Ruthanne Harrison and Doug Chess with their “word” sign Saturday in front of their Richmond house. They take turns selecting words for the sign, which has gained many fans among town residents. Joe Phelan/Kennebec Journal Buy this Photo

RICHMOND — When someone in town asks Ruthanne Harrison or her husband, Doug Chess, where they live, they say, “We live at the house with the word.”

Harrison said people know instantly they live at the house on Front Street.

“It’s a topic of conversation around here,” she said.

“The house with the word” refers to a large sign in the front yard of the couple’s house.

What started as a way to thank a friendly neighbor for plowing snow from their driveway has turned into a five-year project, with the couple adding a new word to the sign every couple of weeks.

“We went for coffee,” Harrison said,” and (when) we came back out, someone had shoveled it out. We thought we knew who did it, but we really didn’t, and we put a sign up with plywood that said, ‘Thank you.'”

Soon enough, everyone around town started to say, “You’re welcome” to the couple.

When they saw the response to the first word, they decided to try it again.

“We thought it would be fun to put a random word out to see if people would respond to it,” Harrison said.

They are both artists. Chess is known in the community for his sculptures. Most recently, he created a donkey sculpture. He also made a cat sculpture a couple of years ago.

Ruthanne Harrison’s and Doug Chess’ sign is seen Saturday in front of their Richmond house. They take turns selecting words for the sign, which has gained many fans among town residents. Joe Phelan/Kennebec Journal Buy this Photo

Harrison is a visual artist and said she made a video about the word project. She teaches architecture in Bath and said everyone there knows about the word sign, too.

They try to decorate the sign with small pine trees or squiggly lines.

“As artists, working in a solitary way, you may or may not get your work out there to see,” Harrison said. “It’s been hard because of the pandemic. Galleries are closed and it’s hard to get art out there. But, regardless, if we really thought people were paying attention to it, we just kept doing it.”

Harrison admits it is good to have Chess by her side because there are times she does not want to go out to change the word. To do so, they have two pieces of white plywood — one sign that is being repainted white while the other has the word added to it.

Five years later, they are still going strong and have yet to run out of words.

Every day, Harrison does The New York Times Mini Crossword puzzle and loves to play Scrabble. She and Chess love to read too, so they often have a word on deck to add to the sign. Harrison said the words usually have to be seven letters or fewer so they fit onto the sign.

They alternate between who chooses the word, sometimes on a weekly basis, sometimes every other week.

“There are times where I don’t feel like painting a word. Then someone will say, ‘That was a good word,’ or ‘My kids were curious about that word,’ and it’s kind of like, ‘Well, people are still looking,'” Harrison said. “I think the interaction with people is a motivator.”

The couple says their word sign continues to generate plenty of interest and responses from Richmond residents.

And while the feedback is positive, there was that time someone was “upset” after learning the couple was not using the words to tell a story.

“There was one person, where it went on for a while and he kind of expressed frustration it wasn’t telling a story,” Harrison said. “He asked us what it meant. We told him it was random, and he was like, ‘What?'”

Harrison said people will knock on the couple’s door and ask about the word. And Harrison and Chess have even received gifts from fans of the sign.

Ruthanne Harrison’s and Doug Chess’ sign is seen Saturday in front of their Richmond house. They take turns selecting words for the sign, which has gained many fans among town residents. Joe Phelan/Kennebec Journal Buy this Photo

“I drive by every day and wonder what the word will be,” Greg Barker wrote on the Richmond Family and Friends Facebook Page.

The current word?

Cahokia.

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