The Flat Iron gallery at the corner of High Street and Congress Street stands as the perfect microcosm of the First Friday Art Walk in Portland.
In many ways it exemplifies a stereotypical art gallery: the wooden floors are shiny, and shoes—no matter how discreet they are on normal surfaces—are bound to make an audible sound. Visitors casually hold glasses of Pinot Noir while seeming to speak knowledgeably about perspective and artistic influence.
However, this is where the stereotype ends, and the diversity that epitomizes First Friday begins. On one wall, a photograph of a small child laughing in a brown fleece vest is juxtaposed with a stoneware pelican, while a makeshift stereo system in the form of a scratched green laptop sits on top of an exhibited sculpture. Oh, and did I say glasses of Pinot Noir? I meant red Solo cups of the Franzia equivalent.
Local artist Jenny Scheu paints colorful abstract pieces that decorate several walls of the Flat Iron gallery. One painting, “Carnival,” with its bright, intersecting ribbons of color, echoes the movements of the thousands of people traipsing up and down Congress Street last Friday night. Like the Art Walk, it exudes a degree of liveliness that seems remarkable considering the small space in which it is contained.
Scheu was pleased to see so much enthusiasm for art in her city.
“The energy on the street is fantastic,” she said.
The gallery was filled with people of all ages pulled from all pockets of Portland and beyond. According to the Art Walk pamphlet, approximately forty percent of attendees come from out of the city.
Scheu said she found it refreshing to find a new audience for her work, as she usually exhibits her paintings to friends, family and colleagues.
To my surprise, many visitors came from the College itself. I took the SMAC (Student Museum Advocacy Council) sponsored shuttle to Portland, which transported around 25 students. A handful of people who could not fit hitched a ride with Brunswick Taxi.
Later, when I was walking downtown, it seemed that every five minutes I would cross paths with another group of Bowdoin students thoroughly immersed in the scene around them.
The Art Walk takes place on the first Friday of each month from 5 to 8 p.m. According to the webpage, its mission “is to open the doors of Portland’s visual arts community by joining together and introducing wider audiences to the unique vitality of artists and venues of Portland.”
All of the art galleries, most of which are on Congress Street, stay open late and visitors are free to wander in and out of them as they please.
Galleries exhibit a range of works: some exclusively show the scribblings of ambitious elementary and middle school students, while others are devoted to the work of a single professional. SPACE gallery, a nonprofit gallery and performance space, tends to exhibit experimental, non-local artists.
This mission is clearly represented in its current exhibit. SPACE gallery is quite spacious, in part because, at the moment, the art is the walls themselves, which have been splashed with abstract designs of blue and purple. An adjacent room contains a multimedia projection of a similarly colored prism.
In addition to enjoying the art, Bowdoin students said the night was a way to get off campus and soak up the cultural scene.
“It was nice to get out of Bowdoin and be in a city,” said Bridget Kranz ’16.
The ubiquity of street performers added to this artistic atmosphere and was a nice accompaniment to the visual diversions that surrounded it. When I first stepped out of the van, I was greeted by a rumbling chorus of steel drums in the town square. As we continued walking, more and more melodies began to fuse with this one, until soon I was strolling along the cobblestones to a surprisingly harmonic medley of steel drums, bluegrass, some edgy lyrics about sex gone wrong, and gentle guitar strumming accompanied by a half-successful nihilistic croon.
In a more structured vein of the Portland art scene lies the Maine College of Art (MECA), which exhibited the recent projects of its students, who take up a variety of mediums, from painting to printmaking to decorated textiles.
For Kranz, seeing the artwork of other college students connected First Friday to the Bowdoin campus in a very real way.
“It was cool to see people our age, like what they are doing, at the same time as us,” she said.
The pre-election week Art Walk proved to be a venue for political messages as well, and most of the pieces at MECA seemed politically charged.
The most striking works seemed to come in the form of American flags, whether they were made of crumpled, painted tarlatan or thin paper that had been brutally attacked with a flower-shaped hole punch.
Political speech seemed fairly confined to the artwork, though, and political canvassers had a hard time competing.
When asked if First Friday was a good venue for political activism, one canvasser hesitated before saying, “People are busy tonight; they’re here to look at the art, and they don’t really want to stop to talk.”
So, whether the noise comes through the people, the food, the music, or the art itself, the night is too loud—it is a forum for listening rather than speaking. That, we save for the car ride home.