LEWISTON — Artists were playing host Thursday as planning professionals and municipal leaders began arriving for the annual Build Maine conference.

At an informal kickoff for this year’s conference, which officially takes place Friday, local artists and arts organizations rallied behind the high-profile mural by an internationally recognized artist to bring momentum to other local art projects.

Using public art as a means of attracting people and breathing life into city neighborhoods is a central theme of this year’s conference, which organizers hoped to highlight by funding the mural.

As muralist Arlin Graff put the finishing touches on a large, multicolored zebra on the Centreville parking garage, organizers set up a beer garden in the adjacent alley.

Local artists, led by Sheri Hollenbeck, had a series of coinciding activities set up, attracting local youths.

She said local artists teamed with Build Maine organizers this year because of the emphasis on public art. Even prior to the conference, artists were painting fire hydrants, murals and crosswalks around town.

She said having Graff in town will spotlight Lewiston, perhaps allowing arts groups to land more grant funding for art programs or projects.

“Kind of upping our game,” she said. “We have a lot of great artists here. It would be great to get that out there.”

While the paint dries on the Centreville garage, two more mural projects are in the works. One is underway on Bartlett Street, between Lewiston High School’s 21st Century program and Maine Immigrant and Refugee Services.

Next up, a GoFundMe is in the works to fund a mural by local artist Janelle Demers on the Isaacson & Raymond law firm offices on Park Street.

Graff, who flies out of Maine on Friday, has been the center of attention all week. Crowds have gathered to watch his work unfold. He has let local kids paint on the wall and has brought them onto the boom lift to show them the process.

The gathering at the beer garden Thursday seemed to serve as a celebration of the mural and a send-off for Graff, as much as it was about welcoming Build Maine conference-goers.

Hollenbeck, a member of The Hive Artisan Co-Op, said that people stopping by to watch Graff began leaving cash tips for him, but Graff found a way to give the money back to Lewiston.

She said the group made up art kits with supplies paid for with the tip money, including sketch books with graphite pencils, coloring books with markers and a few kits for younger children. She said most were given out to neighborhood kids who had visited the mural daily.

Local artist and photographer Gary Stallsworth attested to the attention garnered by Graff and the arts community this week. He took hundreds of photos of Graff’s process, and he saw waves of people come by the wall to snap their own photos.

When people go to different cities, he said, they take photos of well-known or recognizable areas. Now, they’ll do it here in Lewiston — they already are, he said.

“It’s like our Eiffel Tower,” he said.

Graff has said the zebra in the mural represents community: Zebras rarely travel alone. He also said Thursday that he chose a zebra to represent the large African immigrant and refugee community in Lewiston. He said the white and black stripes represent the different cultures living together. He hopes it can be a starting point for discussion, he said.

“I hope these walls can make people think,” he said.

Thursday marks the fifth year the conference has convened in Lewiston, and while Build Maine is known for attracting professionals and city leaders for paid workshops on addressing issues facing municipalities, there has always been a public component.

A number of road treatments along Chestnut Street will be part of an “activation walk” for those attending the conference Friday.

Jaime Parker of Portland Trails designed six “pocket parks” in the area Thursday, with the intention of getting people to think differently about public space, he said.

The beer garden was created in the alley using wood coupled with hanging lights and colored paper flags and decorations.

As people began filing in, including many there to attend Friday’s conference, someone pointed out that the colored flags hanging above matched the bright colors of Graff’s mural.

“An artist’s eye,” someone said.

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