KENNEBUNK – William Wegman unleashed his creativity – and a trio of Weimaraners – on the Maine Turnpike’s southbound travel plaza Thursday.
The internationally renowned artist was on hand to unveil his five-panel photographic mural, “Flock,” depicting a quartet of sleek silvery dogs with their heads tilted skyward. The work was trademark Wegman, but the rest-stop venue was about as far from the hallowed halls of a museum as an artist could possibly get.
“Almost anything that’s public – Maine, Washington, D.C., anyplace – I want things to be seen by as many people as possible,” said Wegman, who has summered in the Rangeley area since 1956. “That’s one of the things that appealed to me – to reach a larger audience – when I got started [with my art] in the ’60s.”
Thursday’s event marked the culmination of an unprecedented, three-year collaboration among the state’s arts, transportation and political communities.
Shortly after representatives of the Maine Turnpike Authority announced plans to renovate two service plazas and construct another, Donna McNeil of the Maine Arts Commission approached them with an unusual proposition.
“It was about creating an icon,” McNeil said. “New York has the Statue of Liberty. Paris has the Eiffel Tower. This was about creating a visual icon that speaks about Maine as a place of culture.”
Using Maine’s Percent for Art law as a model, McNeil suggested setting aside a portion of construction costs to purchase a significant piece of art that would be accessible to millions of viewers each year. The law requires state-funded buildings to set aside a percent of construction costs for the acquisition of art, usually capped at $50,000.
Though the Turnpike Authority is a private entity and thus not subject to the law, the idea appealed to Paul Violette, the Turnpike’s executive director. It had been 25 years since a plaza had been built on the roadway, and he recognized a rare opportunity.
“This is one of the most-visited places in the state of Maine,” he said. “Having something that brings a little humor, that brings a little sunshine, that maybe relieves a little stress … I think that’s why we decided to put some art in this space.”
Photographic murals, each approximately 5 feet tall by 35 feet wide, were installed earlier this week in the northbound and southbound plazas off Exit 25 of I-95 in Kennebunk. A third will be on view in a West Gardiner plaza, which is slated to open in 2008.
A panel of art experts and transportation officials selected Wegman’s submissions from a pool of 50 artists. His international stature, ties to Maine and the accessible nature of his work set Wegman apart, McNeil said. So, too, did his willingness to work within the group’s $100,000 budget, which is far less than a comparable work would fetch on the open market.
“I think we’re getting a lot for our money,” McNeil said.
Violette liked the idea of giving visitors a reason to stop at the plazas that didn’t involve bathroom breaks and coffee. But he also thought it dovetailed nicely with the state’s push to expand its creative economy and cultural tourism.
Gov. John Baldacci, a champion for the creative economy, echoed Violette’s sentiments.
“No place should be off limits for great art,” Baldacci said. “At first glance, you might think that a plaza off the Turnpike is an odd place for the display of original photography by a world-renowned artist. What it shows is that Maine has an appreciation for creativity, and understands the important role it plays in our economy.”
For Adrienne Osmer of Sanford, a maintenance and dining room attendant at the northbound plaza, the appeal of Wegman’s work has nothing to do with economics and everything to do with quality of place – workplace, that is. When she arrived Thursday after a few days off, the newly installed mural was the first thing she noticed.
She had never heard of Wegman, nor had she ever seen his seemingly ubiquitous Weimaraner portraits. But she loved the soulful look of the pale-eyed dogs in “Moose Look.”
“It makes me happy to see them up there,” she said, looking up and smiling. “It does something for the place.”