Thursday, May 26, 2011


Artists chosen to render Bayside bench concepts
By Matt Dodge
May 20, 2011 12:00 am

Two Maine artists and a Washington, D.C.-based design firm lead the field of candidates vying to create unique seating options along Portland’s new Bayside Trail.

The Portland Public Art Committee reviewed the resumes and work of a half dozen artists before narrowing down the list to four frontrunners during the committee's monthly meeting on Wednesday.

The leading candidates for the bench design project include, in no particular order, Mainers Aaron T. Stephan and Celeste Roberge, Gary Haven Smith of New Hampshire and Washington, D.C. design firm Skye Design Studio, Ltd.

The PPAC reopened the search for artist-designed public benches after an underwhelming response to the 17 designs submitted in an initial round of the competition.

The benches were slated to be installed by June in time for the city’s annual Trails Day event, but with only two of the proposed designs earning five-to-three affirmative votes from the project’s commissioning committee, the PAC decided to revamp the submission process in hopes of drawing a larger pool of candidates.

This time around the PPAC took a different approach — sending out a request for qualifications (RFQ) instead of a request for proposals (RFP). An RFQ asks designers and artists only to submit their professional qualifications instead of a fully-rendered bench design.

“We need dozens [of submissions], not a dozen,” said Jack Soley, former PPAC chair, during January’s meeting.

The former director’s wishes were met during the RFQ process, which drew 107 submissions, including a strong showing of Maine artists.

“I’m really pleased with the RFQ process because now we’ve been able to see people's work at their best and we have a good understanding of what is possible," said city councilor and PPAC member Dave Marshall, adding, “The RFP process was, I think, a little too rigid.”

The PPAC chose three bench sites along the 1.2 mile-long trail — the plazas adjoining Elm Street and Planet Dog, and the base of the Loring Trail on the Eastern Prom. Now the committee must decide whether to select one artist to create a suite of three designs or exhibit one artist at each site.

“If one proposed design is very expensive but worth it, what are the considerations of allocating all of the budget to one artist?” asked commissioning panel member Anne Pringle during Wednesday’s meeting.

Some on the PPAC felt if a strong first round of artist-designed benches could find favor with the people of Portland, the Bayside Seating project could become an ongoing initiative drawing additional public and private sponsorship.

“My feeling is this first person has to hit a huge home run,” said Peggy Greenhut Golden. “I’ll feel badly if it's not a Maine artist, but I think this has legs and it's our job to make this first one absolutely fabulous.”

The four artists leading the field after Wednesday’s meeting will be interviewed by phone next week. Depending how the interview process goes, some or all of these artists will be paid a stipend and asked to submit design concepts and budgets, according to Pringle.

The concepts will then be presented by the commission panel to the full PPAC, who will make their final selection of the one, two or three artists who will be asked to create detailed designs which will be brought to the City Council for approval by early September.

“We are still in the qualifying process, with the final selection a few months down the road after the concept phase,” said Pringle in an e-mail to the Daily Sun.

Stephens, who earned his MFA from The Maine College of Art in 2002 and has shown extensively around Portland, was lauded by the PPAC for his background in site-specific work.

Notable Stephens pieces in the Portland area include a tree-shaped sculpture created from salvaged lumber located in Westbrook High School, and an impossibly high dining room table and matching chairs in the atrium of the University of Southern Maine’s Abromson Center.

“Having seen his work around for years, I have confidence that he could do something fabulous,” said Greenhut Golden.

“I think he's a great, great choice. always comes up with something very intelligent and aesthetically pleasing that works on multiple levels,” said PPAC member Virginia Rose, who suggested that Stephen's notoriety in the Portland area might make him the ideal candidate to attract additional funding for the project. “If we're looking for more funding, he's such a known quantity,” she said.

Roberge, a native Mainer who teaches sculpture at the University of Florida, was also well regarded and very familiar to many on the panel. Specializing in furniture-based forms, Roberge is known for creating chaise lounge-inspired sculptures both functional and decorative.

Rose, who has helped to sell Roberge’s work to the Farnsworth Art Museum in Rockland, said the artist’s industrial style would fit well in the post-industrial Bayside neighborhood. “I’m biased, but I think she fits in perfectly with that neighborhood and has the ability to identify with [it] historically,” she said.

Slides of Roberge’s metal grid chaise lounge sculpture filled with smooth rounds stones caught the committee’s attention, but in a letter to the PPAC, Roberge expressed interest in designing a piece around the concept of seaweed.

“I love the bench with the stones, I would have bought it and put it in my backyard, but I would have no problem working with her to create a concept around seaweed,” said Greenhut Golden.

Included in the Washington, D.C. design firm’s submission to the PPAC, a slide of Skye Design Studio’s “zipper bench” garnered a strong reaction from the group.

“The zipper bench was really impressive, I could totally see it in Bayside,” said Marshall.

“It’s beautiful. They are landscape architects, engineers, they get landscaping and design and they are creative,” said Greenhut Golden. However, some on the committee expressed concerns that a large, multi-national firm like Skye might not be interested in splitting a $40,000 commission.

“I would be thrilled to have them do all three, but they a very big firm and this seems like a small project for them,” said Greenhut Golden.

“It’s not clear if they would be interested if they only got one out of three [sites],” said artists and PPAC member Pandora LaCasse.

The simple, naturalistic stone bench designs of New Hampshire sculpture Gary Haven Smith were seen as a fitting aesthetic for the trail. Smith expressed interest in siting his work at the base of the Loring Trail, envisioning benches created from two glacier boulders, tumbled by the forces of nature for over 10,000 years, which would be visible from Interstate 295.

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