I’ve always loved the Porteous Building. The home of the Maine College of Art sits regal and square, a hub spinning eddies of creative energy into surrounding streets. Behind its department store facade hides an economic engine, a piston of Portland’s arts economy, sweeping windows and cascading stairways that breathe life to center Congress.
I first noticed it in 2001, the first time I moved to Portland. I was 20, dropped out of college a second time, working a warehouse shift at L.L. Bean. I lived diagonal from MECA crashing on the couch of my sister’s third floor apartment for token rent, woke each morning before dawn to catch a carpool to Freeport, home by early afternoon. Life was rote, routine, boring.
But just down the street MECA was a cauldron of creation, pluck and juice. There was an energy in the punk-style of the art kids who poured through her doors each day. A fire draped the work that hung in her windows. From my perch I could watch it stream past like artistic magma, stirred and prolific but too far to touch. I left Portland having never walked through her doors.
Four years later I was back, my second try at Portland aimed to finish college; this time as a double-major in political science and media studies. MECA’s creative curriculum wasn’t my syllabus. But I needed money and MECA needed models.
The first time I took my clothes off in a roomful of students was for an evening class. Painting. We were on the third floor in a room with the floor-to-ceiling windows that make Porteous so beautiful. I sat naked on a couch holding a 45-minute pose.
At first I thought I was comfortable. But after 10 minutes my neck grew tight. Soon my shoulder ached, my legs trembled with fatigue and my back cramped. By 25 minutes I was in agony, resigned to stillness among shuffling palettes. Sitting there naked I wondered if anyone outside could see in; if the glow lured peering eyes perhaps from some third floor apartment across the way.
When the teacher called a break I collapsed, wrapped myself in a second-hand bathrobe I’d brought for modesty and walked to the window. I looked out at the street dreading the next pose’s 45 minutes of pain.
Then I turned around. In front of me ran canvas after canvas of bold readings of my body, interpretations like twisted mirrors of paint and light and skin tone. I wandered from easel to easel mesmerized by translations striking and alive, bound by darkness, light and mystery. And I was a part of all of them.
I walked back to the podium transfixed. Suddenly the next 45 minutes became a different dance: I now knew the creative fires being lit around me, and that knowledge steadied my pose. I sat engaged, part of the process, a willing actor, no longer concerned with who might look in. I wasn’t there for the money anymore but a witness to the creation unfolding around me, a central ingredient to its birth. I would not miss it for the world.
Two days later I was back for a drawing class. Then for comic class. Then another, and another. I had a front row seat to unselfconscious expression and every class was opening night. Porteous was hemmed by reckless creation and inspiration. And I sat in its center.
But all good things die. It lasted a year, then my modeling career came to an end.
This past Sunday I walked into Porteous once more, this time a student. I carried my drawing pad to a room where I once stood naked. Our model, a woman of perhaps 60, sat casually in the corner. When it was time she stripped her dress and took to the podium like a prizefighter, she the captain, the room her ship. I did my best to anchor her poise and certainty in charcoal, but untrained fingers tripped and fumbled. My renditions were colorless. Only she could do her body justice.
Porteous’ windows and stairwells, however, knew better: Mine was one more act of creation born within her walls. One more mesmerizing eddy.
This column appeared in this week’s Portland Phoenix.