AUGUSTA — Downtown Augusta has plenty of historic architecture, but when it comes to public art, it is a relatively blank canvas.

Multiple groups of people, each led by at least one artist, plan to change that this summer, by painting several murals on some of the most highly-visible, if now pretty plain-looking, building walls in the downtown.

What the murals will each feature for artwork is still being finalized. Organizers said they are intentionally avoiding having a common theme running through them, favoring, instead, variety they hope will bring some vibrancy, and visitors, to the downtown, which was named to the National Register of Historic Places earlier this year.

“Study after study has shown arts and culture are a great vehicle for economic development,” said Michael Hall, executive director of the Augusta Downtown Alliance. “If you improve the way your downtown looks, it improves the way people see it. And we need a little bit of vibrancy downtown.”

In 2013 a visiting team of downtown experts was brought to Augusta through the Main Street Maine program and spent three days in the city’s downtown, seeing what was there and, importantly, what wasn’t, and made recommendations for how to help spur economic and community development there.

One of the things lacking downtown, team members told local building and business owners and others at the end of their visit, was some public art. Team member Malcolm Collins, a preservation architect and former director of the Maine Historic Preservation Commission said, at the time, he had a “glaring realization for me there really is no public art in downtown Augusta. Which for a capital city, is not good.” He suggested the University of Maine at Augusta would be a good partner to help bring some art downtown.

Which is pretty much just what is happening now, with UMA students and artists, who are based in a downtown building, heavily involved in the new mural project, though with other groups and artists as well.

Peter Precourt, an artist and professor of art at UMA who also oversees the small art gallery Pop-up 265 at 265 Water St. in Augusta, is combining his interest in installing art where it will be easily accessible to the public with his interest in seeing downtown Augusta succeed and his interest in showing students at UMA how to embark on public art projects where they live, in the downtown murals project.

This year Precourt created a new, four-week intensive art class at UMA focused on teaching students the many aspects involved in creating public art, and those students are currently working to select designs for two proposed murals in the city’s downtown, which, in about two weeks, they will start painting, if everything goes as planned.

One is planned for the wall of the building at 179 Water St. overlooking the intersection of Bridge and Water Streets, a tall wall where part of the corrugated metal portion of it will be covered with an approximately 12-by-18-foot mural to be painted by UMA students.

For that mural, they had a general design theme chosen for them, by the Augusta Downtown Alliance and the building owner, Steven Goedeke, that the mural would be similar to a nostalgic postcard welcoming people to the city, with large letters spelling out “Augusta.”

The other UMA piece for the mural project is less certain. Precourt said it would be on about half of the upper wall, and thus visible from around Hartford Fire Station, of the old Odd Fellows Hall, owned by Karen Hatch, at 333-339 Water St. He said the students will come up with potential designs for that mural, with the owner, downtown alliance and others picking the final design to be installed.

However it is not yet clear whether that mural will be painting permanently, or temporarily installed, possibly in wheat paste.

Downtown building owner Tobias Parkhurst, chairman of the Augusta Public Art Committee, a collaboration of the city of Augusta and Augusta Downtown Alliance formed to bring more public art to the city, said it hasn’t yet been decided whether that piece will be temporary or permanent.

He said one issue with permanently painting that wall would be it is brick and, generally, historic preservation guidelines discourage people from painting historic building walls if they weren’t painted before.

Precourt said the idea of his class is students in it will not just learn better painting skills, but also learn the details of how to work on public art projects, including working with building owners, municipal officials and others with a stake in such projects. He sees UMA students as especially good targets for such lessons because, as non-traditional students who usually live in the immediate area, they are likely to remain in and around Augusta after they graduate. So they’ll have an interest in playing a role in creating art that will be seen by the public, where they themselves live and work.

The students will receive college credits for their work. And the downtown will get one, and maybe two, murals installed for only the cost of the materials.

Precourt said the class and involvement in the murals go along with his growing interest in creating art that is accessible to the public.

“I feel like public art is so important, that there is this growing disconnect where people go into a contemporary art space and they feel intimidated, or feel like they won’t get it,” Precourt said. “It’s important to me for art to be in more public spaces, where people can respond to it more like they respond to music. So you don’t have to feel like you need to have this expertise to appreciate it.”

Another mural is planned on the wall of the Riverfront Barbecue building at 300 Water St, overlooking the city’s Market Square Park which underwent extensive improvements last year.

That mural, according to Parkhurst, will be done by Will Sears of the Portland Mural Initiative, who is also art director for Maine-based Oxbow Brewing.

“We want to use the talent available to us here and also reach outside of Augusta’s boundaries to find other talent to bring in,” Parkhurst said. “Will has a lot of experience with murals, and he was willing.”

Parkhurst said Sears is doing that mural “at a drastically reduced rate” for which he will be paid through the Augusta Downtown Alliance with funds raised by the alliance and by the public art committee. Parkhurst said about $10,000 has been raised, privately, and earmarked for the murals project this year.

Finally, another mural is planned for the Kennebec River-facing city-owned retaining wall in a vacant lot between Water and Front Streets, roughly across Water Street from the Downtown Diner.

Members of the current class of the Kennebec Leadership Institute, last weekend, scraped, power-washed, primed and painted the surface of the wall, which is visible from across the river, to prepare it for a mural, according to Alyra Donisvitch, a member of the class and an organizer of efforts to paint a mural there.

Augusta artist Clint Pettengil, a UMA graduate, has created a few different designs for the mural for the city and art committee to choose from, for the wall.

Once a design is selected and approved, Donisvitch said Pettengil will paint the outline of the artwork on the mural wall, but not complete the painting. That, she said, will be done by members of the public, who’ll be invited to paint in the design.

“It’s kind of a paint by numbers concept, minus the numbers,” Donisvitch said.

She said the mural will have a theme of welcoming and community and celebration. She said that idea sprung from conversations with Kennebec Leadership Institute participants that Augusta could benefit from a more welcoming, community feel.

While the painting date hasn’t yet been set, Donisvitch said they’re targeting the end of June and hope to have it done as part of the Whatever Family Festival.

Precourt hopes the murals will spread and become something bigger, perhaps becoming like murals in other cities such as Philadelphia and Cincinnati where numerous murals have been installed and where people walk around the cities to view the murals.

Parkhurst said Augusta has many of the pieces needed to be a world-class city, and public art is one of the pieces that is missing.

“This is part of a larger effort to look like the city we are,” he said. “Augusta has a lot of the pieces already there but if you’re going to be a world-class city you have to look like a world-class city.”

Keith Edwards — 621-5647

[email protected]

Twitter: @kedwardskj

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