Portland mosaic expresses community diversity

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PORTLAND — It was a bright, breezy day in the city’s East Bayside neighborhood, with the sound of nearby construction generating a constant hum.

Despite the distraction Monday, Muhsana Ali, a Philadelphia-born artist who now lives in Senegal, trained her focus on a wall.

But it wasn’t just any wall.

“It’s a community mosaic mural that we’re doing with the community of East Bayside,” Ali said while sitting in front of the brightly decorated partition on the corner of Anderson and Fox streets. The wall is decorated with painted glass and pottery, a form of Senegalese artwork.

Ali, an artist-in-residence at the University of Southern Maine, has been creating the mural with help from members of the community and students in a class she is co-teaching. The class has been open to students of all majors, Ali said, and nearly 30 have participated.

“The theme is ‘Voices of the Community,'” Ali said, adding that the artists have been asking residents to add their voices to the project by painting the glass to describe their feelings about the neighborhood.

“We chose this area because there are so many different kinds of people,” she said, referring to the area’s diversity.

The project was funded mostly by the USM Art Department and the USM School of Social Work, but the glass and pottery materials were donated by local organizations. The space was given by Coffee By Design. Anyone interested in donating to the project can bring checks to Coffee By Design, to support Ali and her family.

“It felt perfect to have it on the corner,” Ali said. “It’s a symbolic place because it’s a meeting point. With the mosaic, we’re trying to have people meet and connect in different ways.”

The basic idea and concept for the mosaic was Ali’s, but the project also originated with Ali’s co-teacher, Paula Gerstenblatt. Ali said she first came to Maine two years ago, when she was invited by Gerstenblatt to make a presentation.

Most of the major work on the mosaic has been done by Ali and her husband, Amadou Kane Sy, but Ali said from glass painting to clean up, there has been plenty for students and the community to do. She has been here for seven weeks, while her husband has been in Maine for two weeks, and she expects the project to be wrapped up toward the end of next week.

After that she and her family will return to Senegal, where they run an arts and holistic development center in a rural part of the country.

Ali said the theme of the mosaic is having a diverse group of people together in one place. A large spiral represents humanity, she said, and the different directions people go. Footprints on painted glass are also representative of the different paths to take.

So far, Ali said the community response has been very positive. She said people driving by or walking by have provided encouragement.

“It will be a mosaic for the community to enjoy,” she said. “It’s a work of art that belongs to everyone.”

Colin Ellis can be reached at 781-3661 ext. 123 or cellis@theforecaster.net. Follow him on Twitter: @colinoellis.

A community mosaic project in Portland’s East Bayside neighborhood is intended to reflect diversity and the many paths people can take.

Muhsana Ali, an artist-in-residence at the University of Southern Maine, is the creator of the community mosaic at Anderson and Fox streets in Portland.

Muhsana Ali and her husband, Amadou Kane Sy, work on a mosaic at the corner of Anderson and Fox streets in Portland.

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Reporter covering the Portland Public School District as well as the town of Falmouth for The Forecaster. Can be reached at 781-3661 ext. 123 or cellis@theforecaster.net.