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Program lends an ear to Maine military veterans

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Program lends an ear to Maine military veterans

PORTLAND — Art At Work, a national program started in Portland that engages government employees in art-making, is preparing to launch two major projects in 2014.

But without financial help, they may never get off the ground.

The program is relying on a crowd-funding campaign to raise $25,000, which will support "All the Way Home," a planned series of "story exchanges" involving Maine military veterans.

The campaign has a deadline of Jan. 8, but on Monday only about $2,500 had been contributed.

The story exchanges will give veterans a chance to orally recount their military experiences in small, public forums of about a half dozen members.

"(The exchanges) make it clear to veterans that someone is listening to their stories," said Marty Pottenger, AAW director and director of the city's Arts and Equity Initiative.

"There's a real sense of community in these exchanges, a feeling of welcome, respect and human connection, but also lightheartedness."

Art At Work, founded in 2007 by local nonprofit group Terra Moto in partnership with the city, has drawn national recognition and inspired similar initiatives in cities such as Minneapolis, Minn., and Austin, Texas.

All the Way Home recently received a $20,000 challenge grant from the National Endowment for the Arts. But AAW must come up with additional funds to match that amount and cover costs of running the story exchanges.

An initial exchange was recently staged at the University of New England. Fifteen exchanges are planned for 2014, at locations including Portland, Lewiston and Auburn.

Another upcoming AAW project, "Hearts, Minds & Homes," will focus on the issues of gentrification and homelessness in Portland.

Over a two-year period, the project will bring together city officials, advocates for the homeless, social service workers, business people, artists and other members of the community to discuss the issues in a series of workshops. Pottenger will use the words, recollections and ideas from those workshops to stage a play, poetry reading or other performance.

The goal of Hearts, Minds & Homes is to help the public better understand the problem of homelessness, as well as the sometimes conflicting need to improve Portland's housing stock.

"When you use art as the basis of a civic dialogue like this, people are able to talk more directly with each other and think more flexibly, without the understandable need to be defensive," she said. "Art introduces a sense of collaborative exploration."

Hearts, Minds & Homes, for which Pottenger has not yet obtained funding, follows a familiar model.

In June, Pottenger staged "Radio Calls," a one-act play based on the collected experiences of Portland police and city high school students.

The inspiration for the play dates to 2009, when tension between Portlanders and police exploded in response to the death of 26-year-old resident David Okot, who was shot by police in an armed confrontation.

To create the play, students and officers teamed up, one on one, and scripted their stories. The process helped cool tempers and broaden perspectives, according to Pottenger.

Now she feels the same process can be used to deal with other social problems such as homelessness.

"Creativity is part of who we are. It's part of our intelligence and our humanness, our brain and our heart," she said. "We need to bring it back into the mix of tools we're using to create a better society.

"To not have creativity in that mix is like not having the color blue."

William Hall can be reached at 781-3661 ext. 106 or whall@theforecaster.net. Follow him on Twitter: @hallwilliam4.