Orson Horchler’s street art is short-lived, but not shortsighted.
His latest project, called “Mainers,” is a series of portraits featuring a diverse group of people living in the state. It’s a direct reaction to current events and political rhetoric that exclude immigrants from the feeling of belonging. His hope is that the issue it addresses is as temporary as the installation.
“I hope in a few years this art won’t make sense anymore,” he said.
Horchler, who goes by the pseudonym Pigeon, adheres prints to walls in public spaces with wheat paste, which eventually breaks down when exposed to weather. The “Mainers” project began in Portland in the summer, then went to Farmington this fall, and is now up in Berwick.
Signed with his signature illustration of a pigeon, the mural asks, “Tell me. What’s a ‘real Mainer?’”
Maine has recently taken in an influx of immigrants seeking asylum from violence and persecution, many from war-torn or politically unjust nations of central Africa. But not everyone has been welcoming.
Horchler lives in Portland, where a little diversity makes him feel more at home. He was born in Philadelphia to immigrant parents, and then raised in France. He returned about 18 years ago and has lived in a few different places, including Bangor, where he began working as Pigeon in 2011. He said he lives with the tension and even violence that can come with being perceived as different.
“I still feel like I’m not from here,” he said. “I still feel like I don’t belong.”
He’s become friends with some of the immigrants in the city, including Gael Steve Taty and Titi de Baccarat, who both helped install the mural in Berwick on Dec. 12. One of the friends was persecuted for wearing an anti-government T-shirt in his homeland, and the other for showing controversial artwork in a gallery.
This summer, a legislative bill in Maine that was originally intended to eliminate assistance for new immigrants and refugees was amended to extend assistance instead. The law allows legally present immigrants to receive General Assistance aid for up to two years while their asylum claims are being processed, during which time they are prohibited from working. Gov. Paul LePage was expected to veto the law, but he didn’t return it to lawmakers in time.
The governor’s administration had attempted to stop providing asylum seekers with emergency funds. Republicans argued that, instead, all the money should be directed to the elderly, disabled, and other “Mainers” in need.
Horchler said anyone living in the state is a Mainer who deserves help and to feel like they belong. And this is what sparked his recent project.
He says the word “Mainer” tends to be reserved for families who have lived in the state for several generations, distinguishing them from people “from away.” And, the word can be intentionally exclusive of immigrants in political rhetoric, he said.
“I find it absolutely unacceptable people get told they don’t belong in the place they live,” he said.
Horchler’s mission is to create community by confronting all the things that exclude certain people, whether laws or attitudes.
“Even though it’s an abstract concept, it should be a human right to feel at home because it’s so vital,” he said. “Once we say it’s a right, we’re obligated to confront the issue and dismantle a lot of problems.”
He believes well-being depends on inclusion, but also that diversity is opportunity. He said young, educated, and motivated immigrants can improve the state’s economy and enrich its culture.
Before the “Mainers” project served as a reminder of the benefits of diversity, much of the talk around immigration was negative, or just focused on the obligation of accepting immigrants. “There was nothing saying how incredibly lucky we are to have this influx of immigration,” he said.
The effort to bring “Mainers” to Berwick was led by Erin Thomas, who writes the blog MODSpoke. Most of Pigeon’s designs elsewhere have been pasted up without authority, but the town’s board of selectmen unanimously approved a request to install the artwork on the side of the former Prime Tanning building at a meeting on Dec. 1.
Thomas saw the work in Farmington and connected with it immediately, despite having lived in Berwick for about 17 years now. “It stuck with me,” she said. “It struck me in the heart.”
Thomas said politics have divided people, and she sees the “Mainers” project as a bridge. “Really, we are all neighbors in the end,” she said.
Several people came to watch and even help the Pigeon team put up the installation on Dec. 12. Only one person called the police.
Horchler said he isn’t necessarily trying to tell people who is or isn’t a Mainer, but to “cause a reaction.” That he has done.
“I find it absolutely unacceptable people get told they don’t belong in the place they live.” — Orson Horchler, a.k.a. Pigeon
Reactions to the mural were more extreme this fall in the smaller town of Farmington than after his initial installation in Portland. Internet comments included frustration that “regular” people weren’t represented.
The nine portraits in “Mainers” are of Horchler’s friends and acquaintances who live in Maine. Four were born in the state, and all work there, except one who is retired. Despite misunderstandings, Horchler said the Internet discussion was valuable because other Farmington residents defended the mural and themselves against perceptions about what a Mainer should look like.
“I want to put art in a place where people feel entitled to react,” he said.
Horchler said visual art should be connected to the place it’s in and the people who see it. “That’s what art really should be — something tied to real concerns and the community,” he said.
The location in Berwick presents a unique opportunity because it’s right over the bridge from New Hampshire.
“It allows me to have a voice saying, ‘Welcome to Maine,’ which is pretty awesome,” he said.
“Mainers” by Pigeon is on view on the Prime Tanning wall, across from Berwick Town Hall on Sullivan Square in Berwick, Maine. More information at modspoke.com.