BETHEL — When Bethel Area Arts and Music commissioned Ryan Adams to create a community-based mural at The Gem Theater, the expectation was he would add a splash of color that would stand out and make people think — in the magical way that public art does. 

“Just considering everything that we’ve been through, with the pandemic, and in general, having our lives turned upside down, I think seeing signs like this are signs of hope,” Adams, a painter and muralist from Portland, said. “It’s a sign that we’re piecing things back together. And that’s a big part of our project statement: We go together, we grow together.”

“I hope that people are able to take that away from it,” he said. “There’s an underlying message of love the project is very much about kind of caring for your neighbors, caring for the people around you, and working together to get through tough experiences.”

The project will be Adams’ largest work to date, and at about 8,000 square feet, it will likely be one of the biggest pieces of public art in Maine.

Although Adams designed the project, the project as a whole was a collaborative project between students in the local school, members of the community, and those who work at the theater at 48 Cross St. 

Cathy Lane, creator of the Bethel Mural Project, talked about the project’s process. The project, she said, was born out of conversations between herself and Wade Kavanaugh, co-owner of The Gem Theater.

“Last summer, we talked about about public art specifically public art in the Bethel area and the lack of it,” Lane said. “Wade and I started looking for grants and found a couple to apply for. The idea evolved and snowballed along the way as far as how things were going to be done and who we involved.”

With that vision, Lane and Kavanaugh looked for potential mural artists in Maine, and soon decided that Adams was the perfect fit: he was humble, friendly and had a colorful, dynamic style.

Kavanaugh is impressed by Adams’ work and the energy that it adds to the theater. 

“My wife and I opened the space about five years ago and the idea was to make a space where the arts would be embraced and where people felt like they had a home,” Kavanaugh said. “What happens in rural communities is that if you grow up there and you don’t necessarily fit, you have to leave. That’s really unfortunate. There’s so much talent here. We want it to feel like a place where everyone belongs.”

He noted that childhood can be isolating as children try to figure out who they are and where they feel truly at home. He hopes that the environment at the theater will “fill that void.”

“For us, we hope it’s going to become kind of a landmark, that signifies hope and openness and our willingness to accept new ideas and listen to alternative views of the future,” Kavanaugh said. 

Kate Webb, a coordinator for Bethel Area Arts & Music, agreed that this project is a sign of hope, especially after more than a year of pandemic-related restrictions. 

“We wanted to bring hope and joy to Bethel, since we’ve all been a little hopeless this past year and a half,” Webb said. “We’re happy to bring some joy. We want this mural to bring everyone together.”

The guiding force behind the whole project is the theme of togetherness. 

Melissa Prescott, a visual art teacher at Telstar Middle School in Bethel, said her students came up with this theme. Adams worked for the past six months virtually meeting with around 100 students, developing the theme of the work. 

“It’s clear that many of the the students were ready to move past the divide in our community around the past election and create a work of art that would draw people together,” Kavanaugh said. 

Prescott mentioned that her students submitted ideas to the monthlong Telstar “Graffiti and Word Art Challenge” in February. One of them, which said “We are all family,” stuck close to her heart.  

“I think that the words of the mural itself are very helpful here in that we are all family, we go together and we grow together,” Prescott said. “We are growing right now together. By working together and creating this, we are showing that we are family by showing up for each other. We can also show people that people from a diverse background can come together to make something beautiful.”

The beauty of the theater will, hopefully, encourage more people to spend time there. 

Stephanie Herbeck, a volunteer from Bethel, said she is a believer in the idea that “what you are on the outside shows what you feel inside.” 

“This project is a perfect embodiment of that idea,” Herbeck said. “That’s what’s going on inside: everyone’s being creative. And on the outside, we have this mural. There’s no question where the creative center in town is, anymore.”

Herbeck said she loves the collaboration and community of volunteers she works with while painting the mural. She also loves the effect that the building has had and will continue to have on young people, especially those from the LGBTQ+ community.

“The mural celebrates creativity, community and openness,” Herbeck said. “Part of the LGBTQ community came on Pride Weekend and you could tell that they felt that they could be themselves. I feel like that’s what this is. The building is becoming, you know, a place where people know that they can go there and not be judged when they go there.”

“I just love thinking that as these kids grow up — even young ones that haven’t been involved in it — this is going to frame their future,” she said. “This is a small town. Having this be here, in the periphery of their days, is going to open up a whole part of their brain, I think, in terms of possibilities of what you can do and be. It’s going to change the way they see things.”

Adams emphasized that love and inclusivity is everywhere: in the project’s theme, in and outside of the theater, and in the community that worked together to make this mural happen. 

“The love is pretty much there,” Adams said. “It’s everywhere.”


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