Muralist helps women escape the shadows of history

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PORTLAND — On an exterior wall of the Anderson Street art studio Running with Scissors, artist and activist Abigail Gray Swartz is hard at work creating a mural.

But that’s not all she’s building.

Gray Swartz, a Freeport resident, is the founder of “City of Hidden Figures,” a public art program that aims to illuminate “female-identifying people” hidden throughout history.

With each project she completes in every city, Gray Swartz’s goal is to have female artists paint a mural depicting such women, followed by a sculpture installation and street re-naming, both honoring women. 

With the inaugural City of Hidden Figures project, Gray Swartz said she is using Portland as the program’s “pilot city” before curating other works around the country.

The Portland mural will depict three Maine artists: Dahlov Ipcar, Louise Nevelson and Mary Mitchell Gabriel.

Gray Swartz said she felt it was important to feature women of diverse races, backgrounds and artistic practices in her first mural. Mitchell Gabriel was a Passamaquoddy basket maker whose work was displayed at many galleries over the course of her career, including the Smithsonian Museum in Washington, D.C. Ipcar was a painter who wrote and illustrated more than 30 children’s and young adult books, and Nevelson was a sculptor who created work from discarded items such as furniture and scrap wood, and has had her work displayed internationally.

The idea for City of Hidden Figures was sparked after Gray Swartz read Rebecca Solnit’s 2016 essay in The New Yorker titled “City of Women.” In it, Solnit wrote about the abundance of streets and statues in New York named for men in contrast to the few dedicated to women.

Gray Swartz also has her own connection to The New Yorker. She created the cover art for a February 2017 edition of the magazine, which featured a depiction of Rosie the Riveter wearing a pink “pussy hat.” The caps were made famous from the Women’s March on Washington following the inauguration of Donald Trump as president.

Gray Swartz said certain cornerstones of City of Hidden Figures’ mission were also inspired by her own experiences, including promoting equal pay for female artists and giving women a chance to create art who don’t typically have opportunities.

“That’s part of the thing – after becoming a mom I saw a lot of my friends who are male artists who have kids, they can still go and do murals and they got a lot of money for them,” Gray Swartz said. “So I just want to create more opportunities for other female identifying artists to do that.”

In addition to portraying the artists’ likenesses, the Portland mural will also include quotes from each of the women portrayed.

Other aspects of the City of Hidden Figures model include hiring female artists to create the works of art, and also involving the community by having local girls and women nominate figures to be featured and also help paint the final piece.

Gray Swartz spoke to the lasting impact contributing to something so visible and permanent could have on young people.

“What does that do to their idea of potential and what they can do? That’s pretty immeasurable,” she said.

Gray Swartz said she opted to paint the first mural because of the “steep” learning curve involved. She has never painted a mural so large before.

And, though the initial mural will depict women who worked as artists, Gray Swartz said that will not always be the case. It felt appropriate to paint artists at Running With Scissors, she said, because the building is an art studio.

Her friend runs the studio and offered its wall for the project, in part to combat graffiti there.

Gray Swartz’s plan is to execute what she called the “red tape” pieces such as finding a street to re-name in Portland and an area to place a statue this winter after the mural is complete. She acknowledged those aspects of the project could take years to implement.

She also said she isn’t sure how long the mural will take her to finish, but it needs to be completed by the middle of next month.

The organization’s fundraising goal for the first mural is $40,000, of which Gray Swartz said one-third has been raised so far. The fundraising process began in May; in the future she said a year should be dedicated to raising money.

She was also a recipient of the Rebel Blend Grant from Coffee By Design, which gives money to selected art projects in Maine.

Going forward, she hopes to get some celebrity support for City of Hidden Figures – she has reached out to Anna Kendrick and recently tweeted to Maine actor Patrick Dempsey about the effort.

She has also begun talking with real estate professionals and others in cities such as New York and Chicago about using buildings there for future projects.

Gray Swartz said she is especially excited about portraying women there might not be many pictures of.

“That could be super interesting because then it would be the story of their lives in a really interpretive way,” she said. “It’s exciting to think of all the things that will happen.”

Elizabeth Clemente can be reached at 781-9123 or eclemente@theforecaster.net. Follow Elizabeth on Twitter @epclemente.

Freeport artist Abigail Gray Swartz paints the inaugural mural for her women-themed “City of Hidden Figures” public art program on the wall of Running With Scissors art studio on Anderson Street.

Freeport artist Abigail Gray Swartz paints the inaugural mural for her women-themed “City of Hidden Figures” public art program on the wall of Anderson Street studio Running With Scissors.

Freeport artist Abigail Gray Swartz with the first mural in her women-themed “City of Hidden Figures” public art program on the wall of Anderson Street studio Running With Scissors.

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