PORTLAND — Joanne Arnold doesn’t recognize her country anymore. Leonard Meiselman doesn’t understand it, and Abby Shahn is weary of people destroying it.
The three Maine artists are among more than two dozen who express their confusion, angst and anger in a group exhibition at the Portland Public Library that comments on a country divided and reflects on America’s anxiety sown by incivility and division across race, class, gender and politics. America Now … A Dialogue features nearly 40 paintings, photographs and prints — and one poem. The show, which opened on Friday, is up through July 21 in the library’s Lewis Gallery.
“I’m deeply challenged to connect to a system I don’t feel like I connect to anymore,” said Arnold, a photographer from Falmouth who spends hours each day engaged in what she calls “a vitally human experience” of photographing people in Portland. Taking people’s pictures forces her to connect with the world on a human level, she said. “And that’s the only thing that keeps me connected to the earth.”
Arnold has two photos in the exhibition — an image of a young man in recovery, facing the world with strength, dignity and a fixed stare, and a second of a man at a protest, his face half covered by a Trump clown mask and a Santa Claus beard that makes him unrecognizable and anonymous.
The Portland exhibition is an edited and more tightly focused version of a similar show organized last winter by the Holocaust and Human Rights Center of Maine in Augusta. Bruce Brown, curator emeritus of the Center for Maine Contemporary Art, curated the exhibition with the idea of simply asking artists to create new work based on what they see happening in America now. He asked artists to respond to the times.
Meiselman responded with a large oil painting of a tired human face draped in the red, white and blue of the American flag and a gaping split dividing it down the middle The painting feels monumental, epic and very much of its time. Meiselman said he made the painting out of desperation.
“I needed help. Everyone I heard from needed help,” he said. “That is a painting about my response to living in a country torn apart. I’m still coming to terms — we’re all coming to terms with how we live and where we live in America now. I don’t know what American values are anymore. I thought I knew, but they’re not the same we knew when we grew up and learned about in elementary school.”
Directly across the gallery from Meiselman’s red, white and blue painted face is a 12-foot horizontal ink-and-egg tempera painting by Shahn, the artist from Solon with a long history of bearing witness. At the opening, she said that much of her art comes from political motivations, but she doesn’t necessarily make political art. She made “Stumpage” in response to a brutal clearing of woods near her home last winter. The clearing of trees pained her, she said, and made her feel less connected to land she had known and loved for many years. “I needed to express my sorrow,” she said.
Ken Eason usually makes abstract paintings with pigment and wax. For “America Now,” he wanted to create something more realistic and recognizable. Using pigments of red, white and blue, he painted over a copy of the Declaration of Independence, which is nearly obliterated under the chaotic spread of the colors of the flag. He called his painting “Congressional Chaos.” A chaotic Congress is nothing new, he noted. “It’s been going on for all of history.” But the chaos feels more urgent now and the consequences greater in terms of human toll, he said.
Other notable artists in the show include Alan Magee, George Mason, Claire Seidl and Gail Skudera.
Shenna Bellows, executive director of the Holocaust and Human Rights Center of Maine, hopes people who see the show use it as an opportunity to reflect on their lives, and maybe take action to improve them. “It’s an incredibly important show in these times and a chance to reflect on what America means to us and what it means to be an American,” Bellows said. “I hope this show helps people reflect — and perhaps to act.”
The artist Mary Becker Weiss was in the library last Tuesday, after the show had been hung but before it officially opened. Just as she arrived, a naturalization service was concluding in the library’s nearby Rines Auditorium. A man she believed was a newly naturalized citizen paused in front of Meiselman’s painting, and began speaking in whispers to a young boy Weiss assumed was the man’s son.
“He was very quietly explaining the painting to his son and expressing the importance of the flag,” she said. “It was very moving.”
When Meiselman heard the story, he knew his art connected people and touched them on a human level. Maybe that’s the way forward as a country, he said — more art, more conversation, more dialogue. The experience that Weiss related, he said, made him feel good and gave him hope.
“The work is done alone. It’s done in isolation and loneliness and insecurity. It’s nice to see it connect with people,” he said. “That your work makes friends for you is affirming.”
Leonard Meiselman displays his piece ‘America Now’ at the America Now Exhibit at the Portland Public Library on Friday. (Shawn Patrick Ouellette/Portland Press Herald)