In 1855, poet Henry Wadsworth Longfellow wrote of Portland, Maine, "I can see the shadowy lines of its trees / and catch, in sudden gleams, / the sheen of the far-surrounding seas / and the islands that were the Hesperides / of all my boyish dreams.”
Longfellow’s well-known poem, "My Lost Youth,” was meant to capture and summarize the essence of Portland, "the city by the sea” where the poet spent his childhood. But the lines also speak of a city where natural surroundings are various and memorable, coaxing and shaping Wadsworth's "dreams.”
Portland’s art scene today reflects much of the same relationship between the beautiful natural setting and the inspiration it ignites in the locals, particularly those who are involved in the arts. The independent arts scene thrives; small galleries throughout town exhibit a range of art from photography to contemporary paintings to sculpture. The city’s art community throws its doors open on the first Friday of every month for the "art walk,” a free evening walk through the city’s galleries and museums, intended to showcase the diversity of Portland’s artists and art venues.
Of course, a visitor to Portland can experience the variety of the art scene simply by stepping outside and strolling through the streets of the city on any day, during any season of the year. The art-per-mile ratio is so high that there is no missing the fact that creativity is rampant in Portland. The Portland Museum of Art, located in the center of downtown Portland, houses over 17,000 works of art from surrealism to impressionism to furniture, glass and ceramics. Each year, the museum hosts its Biennial where "new work by living artists connected to the State of Maine” is showcased. The connection to the state is a necessary prerequisite – the art is Maine’s, and Maine is the art.
A stone’s throw away from the Portland Museum of Art, visitors to Portland will find two institutions that specialize in the study and production of works of art (among other mediums): the Salt Institute for Documentary Studies and Maine College of Art. Both boast galleries that exhibit and host a wide variety of arts and community events. Salt’s gallery is home to stunning photographs of the narratives of student documentaries; Maine College of Art’s Institute for Contemporary Art exhibits international and national emerging artists on the contemporary art scene.
As the area is a mecca for young artists, visitors will find independent studios and galleries throughout the downtown area. Many host film festivals, art installations, local music and performance art, while encouraging a community of creative independence, unique to the small city of Portland.
This sense of creative independence, a particular Maine inspiration that translates easily into art of many forms, is not just reserved for Portland but extends throughout the state. Maine’s Art Museum Trail is the result of collaboration between seven outstanding art museums throughout the State of Maine, each offering distinct and outstanding exhibits with an array of genres and movements represented. The Farnsworth Art Museum in Rockland, Maine is home to the works of some of Maine’s most prominent painters, the Wyeths, whose depiction of Maine’s landscape and people is world-renowned.
When it comes to the arts in Maine, Longfellow was definitely onto something. The romanticism of the state, its natural beauty and allure, is particular to the creative spirit that pervades the artistic scene in Portland and beyond – and continues to inspire, from 1855 till today.
by Heather Clarke