Artist-in-residence transforms wall from barrier to bonding experience

The mural by 2024 artist-in-residence Ryan Adams graces the back wall of the Arabic Market in Westbrook.
The mural by Ryan Adams graces the rear wall of the Arabic Market in Westbrook.

The two faces on a new mural in Westbrook radiate pride and humor. Not only did the artist channel his subjects’ personalities through his painting, but he also revealed bit of his own.

“Hopefully, it’s like a little time capsule,” Ryan Adams said. “People can look back at it years later and be like, ‘Oh yeah, that’s when those haircuts were in style’ or ‘Oh yeah, they wore those jeans.’ I always like that with works of art years later.”

2024 artist-in-residence Ryan Adams checks his computer for reference while touching up a study during his open studio hours at the Academy Building.
A studio in the Academy Building served as Adams’ headquarters on campus.

The mural with its double portraits was the culmination of Adams’ tenure as artist-in-residence at the University of Southern Maine. He won the position with his proposal to create a large-scale painting in a public space. The mural is meant to honor people who may not otherwise be recognized for their contributions to the community.

Adams previously painted several other murals in the same style around the East Bayside neighborhood of Portland. He collectively called them the Piece Together Project. The new mural built off his earlier success by expanding into Westbrook.

“I think you learn a lot about a community through its public art choices,” Adams said. “With the expansion and growth of murals over the past five, six years – they’ve always been a thing, of course – but I think it allows for a lot more variety outside of a traditional sculpture of a person who the street is named after or something like that.”

Adams began his residency a few weeks into the spring semester. The Academy Building in Gorham became his base of operations. He invited visitors to drop by during office hours every Wednesday to watch him work and discuss his process.

The blank walls of Adams’ studio soon filled up with bursts of color. Some of the pieces were small-scale studies for future murals. Others were fully realized paintings for exhibition. When Adams needed another set of hands, he turned to his intern, Katie Riley, for help.

2024 artist-in-residence Ryan Adams discusses his body of work at a forum in the McGoldrick Center.
Adams’ past works flashed on a screen during a public forum at the McGoldrick Center.

Riley is a junior in the Studio Art program with a double concentration in painting and sculpture. As an aspiring muralist, she was especially eager to learn from Adams. Her lessons sometimes veered into the business side of the art world as she watched him deal with galleries and customers. But Riley was happiest when she was painting.

“It’s been really awesome. I’m getting such great firsthand experience,” Riley said. “I’ve already helped Ryan and his team in Augusta on a mural at the Augusta Teen Center. Ryan is letting me dive in and help paint on the wall, which was really my ultimate goal.”

Adams embraced the ambassador aspect of his residency with class visits and group discussions. One such forum on February 15 at the McGoldrick Center in Portland was open to the wider public beyond campus. It drew members of the artistic and business community to hear Adams talk about his life and work.

A front-row seat was reserved for Adams’ mother, Sheila Stovall. She encouraged his artistic talent from a young age at their family home in Portland. Stovall recalled how she used to spread paper on the living room floor so he could let his imagination run wild.

“It is so heartwarming, number one, to see him make a living with something that he loves doing, and to be so involved in the community,” Stovall said. “It seems like his artwork, to me, gives the community joy and happiness to see what he’s created and what he creates. It’s just wonderful to see it all come full circle.”

Watch the full recording of Adams’ public forum from February 15.

As Adams matured artistically, he developed a personal style that stressed accessibility. He connects with his audience by transforming the drab cement or brickwork of their neighborhoods into something beautiful. Gemlike geometric patterns are his specialty. The designs often contain hidden words and longer messages.

2024 artist-in-residence Ryan Adams answers questions from USM Director of Art Exhibitions and Outreach Kat Zagaria Buckley at a forum in the McGoldrick Center.
Adams answered questions from Kat Zagaria Buckley who served as moderator of a public forum.

Adams’ preferred medium is spray paint. Being Black, he knows that some people feel uneasy to see him point an aerosol can at the side of a building. Adams wasn’t cowed by their preconceptions. Instead, he was fueled by it to prove them wrong and push himself to reach his full potential.

Marriage added new dimensions to Adams’ art. His wife is Rachel Gloria Adams, an accomplished artist in her own right. They bounce ideas off each other and collaborate on designs, including the mural for Adams’ residency. Rachel was involved in every step of the process from choosing the subjects of the portraits to painting alongside her husband.

Jill Ostiguy listened intently to the biographical details that Adams shared at his forum on February 15. She is a freshman majoring in Environmental Policy and Planning with a minor in Art. Her hometown didn’t have many outlets for artistic expression, and she was eager to explore the opportunities that USM had to offer.

“Hearing that a muralist was going to be here to do an artist-in-residence, I was so pumped and excited,” Ostiguy said. “And then I started working right across from one of his murals. It was a sign to really jump in and do it.”

2024 artist-in-residence Ryan Adams paints a portrait of Pat Gallant-Charette as part of a mural in Westbrook.
Adams paints a portrait of Pat Gallant-Charette.

The mural that inspired Ostiguy is a portrait of Nicole Mokeme. She was the founder of the Rise and Shine Youth Retreat which sends teenagers of color on camping trips in Bowdoin. Mokeme died in 2022, but the mural that Adams painted along Diamond Street in Portland ensures that her face will remain familiar to people in that neighborhood.

Adams wanted to find a neighborhood in Westbrook that would embrace the mural for his residency just as wholeheartedly. The owners of Arabic Market offered up the back wall of their building on Bridge Street, overlooking a scenic walking trail that traces the Presumpscot River.

The wall was big enough for two portraits. Adams spent weeks researching a list of candidates before finally choosing Pat Gallant-Charette and Zoe Sahloul. Gallant-Charette is a Westbrook native who set multiple world records for long-distance swimming. Sahloul immigrated to Westbrook from Lebanon and advocates on behalf of fellow immigrants.

The mural depicts the two women in cinematic-style close-ups, focusing on their head and shoulders. The portraits span almost the full height of the building at roughly 14 feet tall. They’re rendered in greyscale, but the colorful background of blues and purples makes the faces stand out.

Painting began in early April. Some mornings were so cold that Adams could barely feel the paint cans in his numb hands. He agonized over the likenesses. His eyes constantly darted between his work-in-progress and the photographs that he kept for reference. There was professional pride in his effort, but also respect for his subjects.

“The people are what make this place great,” Adams said, “so we want to show that we honor and value their contributions.”

2024 artist-in-residence Ryan Adams applies spray paint to a mural in Westbrook.
Spray paint is Adams’ preferred medium.

Adams finished painting the entire wall in about a month with help from his wife and students. But his involvement in the mural will never truly end. He keeps color logs of all the paint that he used for touch-ups in the years to come. Since the mural is on the shady side of the building, fading shouldn’t be too much of a problem.

Kat Zagaria Buckley was there at the beginning of the project. In her job as USM’s Director of Art Exhibitions and Outreach, she was on the committee that selected Adams for the residency and oversaw his progress all the way up to the mural’s completion.

“I think it can be a beacon of learning for those who decide to come up to the mural and learn more about the individuals that are depicted in it,” Zagaria Buckley said. “I think it’s also an opportunity for the art world to meet other individuals who have outsized impact in our community.”

The quiet rollout of the finished mural is about to get louder. A ribbon-cutting ceremony is planned for June 5. University and city leaders will come together to congratulate Adams and celebrate his creation.