BUCKFIELD — What does a Mainer look like?
Students of the Buckfield High School’s Civil Rights Team spent a day last week exploring that question and working with Portland-based artist Pigeon on his Mainer Project, which challenges the idea of who Mainers are.
Buckfield was one of eight schools – of more than 100 that applied in the state – chosen to participate in part of the Civil Rights Team Project. The program was sponsored by the Maine Humanities Council and is run through the Attorney General of Maine’s Office to reduce bias in schools.
Pigeon – whose real name is Orson Horchler – emigrated from France to Maine when he was 18 to meet his father who lived in Ellsworth. He started the Mainer Project in June 2015 after Gov. Paul LePage “threatened to ignore Federal Law and deny General Assistance to asylum seekers,” according to the artist’s website. It is a way for him to confront prejudice and people judging others based on superficial factors alone.
“I felt like in Maine there was definitions of who belonged here that were linked to race, to religion, and that bothers me in any place that is happening,” he said. “I wanted to put these posters – portraits of people I know personally who live here who are part of my community – and just represent them and put the word ‘Mainer’ underneath as this sort of innocent thing that means you live here or you’re from here.”
In the workshop with Pigeon, members of the Buckfield Civil Rights Team drew portraits of their classmates and chose and incorporated a word that described their subject into the artwork. They used words such as “lovely,” “insightful,” “kind,” “power” and “good listener.”
For Buckfield senior Norliyana Menes – who drew her classmate Jena Doucette – this project hit close to home.
“I’m originally Singaporean so when I was younger I dealt with some [issues] because I was a little bit different from everyone else. … I still had my accent and everything so I got bullied sometimes,” she said, adding this is no longer the case. “I feel like the Civil Rights Team has done a lot to sort of make everyone feel accepted in their environment and I wanted to be a part of that.”
She echoed Pigeon’s sentiments that there is resistance still in the Pine Tree State to accept everyone who lives here as a Mainer.
“This project was really fun because the basic idea of it is a Mainer can be anyone. I feel some people don’t really understand that or don’t really accept that,” Norliyana added.
The students took turns using a biodegradable wheat paste many street artists use to hang their portraits in an upstairs hallway. While working on this, classes let out and as a group of students passed by the art installation in progress, one called out, “That’s awesome!”
“Isn’t it so cool to be able to change your school so it looks different?” Pigeon asked the Civil Rights Team, who answered him with an enthusiastic, “Yeah!”
Ninth-grader Saige Collette of Sumner enjoyed the project because students were able to add their perspective to it.
“We don’t see Mainers as being rednecks or country people who go mudding and hunting and fishing. It’s just you’re a Mainer, you live here, this is your home, you don’t necessarily have to be a certain type of person,” she said. “I like the idea of drawing other people. You can draw them how you see them.”
Saige – who loves art – drew a portrait of Mitchell Porter, a junior from Sumner. She chose the word “reliable” to describe her classmate.
“He seems like a kind of person who would always be there – if you needed something he would be right there even if you weren’t super close with him,” she said.
This is Mitchell’s third year on the Civil Rights Team. He said he could also relate to the Mainer Project because in middle school he was “kind of loner” who “hated being that kid sitting who was just sitting there with one friend at the lunch table.”
As a way to combat that, he joined the Civil Rights Team when he got to high school, which originally had two or three other members. This year there are 10 students and they’ve covered a lot of topics, including bias regarding sexual orientation, race and religion and creating a sense of belonging.
“This project is helping to inform a lot of people in our school and community when they see all the .. problems that are going on here – all the stereotypes we think of. This subject today what is a real Mainer to you?” Mitchell said. “With this we can show them a real Mainer is someone who just lives in Maine and they call themselves a Mainer. In Lewiston with the Somali population … [some people] wouldn’t call them a Mainer, but … a ton of them have lived in Lewiston all their lives. They’re Mainers.”
The day with Pigeon culminated with an assembly with the entire student body and staff members at Buckfield Junior Senior High School. On stage were the members of the Civil Rights Team lined up behind the black and white portraits Pigeon had created, each emblazoned with the word “MAINER” at the bottom. While on stage, Pigeon shared his story and spoke more about his Mainer Project, which he has brought to schools and towns across the Pine Tree State.
“This work has allowed me to find community for the first time in my life and also play a role in it I love to play,” he said. “I also try to think about people on the outside of that who are still being told they don’t belong. I also feel like it’s the majority of Maine because it’s such a strict definition, nobody can fit it.
“I knew my friends who are from [the] Congo could relate to what I am talking about. But I was amazed of how many middle class, upper middle class, white folks who are well to do and comfortable in their community, I thought, actually came to me saying, ‘Wow I really relate to this project,’” Pigeon said.
For more information on the Civil Rights Team Project, visit https://mainehumanities.org/civil-rights-team-project/. For more on Pigeon and his Mainer Project, visit www.pigeonnation.com/the-mainer-project.