Artists show work, pitch plans for Portland's Congress Square

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PORTLAND — Inspired by its setting and energy, four artists detailed their thoughts Monday about redesigning Congress Square at a meeting hosted by the city at the Portland Museum of Art.

Ned Kahn, of Sebastopol, California; Patrick Marold, of Denver, and New York-based artists Matthew Ritchie and Sarah Sze are vying for a $75,000 commission. The artist chosen will work with Philadelphia-based Wallace Roberts & Todd, the design team selected to steward the redesign of the area encompassing High, Congress and Free streets from the PMA to the Portland Westin Harborview Hotel.

“It has the potential to be very alive, very active, to be a space that is really lived- in,” Sze said.

Each artist has experience creating art in public spaces, sometimes in the same areas: Kahn and Marold were each commissioned for art at the Denver International Airport.

The artists were picked from a field of 97 applicants. The Public Art Committee and the Congress Square Public Art Commission will review the selections Wednesday, Aug. 17, at a 4 p.m. meeting at the Portland Public Library, 5 Monument Square.

Before the meeting the public is invited to comment on the artists and their work in an online survey at

Pandora LaCasse, Congress Square Public Art Commission co-chairwoman, said the design process is expected to begin next month and last until spring.

The collaboration between artist and design firm, with public input, will be the key to successful art, Ritchie said.

“Aim as high as you possibly can and embrace the process as something that can help that,” he said.

The constant motion from pedestrian and motor traffic and varied uses of Congress Square attracted Kahn, who has created kinetic sculptures using wind and water in Singapore, Pittsburgh, and Perth, Australia.

His Singapore sculpture is an inverted skylight 70 feet in diameter that also serves as a fountain.

“It is about an Olympic-size pool of water,” he said.

Ritchie and Sze said they were drawn to Congress Square because of their love of Maine, and have considered work to incorporate the state’s rocky coastline.

Sze has created art at an entrance to Central Park in New York City, and for the city’s High Line Park, built on a former elevated rail line.

“One of the challenges was the huge amount of cacophony, so I tried to harness the energy of the city itself,” she said of her work in Central Park.

Ritchie’s work includes sculpture at the U.S. District Court in Eugene, Oregon; a garden installation at the U.S. Food and Drug Administration in Silver Spring, Maryland, and a sculpture in Istanbul that also incorporates 40 different musical pieces.

“My work looks really complex, but it is about the same thing every time: tell the story,” Ritchie said.

Marold is also inspired by wind and light, having installed a work in Iceland of lights activated by gusts of wind and a series on timbers in Denver that help change the context of their setting throughout the day.

“I think we are all up here because we take risks and we do stretch,” he said of the finalists.

LaCasse, an artist who has installed her work in Deering Oaks Park and sculpted the Longfellow Park pieces honoring the memories of the six victims of the Nov. 1, 2014, fire at 20-24 Noyes St., leads the commission with Public Art Committee member Alison Hildreth.

Also participating are Public Art Committee member Tony Muench; Jessica May of the Portland Museum of Art; Jessica Tomlinson of the Maine College of Art; architect Scott Simon; neighborhood resident and artist Anne Buckwalter of Space Gallery, and Portland Westin General Manager Bruce Wennerstrom.

The Public Art Committee has set aside $225,000 for the design work and commissions for the firm and artist, accumulated in part from city capital improvements funding. The city, committee and Friends of Congress Square Park also received a $25,000 National Endowment for the Arts Our Town grant.

The Congress Square redesign process began in 2014, after city voters approved a referendum placing the area in the city land bank and requiring eight councilors to approve any sale of land bank parcels to private entities.

The referendum effectively halted the sale of 9,500 square feet, or about 2/3 of the plaza, to Westin Hotel. Hotel owners planned to built an event center in the space.

No funding to implement the redesign has been allocated, and cost estimates have not been determined.

David Harry can be reached at 781-3661 ext. 110 or Follow him on Twitter: @DavidHarry8.

The redesign of Portland’s Congress Square, seen Aug. 8, could begin in earnest next month after an artist is selected to work with a design firm.

Portland City Hall reporter for The Forecaster. Baltimore native, lived in Maine since 1989. A journalist since 2005, covering much of Cumberland and York counties. I joined The Forecaster in 2012.