Rwandan painter re-energizes Atrium Gallery as a forum for art

A new chapter for the Atrium Gallery at the University of Southern Maine’s Lewiston-Auburn Campus opened with a message of healing.

The paintings by Frederick Ndabaramiye are bright in color and tone, depicting happy memories of his childhood in Rwanda. Their creation helped him emerge from a personal tragedy. He shared his story with visitors to his exhibition at a meet-and-greet on January 9.

The first exhibition to go on display at the Atrium Gallery after its revival as a forum for art featured the paintings of Frederick Ndabaramiye.
Frederick Ndabaramiye spoke about his paintings and his personal history with visitors to the Atrium Gallery.

Ndabaramiye was 15 years old in 1999 when an act of violence changed the course of his life. While traveling through Rwanda, his bus was stopped by a group of rebels. They ordered Ndabaramiye to kill his fellow passengers, but he refused. As punishment, they cut off his hands.

The next few months were a struggle to survive, followed by a slow recovery. Ndabaramiye spent a year in the hospital. When he was finally well enough to leave, he couldn’t readjust to his old life and ended up in an orphanage. That’s where he found his calling.

Ndabaramiye used to love dancing, but his body didn’t move the same as before. He searched for a new way to express himself and found painting. He taught himself to hold the brush by pressing the ends of his arms together. The encouragement of his teachers and friends sustained him through his early struggles until his skill was undeniable.

“Painting comes after I lost my hands, so that’s why I say it’s a gift,” Ndabaramiye said. “It comes to change my life and even other people who see me doing it.”

Ndabaramiye eventually made his way to the United States. After several moves, he settled in Portland last year and the local art community quickly embraced him. His reputation reached leaders of LA Arts in Lewiston. As much as they wanted to work with him, their gallery was booked far in advance. Luckily, they learned about another available space.

An exhibition of Frederick Ndabaramiye's paintings went on display at the Atrium Gallery in early December 2023.
The Atrium Gallery is the first room visitors enter after passing through the Lewiston campus’ main entrance.

Visits to the Atrium Gallery declined early in the COVID-19 pandemic amid restrictions on public gatherings. The effort to reconnect with the public began last February with the 2023 Spring Maine Art Education Association Exhibition. But the walls went blank again after it closed in April. Building off that first step, Lewiston-Auburn Campus Director Netty Provost resolved to maintain a regular rotation of art starting with the next exhibition. She turned to LA Arts for recommendations of artists to jump start her vision. Ndabaramiye topped the list.

“His story and his art fit the campus well,” Provost said. “We’re USM’s health care corridor, celebrating Nursing, Occupational Therapy, Dental at UMA, and Social/Behavioral Sciences. Listening to his story, his adaptability and resiliency are all traits that we really want to foster and encourage in our health care students, so he becomes a great role model for them.”

Provost also serves as Coordinator of Undergraduate Nursing Education and she holds a Philosophy PhD. Organizing art for public display was a new skill for her. She sought input from Board of Visitors Chair Rebecca Swanson Conrad, who had previously worked on similar projects. Together, they worked through questions of layout, scheduling, and promotions.

The exhibition launched in early December, offering students a timely message of hope as they studied for final exams. That message was also directed at the broader Lewiston community as the city continues its recovery from a mass shooting in October. The Atrium Gallery is free to visit during business hours from 9 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. on weekdays.

A painting of Rwandan children at play is representative of Frederick Ndabaramiye's artistic style, as seen in an exhibition at the Atrium Gallery.
Memories of childhood in Rwanda supply inspiration for Ndabaramiye’s paintings.

The main doors to campus open onto the Atrium Gallery. Ndabaramiye’s largest painting depicting a beach party was positioned at the center of the room to catch the eye of anyone who entered. Smaller paintings graced the surrounding walls. They featured the landscapes, animals, and village life of Rwanda. Provost had a particular favorite.

“I am deeply in love with his pair of blue parrots,” Provost said. “The color speaks to me, the boldness. And they look like a (human) couple as parrots who just seem really happy together.”

Guests to the meet-and-greet clustered around various paintings, sometimes gazing in silence and sometimes discussing their observations. Ndabaramiye drifted between the groups and offered his insights when asked. Some people would reach out, forgetting that Ndabaramiye didn’t have a hand to grasp. He would offer his forearm and they’d shake just the same.

The reception marked the last day that Ndabaramiye’s paintings would hang in the Atrium Gallery. The next day, they were taken down and rehung in a nearby hallway where they will remain on display through February. The move freed up the Atrium Gallery for its next exhibition titled “Celebrate People’s History.”

Several Rwandan landscapes were among the paintings on display in an exhibition of Frederick Ndabaramiye's art at the Lewiston campus' Atrium Gallery.
After moving from the Atrium Gallery to a nearby hallway, Ndabaramiye’s paintings will remain on display through February.

Sponsored by the Scontras Center, the new exhibition features a series of political posters created by activists at the grassroots level. An opening reception was held on January 19. The consistency and variety of exhibitions signaled to the local arts community that the Atrium Gallery is back.

“The more that we can be doing here to supports arts and artists and arts organizations and offering a diversity of programming, the better it is for our twin cities, for Lewiston and Auburn,” said Gerald Walsh, Arts Agency Manager for LA Arts.

Provost is already booking exhibitions for the Atrium Gallery into next year. With such a big future ahead, Frederick Ndabaramiye is proud that his art was chosen to kick off the new era.

“It means a lot to me,” Ndabaramiye said. “It’s…wow. I don’t know how to explain more. It was a miracle.”