiston and grew up in Auburn before making his way to West Virginia for college. From there, he made his way to New York City, where he spent the better part of four decades as a working artist.

Hewitt works in multiple media – he is a painter and printmaker as well as a sculptor. His work can be found in collections here in Maine – the Portland Museum of Art, Rockland’s Farnsworth Museum of Art and in the museums at Bates, Bowdoin and Colby – but he’s also a presence in the collections of assorted New York City museums, including the Whitney Museum of American Art, the Metropolitan Museum of Art and MoMA.

In terms of public art, he’s probably best known to the art world writ large as the creator of “Urban Rattle,” installed on New York City’s High Line in 2012; he subsequently expanded the series, with pieces installed in Portland and in Lewiston.

And, of course, there’s “Hopeful.”

Charlie was kind enough to take a few minutes to talk about his artistic journey and how this particular project came about. I started by asking about his artistic education.

“I'm 75 so this goes way back,” he said. “I lived in New York after going to college in West Virginia. Where I played football and was an art major/minor kind of thing. It wasn't the same world. It wasn't an MFA program. Yale hadn't invented the Yale artist yet. That was coming soon.

“So, I mean, my MFA was in New York City, I was 21 years old. And I stayed there for 40 years. Then I came back to Maine. I'm from Maine, I'm from Lewiston. Lewiston/Auburn, I lived on the border of Lewiston and Auburn. I have Maine roots pretty young and I had a family late in life and decided to bring them back here to have a home state and a home town. And that was a good move.”

Hewitt’s early work was in the printmaking and painting realms. When asked about the pivot to more sculptural work, he was clear that this was just a part of his larger practice. 

“Well, you know, I'm a studio artist,” he said. “I'm always drawing, I love to paint, I like that kind of problem solving in a kind of quiet intimate studio space. But I also like the world of public art, the public art world and the ego that's satisfied by the display, you know, making outdoor pieces. I've always been interested in sculpture but never had the opportunity until I had a chance to put a piece up on the High Line in New York. I got the chance, somebody asked me if I'd make a piece for it, and yeah – you don't turn down opportunities like that.

“So, you know, it's kind of the same as ‘Hopeful.’ I just put myself out there and came up with a solution to the question and it turned out to be pretty good and it became a successful piece. Actually the Urban Rattles, which are in a number of places – Dallas and Portland and Maryland – became ubiquitous with my kind of outdoor sculpture. The shapes related to my printmaking, so I was trying to stay within the guardrails, as we'd say. Keep my work making sense, keep it broad, keep it relevant. But I got tired of that.”

Luckily for Hewitt, he had returned to Maine, where he found a wonderful collection of fellow artists and artisans with whom he could join forces.

“Being in Maine, the most unique, the most beneficial, the greatest thing about being an artist in Maine is the fact that I have very enthusiastic and authentic collaborators,” he said. “Whether they're welders, printmakers, fabricators, signmakers – everybody really makes a product that's strong and solid.”

This connection to the collaborative spirit served Hewitt well when he delved into sculptural world.

“I was always interested in color and light,” he said. “So I research the neon. And I found a guy in Lewiston who did neon work. We did some pieces. They weren't a big success. But I showed them, and I liked them.

“What happened by going into his neon fabrication shop in the back of this big giant sign company was that I saw the opportunity where I could make anything any size that I wanted. So I just stumbled, by accident, into a facility that inspired me to be larger, different, to get out of the lane I was staying in, get into another lane and see what would happen in this environment.”

This newly-burgeoning interest would lead directly to an opportunity that would in turn grow into the “Hopeful” project. It was a piece intended for the top of the Speedwell building in Portland.

“I didn't know what I was going to do. I thought maybe I'd make a static piece of sculpture, but then I thought of this light possibility. And … there’s no way to explain how this all gets together. You know as a writer, that the circumstance precedes the event, the event creates the circumstance, the idea pops up – it all happens at once. Kind of like cooks.

“So the opportunity came, I was thinking about what I was going to put up there and I realized that I had the chance to do something really bold, something that would have a major public presence … and that came with a responsibility.

“I had what [Portland Press Herald arts writer] Bob Keyes called a ‘crisis of confidence’ in the middle of the political discourse of the time, and I just went for the ‘Hopeful’ – it just popped up and I thought ‘This is what I’m going to do.’ And then I just drew it out and handed it to [printmaker and designer] David Wolfe, who’s a friend and collaborator.”

As Hewitt said, oftentimes the idea springs forth full formed from the artist’s imagination. And this artist knew exactly what message he hoped to convey with this new piece.

“I wanted to talk about the image representing a time in my childhood – it’s not all true, but it’s representative of my childhood – the time when the highways were all built in the mid-50s. And people would travel from state to state just to visit them, because the access to our country was greater than it ever was before.

“And along those highways and travels, we would see signs inviting us to go eat, sleep, recreate … arrows pointed to their businesses, they were proud of their businesses. All kinds of imagery. I remember the splendor of seeing those signs and the uniqueness of this country’s individualism. I just missed a time in America when I felt good. When I felt open. When I felt like exploring my country. So I went to the marquee sign as a retro representation of that time.”

One of the unexpected revelations that Hewitt made in the course of our brief conversation was the origin of the font he used for the “Hopeful” sign – an origin that makes total sense, even if I didn’t see it coming.

“The font that we used, that David Wolfe found, it was one that would go on the placards that you would find on cars. The things that would say ‘Packard’ or ‘Hudson,’ the metal insignias that attached to the car. SO we used a font that came out of a car design, that would have been used on a car in the ‘40s and ‘50s. So the font was kind of important.

“The arrows came out of just making art and having fun,” he added. It was a chance to just be a silly grown-up, to be effervescent and fun.”

In retrospect, that connection to automotive design makes a ton of sense, particularly when you take into account that many of the people who see these pieces – the larger ones especially – will see them from inside their own cars.

“People are seeing these at 25, 35 miles per hour,” he said. “It’s a speed read. It’s not a museum piece, it’s not a slow read. But it’s an emotional read.”

As far as the installation of these pieces, Hewitt was quick to give the majority of credit to those who collaborate with him.

“I’m fortunate enough to have met the folks at this company in Lewiston, Neokraft Signs,” he said. “They do it for me. They install signs all over New England, all over the country. They show up, they bolt and put it up. It’s amazing.

“Seriously. I design something on an 8.5” x 11” piece of typing paper, it shows up on a 24-foot trailer. Just blows me away.”

Hewitt went on to talk about the moment in which these pieces truly become his art.

“That piece just grew beyond my expectation, and it wasn’t my art until it was lit. If you come to the lighting in Bangor, you’ll know what I mean. It’s not art until everyone says ‘Oh!’ Then it becomes art. Then it becomes owned by that public that looks at art, that looks at the piece.”

Our conversation closed with Hewitt expounding on his wonderful experiences working with Jesse Moriarity and the United Way, as well as making sure that I shared one particular tidbit about the piece that’s coming to Bangor:

It’s a foot longer than the one in Portland.

Last modified on Wednesday, 10 November 2021 15:34

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